Those of you who regularly read our blog will know all about Astro Pi. If not then, to briefly recap, two specially augmented Raspberry Pis (called Astro Pis) are being launched to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake’s mission starting in December. The launch date is December the 15th.
British ESA astronaut Tim Peake with Astro Pi – Image credit ESA
The Astro Pi competition
Last year we joined forces with the UK Space Agency, ESA and the UK Space Trade Association to run a competition that gave school-age students in the UK the chance to devise computer science experiments for Tim to run aboard the ISS.
Here is our competition video voiced by Tim Peake himself:
This is “Astro Pi” by Raspberry Pi Foundation on Vimeo, the home for high quality videos and the people who love them.
This ran from December 2014 to July 2015 and produced seven winning programs that will be run on the ISS by Tim. You can read about those in a previous blog post here. They range from fun reaction-time games to real science experiments looking at the radiation environment in space. The results will be downloaded back to Earth and made available online for all to see.
During the competition we saw kids with little or no coding experience become so motivated by the possibility of having their code run in space that they learned programming from scratch and grew proficient enough to submit an entry.
Flight safety testing and laser etching
Meanwhile we were working with ESA and a number of the UK space companies to get the Astro Pi flight hardware (below) certified for space.
An Astro Pi unit in its space-grade aluminium flight case
This was a very long process which began in September 2014 and is only now coming to an end. Read all about it in the blog entry here.
The final step in this process was to get some laser engraving done. This is to label every port and every feature that the crew can interact with. Their time is heavily scheduled up there and they use step-by-step scripts to explicitly coordinate everything from getting the Astro Pis out and setting them up, to getting data off the SD cards and packing them away again.
An Astro Pi in its flight case, showing off a beautifully laser-etched Raspberry Pi logo
So this labelling (known within ESA as Ops Noms) allows the features of the flight cases to exactly match what is written in those ISS deployment scripts. There can be no doubt about anything this way.
An Astro Pi in its freshly laser-etched flight case, all inputs and outputs clearly labelled
In order to do this we asked our CAD guy, Jonathan Wells, to produce updated drawings of the flight cases showing the labels. We then took those to a company called Cut Tec up in Barnsley to do the work.
They have a machine, rather like a plotter, which laser etches according to the CAD file provided. The process actually involves melting the metal of the cases to leave a permanent, hard wearing, burn mark.
They engraved four of our ground Astro Pi units (used for training and verification purposes) followed by the two precious flight units that went through all the safety testing. Here is a video:
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After many months of hard work the only thing left to do was to package up the payload and ship it to ESA! This was done on Friday of last week.
The final flight @astro_pi payload has left the building! @gsholling @astro_timpeake @spacegovuk @esa pic.twitter.com/cwU9Sko7gT
The payload is now with a space contractor company in Italy called ALTEC. They will be cleaning the units, applying special ISS bar codes, and packaging them into Nomex pouch bags for launch. After that the payload will be shipped to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to be loaded onto the same launch vehicle that Tim Peake will use to get into space: the Soyuz 45S.
This is not the last you’ll hear of Astro Pi!
We have a range of new Astro Pi educational resources coming up. There will be opportunities to examine the results of the winning competition experiments, and a data analysis activity where you can obtain a CSV file full of time-stamped sensor readings direct from Tim.
Tim has also said that, during the flight, he wants to use some of his free time on Saturday afternoons to do educational outreach. While we can’t confirm anything at this stage we are hopeful that some kind of interactive Astro Pi activities will take place. There could yet be more opportunities to get your code running on the ISS!
If you want to participate in this we recommend that you prepare by obtaining a Sense HAT and maybe even building a mock-up of the Astro Pi flight unit like the students of Cranmere Primary School did to test their competition entry.
We’ve built a Lego version of the @astro_pi flight case to make sweaty-astronaut testing as realistic as possible. pic.twitter.com/pYETedeWgn
It’s been about 25 years since we last had a British Astronaut (Helen Sharman in 1991) and we all feel that this is a hugely historic and aspirational moment for Great Britain. To be so intimately involved thus far has been an honour and a privilege for us. We’ve made some great friends at the UK Space Agency, ESA, CGI, Airbus Defence & Space and Surrey Satellite Technology to name a few.
We wish Tim Peake all the best for what remains of his training and for the mission ahead. Thanks for reading, and please watch this short video if you want to find out a bit more about the man himself:
Programme website: http://bbc.in/1KgRjWC An intimate portrait of the man behind the visor – British astronaut Tim Peake. Follow Tim Peake @BBCScienceClub, as he prepares for take off. #BritInSpace
The Astro Pis are staying on the ISS until 2022 when the coin cell batteries in their real time clocks reach end of life. So we sincerely hope that other crew members flying to the ISS will use them in the future.
Columbus ISS Training Module in Germany – Image credit ESA