Just over a week ago now we closed the secondary school phase of the Astro Pi competition after a one week extension to the deadline. Students from all over the UK have uploaded their code hoping that British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake will run it on the ISS later this year!
Last week folks from the leading UK Space companies, the UK Space Agency and ESERO UK met with us at Pi Towers in Cambridge to do the judging. We used the actual flight Astro Pi units to test run the submitted code. You can see one of them on the table in the picture below (look closely!):
— Astro Pi (@astro_pi) July 7, 2015
The standard of entries was incredibly high – we were blown away by how clever some of them were!
Doug Liddle of SSTL said:
“We are delighted that the competition has reached so many school children and we hope that this inspires them to continue coding and look to Space for great career opportunities”
Jeremy Curtis, Head of Education at the UK Space Agency, said:
“We’re incredibly impressed with the exciting and innovative Astro Pi proposals we’ve received and look forward to seeing them in action aboard the International Space Station.
Not only will these students be learning incredibly useful coding skills, but will get the chance to translate those skills into real experiments that will take place in the unique environment of space.”
When Tim Peake flies to the ISS in December he will have the two Astro Pis in his personal cargo allowance. He’ll also have ten specially prepared SD cards which will contain the winning applications. Time is booked into his operations schedule to deploy the Astro Pis and set the code running and afterwards he will recover any output files created. These will then be returned to their respective owners and made available online for everyone to see.
Code was received for all secondary school key stages and we even have several from key stage 2 primary schools. These were judged along with the key stage 3 entries. So without further ado, here comes a breakdown of who won and what their code does:
Each of these programs have been assigned an operational code name that will be used when talking about them over the space to ground radio.
Ops name: FLAGS
- School: Thirsk School
- Team name: Space-Byrds
- Key stage: 3
- Teacher: Dan Aldred
- The judges had a lot of fun with this. Their program uses telemetry data provided by NORAD along with the Real Time Clock on the Astro Pi to computationally predict the location of the ISS (so it doesn’t need to be online). It then works out what country’s territory the ISS is above, and shows its flag on the LED matrix, along with a short phrase in the local language.
Ops name: MISSION CONTROL
- School: Cottenham Village College
- Team name: Kieran Wand
- Key stage: 3
- Teacher: Christopher Butcher
- Kieran’s program is an environmental system monitor that could be used to cross check the ISS’s own life support system. It continually measures the temperature, pressure and humidity, and displays these in a cycling, split-screen display. It has the ability to raise alarms if these measurements move outside of acceptable parameters. We were especially impressed that code had been written to compensate for thermal transfer between the Pi CPU and Astro Pi sensors.
Andy Powell of the Knowledge Transfer Network said:
“All of the judges were impressed by the quality of work and the effort that had gone into the winning KS3 projects and they produced useful, well thought through and entertaining results”
Ops name: TREES
- School: Westminster School
- Team name: EnviroPi
- Key stage: 4 (and equivalent)
- Teacher: Sam Page
- This entry will be run in the cupola module of the ISS with the Astro Pi NoIR camera pointing out of the window. The aim is to take pictures of the ground and to later analyse them using false colour image processing. This will produce a Normalised Differentiated Vegetation Index (NDVI) for each image which is a measure of plant health. They have one piece of code which will run on the ISS to capture the images and another that will run on the ground after the mission to post process and analyse the images captured. They even tested their code by going up in a light aircraft to take pictures of the ground!
Ops name: REACTION GAMES
- School: Lincoln UTC
- Team name: Team Terminal
- Key stage: 4 (and equivalent)
- Teacher: Mark Hall
- These students have made a whole suite of reaction games, complete with a nice little menu system to let the user select them. The games also record response times, with the eventual goal being to investigate how crew reaction time changes over the course of a long-term space flight. This entry caused all work to cease during the judging for about half an hour!
Lincoln UTC have also won the prize for the best overall submission in the Secondary School completion. This earns them a photograph of their school taken from space by an Airbus or SSTL satellite. Go and make a giant space invader please!
Ops name: RADIATION
- School: Magdalen College School
- Team name: Arthur, Alexander and Kiran
- Key stage: 5 (and equivalent)
- Teacher: Dr Jesse Petersen
- This team have successfully made a radiation detector using the Raspberry Pi camera module, the possibility of which was hinted at during our Astro Pi animation video from a few months ago. The camera lens is blanked off to prevent light from getting in, but this still allows high-energy space radiation to get through. Due to the design of the camera, the sensor sees the impacts of these particles as tiny specks of light. The code then uses OpenCV to measure the intensity of these specks and produces an overall measurement of the level of radiation happening.
