Your task: Guide a robotic satellite through a field of asteroids, hook it to another robotic satellite and then pull it back through.

No, you don’t get a joy stick—that’s so 1980s. You do it with computer coding, and it requires math concepts that are probably unfamiliar to you.

Later this month, Craig and Parker high school Zero Robotics teams will travel to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to watch their robotic satellites perform on the International Space Station with code they wrote.

The teams competed for four months against more than 200 teams from across the United States and in states that are members of the European Space Agency. Only three high schools from Wisconsin were in the competition, and two were from Janesville.

This is the second trip to the finals for both teams. Parker went in 2014, and Craig went in 2017.

Here’s how it works:

Zero Robotics creates the scenario using SPHERES—or Synchronized, Position, Hold, Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites. These are small satellites shaped like spheres. No surprise there.

Then the students create the coding to get the spheres to perform the assigned task.

Round one requires students to move the sphere in two-dimensional space in the fastest time possible.

The top 177 teams move to round two. The challenge is the same, but this time it is performed in three-dimensional space.

Because the asteroid field is randomized, the students can’t predict how many asteroids they’ll face or where they will be located.

The competition is timed, and satellites, which are supposed to represent spaceships, have a limited amount of fuel.

Some teams programmed their spheres to go through the smaller asteroids instead of around them, said Bob Getka, Parker High School computer science teacher and team adviser.

That’s not the really difficult part. The most intense coding comes when students have to hook one satellite to another. To do so, they must understand two advanced math concepts:

  • Euler angles. According to Wikipedia, Euler angles are “three angles introduced by Leonhard Euler to describe the orientation of a rigid body with respect to a fixed coordinate system. They can also represent the orientation of a mobile frame of reference in physics or the orientation of a general basis in 3-dimensional linear algebra.”
  • Quaternions. “In mathematics, the quaternions are a number system that extends the complex numbers,” Wikipedia says.

As journalists, we know what some of those words mean, but not what the sentence means.

So after making it through the second round, teams move on to the finals, where they draft—or are drafted by—teams from around the world.

The rule is each team has to pick a team from another continent. The teams then work together to submit their final sphere programming.

The top 28 teams—each one consisting of three schools—get to go to MIT. In a huge auditorium full of teams from around the world, they watch their coding in action.

All the coding has been uploaded to the space station, and the astronauts set up the real spheres and start the computer programs for each team.

Both Getka and Janice Bain, a Craig computer science teacher and team adviser, said they were grateful to the school district for its support.

The two just returned from a state conference for computer science teachers, and their colleagues from other districts were surprised by the resources and support they received.

Their students’ success is the proof of the program’s success. Not only have both high schools qualified for the Zero Robotics tournament before, but some Janesville students have been accepted to MIT. One former Zero Robotics member is now working for Google.

The program also has made the school district attractive to students.

Lane Whitten Jr., a Parker team member, is from Evansville and was home-schooled. He came to Parker specifically for the computer science classes.

Craig High School Zero Robotics team members are Nathan Baumeister, Harry Kubiak, Alex Linde, Jasper Rutherford, Matt Schroeder, Owen Swearingen and Josiah Vanevenhoven. Their teammates for the final round are from Russia and Italy. The team adviser is Janice Bain.

Parker High School Zero Robotics team members are Lane Whitten Jr., Bailey Demler, Saul Brodkey, Jacob Petter and Cav Mair. Their teammates for the final round are from Romania and Italy. The team adviser is Bob Getka.

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