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Out-of-This-World Robots

How the Zero Robotics competition let me taste the thrill of space
February 20, 2013

When I was a kid, everything I owned had something to do with space. I had a little couch covered in stars and planets and a room filled with all sorts of space-related books and knickknacks. My ceiling was plastered with those glow-in-the-dark stick-on stars that made your room feel a little more extraterrestrial. I was amazed, and more than a little terrified, by the immensity of space, and I wished for nothing more than to have something to do with something off this planet, because to me, space’s unparalleled cool factor made it so much more important than anything on Earth.

robotic competition
Students watch robots running their code compete through a live link to the space station at the 2013 Zero Robotics competition.

That’s what made MIT’s Zero Robotics competition so exciting for me. To write code for satellites in space—it was something I had only dreamed of doing until I heard about the competition from a friend at the end of my junior year at New York’s Stuyvesant High School. It was the best opportunity a high-school kid passionate about space and programming could have.

Vinay Mayar
Vinay Mayar

Our task in the 2011 competition was to write a program to maneuver a satellite to one of two asteroids, where it would mine ore. Players had to collaborate to make the mining process more efficient and then race to a finish location with as much ore as possible. The game was simulated, but astronauts would run the finalists’ code on soccer-ball-size satellites onboard the International Space Station. Though simple, it gave rise to a number of interesting challenges. This was the first time I had really worked on an engineering problem of such scope—one where I had to come up with creative methods, find efficient implementations, and perform tons of calculations.

My team worked for months on communication protocols, fuel-efficient maneuvering, and AI problems like deciding whether or not the other player was collaborating. The challenges were intense but fun, continually incorporating new elements. It became more than just a game; it was a team project that I was heavily invested in. And I could see my efforts gradually evolving into a successful program.

Then, in January 2012, I got to go to MIT for the final showdown. As I sat in room 10-250 and watched the live stream of our completed program being run on high-tech satellites zooming around inside the space station, hundreds of miles above Earth, I felt a real sense of accomplishment. It was more rewarding than I could have imagined—and the astronauts at MIT that day made sure of that. They were proud of what we had done and of what we would accomplish. We became part of an exclusive community of people who love space enough to make an impact beyond Earth.

For me the fun didn’t end there. In September, I became a freshman at MIT and got to participate in a UROP project working on the 2012 game. I was on the other side, choosing challenges and actually writing some of the behind-the-scenes code! I got to experiment with the satellites on the ground and write tests for the satellites in space. The problems I worked on were the same ones the competitors were solving, but this was even more thrilling, and more challenging. This time around I watched the finals from the control room, listening to the back-and-forth communication from NASA and watching the competing teams react as they saw their programs win and lose. I was as excited as they were, and I felt the same sense of accomplishment I had the year before. Not only had I contributed to their excitement, but my code was running on those satellites.

I dreamed about space, competed in space, wrote tests for space. With every line of code, the Zero Robotics competition has kindled my passion for space—and for computer science and engineering.

Vinay Mayar is a freshman at MIT studying mathematics and computer science. He works on design, implementation, and testing for the Zero Robotics competition as a UROP student in MIT’s Space Systems Lab.

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