Regional Students Achieve Australian First! Coding NASA’s Astrobee Robot on the ISS

Students from Galen Catholic College, Wangaratta, have reached new heights in coding. The team of Galen VEX students coded their way into history, by being one of 3 teams that successfully completed the space mission for JAXA’s inaugural Kibo Robotic Programming Challenge: KiboRPC.

300 teams entered the competition from around the world, seven made it to the final, and only 3 successfully completed the final mission in Space: Indonesia (first), Thailand (second) and Australia (third), with Japan, UAE, Taiwan, Singapore not being able to complete the space mission successfully. Huge Congratulations goes out to the secondary students from regional Victoria – Galen VEX! Go Aussies! 

Click play to see the event trailer below and see Galen in action at the 1:14 mark.

On Thursday 8th October, teams from 7 countries competed in the final challenge to program NASA’s Astrobee Robot on the International Space Station. The teams were all linked into JAXA’s Mission Control, to participate in the live coverage of the five hour long event.

Each team’s code was sent up to the International Space Station’s Commander Chris Cassidy, by NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California. 

Each group worked on a virtual simulation, prior to the event, fine tuning their code to complete the challenge. On Thursday, with eyes glued to their screens, each team watched with excitement as their code took control of the real Astrobee. No more simulations! This was the real deal!

There were plenty of technical issues as NASA’s Ames crew worked with Commander Chris Cassidy to stabilise the Astobee’s starting position and onboard localisation, prior to each country’s code taking control. 

When it came to the Australian team’s turn, only two other teams had completed the challenge successfully, Thailand and Indonesia. UAE and Japan’s programs were fast and accurate in the simulator, but their speed caused the real Astrobe to go over the mark and crash into the Kibo Module walls. Taiwan’s had started off well, but half way through seemed to stop and start floating off towards the roof. 

Next it was the Australian Team’s chance. The Galen VEX team members excitedly watched their code take control, only to see the astrobee float up towards the roof and turn in the opposite direction to what was expected. There was silence in the room. A minute or two went by. Still nothing had changed. Then a voice from NASA Ames asked Chris to bring the Astrobee back to the starting point and they’d give it another start.  

The excitement built up again, then the same thing happened the astrobee floated towards the roof. There was disappointment all round. The Australian team remained calm but extremely happy. They had been involved in this wonderful and unique experience. Next up was Singapore, the final team. Commander Chris, set the Astrobee up and their code took over, the Astrobee once again started to float up towards the roof, in the exact same way as it did for the Australian Team. 

Voices from Ames came through the system “That’s a copy-cat of the last run. Something is not right here. Let us look into it from ground base”. 

A 10-minute break ensued. Once back online, they had rebooted the Astrobee and changed it’s batteries. They were going to give the last three teams, Taiwan, Australia and Singapore another run.

Taiwan started off well again but failed to complete the mission in their second run. 

Australia was up next. The excitement grew again, this was it. 

Checkpoint 1 Complete, Checkpoint 2 Complete, Checkpoint 3 complete – Fire the laser – MISSION COMPLETE! Australia successfully completed the mission.  Cheers went up all throughout the room. 

Singapore up next, Checkpoint 1 complete, Checkpoint 2 complete…. Then it went off course and crashed into the wall. 

Australia’s Galen VEX team was extremely proud to be one of the three teams that successfully completed the final mission. Indonesia coming first with an accurate laser hitting the target, Thailand second hitting the edge of the target. Australia got within 20cm of the target, putting them in third. 

Due to the number of technical issues on board, awards were given out for the Simulation Challenge, won by Japan, for the fast effective course and the creative use of the Astrobee’s rear camera, with UAE coming a very close second. The Australian Team came 7th (last) in the simulation challenge as their code was very slow and steady, but this slow and steadiness worked a treat in real life aboard the ISS. 

An added bonus for the Australian team. They had a special cheer squad of Australia’s very own “Voice in Space”: Andrea Boyd. Andrea is on ISS Communication Command Centre for the European Space Agency, based in Germany. She was sending messages of support and pictures from her view, from EuroCom. At the end of the evening she skyped with the team for about an hour chatting about her career pathway and role in her daily communications with the astronauts on the ISS.

It was a very special evening for all involved. 

