New DARPA challenge wants unique algorithms for space applications

DARPA challenge aims to develop applications for small satellites

SPHERES
On March 28, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will kick of another one of its highly successful challenges this time looking for teams or individuals to develop unique algorithms to control small satellites on-board the International Space Station.

Specifically DARPA's Zero Robotics Autonomous Space Capture Challenge wants skilled programmers from around the world to develop a fuel-optimal control algorithm. The algorithm must enable a satellite to accomplish a feat that's very difficult to do autonomously: capture a space object that's tumbling, spinning or moving in the opposite direction, the agency stated. 

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According to DARPA, during four, week-long 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 (Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites) aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Space Systems Laboratory developed the three SPHERES satellites and they have been onboard the ISS since 2006 to provide DARPA, NASA, and other researchers with a system that could help those agencies test technologies for use in formation flight and autonomous docking, rendezvous and reconfiguration algorithms, MIT stated.

For the Zero Robotics challenge, an object, simulating a 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.   DARPA said that 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.

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You may recall that DARPA's Phoenix program aims to develop technologies that could one day help new spacecraft harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in geosynchronous orbit. DARPA says there are some 1,300 satellites worth over $300B sitting out in Earth's geostationary orbit (GEO) that could be retrofitted or harvested for new communications roles.

"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 in a statement.

The winners of each round will be invited to MIT to view the finals via videolink from the ISS, where the four algorithms will be programmed into SPHERES and tested, the agency stated.

To get started, those interested will need read the official rules, create an account, and register for the competition on the tournaments page. Until the start of the competition, DARPA says players should familiarize themselves with programming SPHERES using the existing challenges on the website. Additional materials will be posted to the tournament page in the weeks leading up to the tournament.

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