DARPA’s Space Programming Challenge Kicks Off Today

March 28th, 2012 by Erwin Gianchandani Post a comment »

Zero Robotics Autonomous Space Capture Challenge [image courtesy Zero Robotics].Today, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), together with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)TopCoder, Inc., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Space Systems Laboratory, is launching the Zero Robotics Autonomous Space Capture Challenge, asking individuals and teams of programmers to develop a fuel-optimal control algorithm that enables a satellite on board the International Space Station (ISS) to accomplish a feat that’s very difficult to do autonomously: to capture a space object that’s tumbling, spinning, or moving in the opposite direction.

The absence of gravity presents a significant challenge for precision robotic maneuvering and operations in space. Overcoming some of that challenge may be possible through the development of computer algorithms to simultaneously compensate for this limitation while directing precision operations.


Such algorithms could benefit a variety of space activities, including DARPA’s Phoenix program. A primary goal of Phoenix is to develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in geosynchronous orbit [more following the link].


The Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) satellites [image courtesy DARPA].During four, weeklong computer-based rounds, challenge participants will collaborate via the Zero Robotics website to create a computer algorithm that will be programmed into bowling-ball sized satellites called SPHERES (short for Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites) aboard the International Space Station (ISS). An object, simulating a Phoenix payload on-orbit delivery system, will be set in motion inside the ISS under varying conditions, such as tumbling or spinning. The algorithm developed will need to direct the SPHERES satellite to approach the moving object and orient itself to contact with the object via Velcro on the SPHERES satellites…


“If a programming team can solve this challenge of autonomous space object capture, it could not only benefit the Phoenix program directly but potentially any space servicing system in the future,” said Dave Barnhart, DARPA program manager.

As of early this morning, 75 teams had already signed up to compete. To join them, read the official contest rules, create a Zero Robotics account, and make sure to register for the competition today.

And to learn more, check out the DARPA press release announcing the competition.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)