Janesville high schoolers compete in space station robotics final at MIT

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Nick Crow
Wednesday, January 15, 2014

JANESVILLE--More than a dozen Janesville high school students will make their marks in space Friday during the Zero Robotics competition held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

This year's challenge is called CosmoSPHERES. As a part of a make-believe scenario, students in December remotely programmed robotic satellites aboard the International Space Station. They are designed to deflect comets headed for earth during the mock exercise.

To achieve their objectives, students were told to program their satellites to alter a comet's earthbound path. The groups able to deflect the comet farthest from its path will win.

The robots run on compressed gas and can be programmed to spin, revolve and hover. Roughly the size and shape of a basketball, they are used to test maneuvers for spacecraft performing rendezvous and docking. Each has its own power, propulsion, computing and navigation equipment.

“It is going to be pretty neat for the kids to be exposed to an upper-level school like MIT,” said Robert Getka, a teacher at Parker High School and advisor for the students.

The students are from both Parker and Craig high schools.

To qualify for this stage, students had to excel in previous testing. Getka said the students placed 10th in the United States in a two-dimensional competition and 20th in a three-dimensional competition.

“This is something I've been looking for to challenge the students, and I've finally found it,” Getka said. “It's been neat to see the kids take off with it.”

Astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Oleg Kotov, who are currently aboard the space station, will be judging the competition that the students can watch via live downlink.

“To experience just the idea of having your codes on the space station is amazing,” said 17-year-old Parker senior Blake Stacks, who was project manager for the group.

The competition has 27 American high schools remaining out of 108 who entered. There were 18 European schools that advanced out of an original 57.

The remaining schools will be competing in combined teams of three against each other in a round robin format. The Janesville team, called Rock 'N' Robots, was the only one to qualify from the Midwest. They are paired with schools from Charlottesville, Va. and Claremont, Calif.

Mary Guy, whose son Justin is a senior at Parker and is one of the students participating, said she is telling everyone she can about the group's success.

“I am so proud,” Guy said. “There are six boys who got to do this, and I think it's pretty darn good that my boy was one of them.”

Zero Robotics is sponsored by NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.

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