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Merrimack Valley

January 15, 2013

Robotic space odyssey

Haverhill High team makes it to finals in NASA-backed competition

HAVERHILL — A group of students from Haverhill High School reached the finals of a national competition to determine who could best program a robot floating in zero gravity aboard the International Space Station.

This event, called Zero Robotics, culminated last Friday with teams of students from across the country gathering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they uploaded computer codes to the space station. Astronauts then loaded the programs into robots called SPHERES to decide the winning team.

“We were the only team at the finals from New England,” said Elaine Mistretta, a math teacher who advises the after-school Access21 Robotics program. “Our alliance did not score, but we saw our code run in space on the International Space Station twice by the astronauts. It was an amazing day.”

This is the second year students in the Access21 program competed in the game, and the first time they made it to the finals.

In Zero Robotics, participants compete to win a technically challenging game by programming their strategies into Synchronized Position-Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES. According to the contest’s website, the game is motivated by a current problem of interest to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) , NASA and MIT.

Up until Friday, senior Nathan Bernard, programming captain for Haverhill Robotics, had only tested his computer code on a computer simulation program provided by the competition.

To better visualize how a robot would operate, Bernard’s team created a cube-shaped model using a metal desk shelf in which they created a wire grid to determine X, Y and Z axis for determining position and distance from virtual objects their robot had to pick up, such as an antenna and fuel.

It required a solid understanding of trigonometry to determine distances and direction within the cube, which represented a room on the space station where the competition played out.

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