Galen VEX would like to thank Bob and Jackie Carpenter at the One Giant Leap Australia Foundation who worked tirelessly to provide the inaugural KIBO Robot Programming Challenge to Australia, the JAXA team, for their vision in creating this challenge, in particular Yui Nakata for her communication with teams, NASA Ames for their support and troubleshooting of the Astrobee and of course Commander Chris Cassidy for his wonderful insights in answering our questions. 

Galen VEX would also like to acknowledge the great support of NETracks LLEN and Charles Sturt University Wangaratta, who have been strong supporters of the Galen VEX Robotics Program since its inception in 2016. 

Galen VEX team members are already looking forward to next competition – if you are interested in joining them in the next challenge contact onegiantleap@bigpond.com or head to https://kiboaustralia.com.au/  if you wish to know more. 

QUOTES:  

Ryan: “The night of the final competition was such an eye-opening experience, from listening to Chris Cassidy answering our questions; to our code making a robot fly around the ISS. It was truly amazing. It really showed how much teamwork and preparation goes into making these challenges possible. The rush of adrenaline that hit us when we saw the “Mission Complete” image on the screen was incredible and unforgettable. To make the night 1000 times better we were able to get a skype call with Andrea, she is on ISS comms for the European Space Agency based in Germany. She was so knowledgeable!! The skype call went for 45mins, it was filled with questions from us. By the end of the call, we were all so exhausted because we had taken in sooo much information it was incredible. Overall the night was the most uplifting and inspiring experience I ever had!! The teamwork communication skills that we gained will live with us forever, It was just an unimaginable experience that we will never live down!!  

Jorja: “The night of the competition was an amazing adrenaline rush. On our first run of the code and the Astrobee failed to perform, the disappointment was palpable in the room, however, the experience and sheer excitement kept us running on a high. When our team’s code finally worked, the energy in the room was off the roof. The moment ‘Mission Complete’ showed up on the screen the rush was incredible, all of the hard work and worries had been washed away. The amazing result of the night had been topped off with an eye-opening and interesting talk with Andrea, from the European space control centre in Cologne, Germany.”

Mitchell: Seeing everyone, the other teams and especially the astronauts live and online, was something that was unreal. Being on a world stage, for me at least, is something I have never done before and it lives up to its expectations. Seeing the code actually running on the ISS with astronaut Chris Cassidy sitting right behind it is something that can never be recreated, it was just the most amazing feeling seeing our code running live up in space. It’s something that is out of this world, literally!

Rutvik: I love how all of this challenge started off as an opportunity for everyone to broaden our knowledge on coding and ended up by getting our program on the International Space Station. The night of the final round, when our code was run on the Astrobee aboard the International Space Station was an unbelievable experience. Our team had many challenges where we problem solved our way through them and we learnt many other skills that will definitely stay with us and help us in the future. We also had a chance to ask questions to one of the astronauts onboard Chris Cassidy, listening to him tell us stories and looking at him floating around the KIBO module was just another experience of its own. The skype call with Andrea at the end of the night was really cool as we found out the fields she has been in and learned that you can have an educational background in anything to be a part of the Space Industry. The whole program has given everyone a chance to think about the possibilities in the future.

Brett: As a teacher, it was great to see our students provided with the opportunity to participate in such a unique and unforgettable competition. The look of pride and astonishment on the students’ faces as their code successfully navigated the Astrobee on the International Space Station is something that I will never forget.

Maree: As a lover of all things space, it was an incredible experience to be “hooked” directly into the International Space Station and chat to JAXA and NASA Astronauts. As a teacher, it was amazing to be involved in such a project, and see our students watch in disbelief and awe, that this was real and their code was actually taking control of NASA’s Astrobee Robot. A very surreal and unforgettable moment in time.

Malay Shah (Programming Mentor): As someone who has dreamt of space from a young age, I was very excited when I found out about this competition. To be able to mentor students who shared similar interests was fantastic. These students are going to be the next generation of thinkers, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, and it was great to be a part of their journey. Seeing the Astrobee running our team’s code live on the ISS was definitely an awe-inspiring moment.

Bob Carpenter (One Giant Leap) : Very well done. Galen Vex persevered and devised ‘out of the box’ methods for working Quaternion mathematics to accomplish this real time leading edge coding challenge. This navigation system will be the system for travel on other planets and space travel. This team is at the leading edge of Australian students and space exploration.

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