What blew us away was that they had taken their Astro Pi and camera module along to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and fired a neutron cannon at it to test it was working!
The code can even compensate for dead pixels in the camera sensor. I am wondering if they killed some pixels with the neutron cannon, and then had to add that code out of necessity? Brilliant.
These winning programs will be joined on the ISS by the winners of the Primary School Competition which closed in April:
Ops name: MINECRAFT
- School: Cumnor House Girl’s School
- Team name: Hannah Belshaw
- Key stage: 2
- Teacher: Peter Kelly
- Hannah’s entry logs data from the Astro Pi sensors, and visualises it later using structures in a Minecraft world. So columns of blocks are used to represent environmental measurements, and a giant blocky model of the ISS itself (that moves) is used to represent movement and orientation. The code was written, under Hannah’s guidance, by Martin O’Hanlon who runs Stuff About Code. The data logging program that will run on the ISS produces a CSV file that can be consumed later by the visualisation code to play back what happened when Tim Peake was running it in space. The code is already online here.
— Astro Pi (@astro_pi) June 30, 2015
Ops name: SWEATY ASTRONAUT
- School: Cranmere Primary School
- Team name: Cranmere Code Club
- Key stage: 2
- Teacher: Richard Hayler
- Although they were entitled to have their entry coded by us at Raspberry Pi, the kids of the Cranmere Code Club are collectively writing their program themselves. The aim is to try and detect the presence of a crew member by monitoring the environmental sensors of the Astro Pi, particularly humidity. If a fluctuation is detected it will scroll a message asking if someone is there. They even made a Lego replica of the Astro Pi flight case for their testing!
— Richard Hayler ☀ (@rdhayler) July 9, 2015
Obviously, the main prize for winners is to have your code flown into space and run on the ISS. However, the UK Space companies also offered a number of thematic prizes which were awarded independently of those that have been chosen to fly. Some cross-over with the other winners was expected here.
- Space Sensors
Hannah Belshaw, from Cumnor House Girl’s School with her idea for Minecraft data visualisation.
- Space Measurements
Kieran Wand from Cottenham Village College for his ISS environment monitoring system.
- Imaging and Remote Sensing
The EnviroPi team from Westminster School with their experiment to measure plant health from space using NDVI images.
- Space Radiation
Magdalen College, Oxford with their space radiation detector.
- Data Fusion
Nicole Ashworth, from Reading, for her weather reporting system; comparing historical weather data from the UK with the environment on the ISS.
- Coding Excellence
Sarah and Charlie Maclean for their multiplayer Labyrinth game.
Pat Norris of CGI said:
“It has been great to see so many schools getting involved in coding and we hope that this competition has inspired the next generation to take up coding, space systems or any of the many other opportunities the UK space sector offers. We were particularly impressed by the way Charlie structured his code, added explanatory comments and used best practice in developing the functionality.”
We’re aiming to have all the code that was submitted to the competition on one of the ten SD cards that will fly. So your code will still fly even if it won’t be scheduled to be run in space. The hope is that, during periods of downtime, Tim may have a look through some of the other entries and run them manually. But this depends on a lot of factors outside our control, and so we can’t promise anything.
But wait, there’s more!
There is still opportunity for all schools to get involved with Astro Pi!
There will be an on-orbit activity during the mission (probably in January or February) that you can all do at the same time as Tim. After the winning programs have all finished, the Astro Pi will enter a phase of flight data recording. Just like the black box on an aircraft.
This will make the Astro Pi continually record everything from all its sensors and save the data into a file that you can get! If you set your Astro Pi up in the same way (the software will be provided by us) then you can compare Tim’s measurements taken in space with yours taken on the ground.
There is then a lot of educational value in looking at the differences and understanding why they occur. For instance, you could look at the accelerometer data to find out when ISS reboosts occurred; or study the magnetometer data to find out how the Earth’s magnetic field changes as they orbit the Earth. A number of free educational resources will be provided that will help you to leverage the value of this exercise.
The general public can also get involved when the Sense HAT goes on general sale in a few weeks time.
Libby Jackson of the UK Space Agency said:
“Although the competition is over, the really exciting part of the project is just beginning. All of the winning entries will get to see their code run in space and thousands more can take part in real life space experiments through the Flight Data phase”