Raspberry Pi computers are speeding to the International Space Station

This morning, our two new Astro Pi units launched into space. Actual, real-life space. The new Astro Pi units each consist of a Raspberry Pi computer with a Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera and a host of sensors, all housed inside a special space-ready case that makes the hardware suitable for the International Space Station (ISS).

Astro Pi MK II hardware.

The journey to space for two special Raspberry Pi computers

Today’s launch is the culmination of a huge piece of work we’ve done for the European Space Agency to get the new Astro Pi units ready to become part of the European Astro Pi Challenge.

Logo of the European Astro Pi Challenge.

After lift-off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the new Astro Pi units are currently travelling on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon 2 spacecraft, the module atop the rocket. You can watch the launch again here.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon spits fire as it lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A SpaceX rocket is delivering the special Raspberry Pi computers to the ISS today. © SpaceX

Also travelling with our Astro Pi units are food and some Christmas presents for the astronauts on board the ISS, materials for a study of the delivery of cancer drugs; a bioprinter for experiments investigating wound healing; and materials for a study of how detergents work in microgravity.

The Dragon 2 spacecraft will berth with the ISS tomorrow, with NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn monitoring its arrival. ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer and another colleague will be there to unpack its cargo. You can watch the process of unpacking tomorrow, Wed 22 December, at 8.30am GMT / 9.30am CET. In the new year, Matthias will be switching our Astro Pi units on and getting them ready to run the code written by young people participating in the European Astro Pi Challenge. The new Astro Pi units will replace Astro Pi units Ed and Izzy, which have been on the ISS for 6 years — ever since the very first Astro Pi Challenge with British ESA astronaut Tim Peake in 2015.

The International Space Station.
The International Space Station, where the special Raspberry Pi computers will arrive tomorrow, © ESA–L. Parmitano, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

We’re looking forward to seeing the amazing experiments this year’s Astro Pi Mission Space Lab teams will perform on the new hardware, and what they’ll discover about life on Earth and in space. We also can’t wait to see what the young people participating in Astro Pi Mission Zero will name the new Astro Pi units!

Building space-ready Astro Pi units

None of us on the team working on the Astro Pi Challenge here at the Foundation are aerospace engineers. While building the new Astro Pi units, we’ve learned so much.

Animation of how the components of the Mark 2 Astro Pi hardware unit fit together.

To get the Astro Pis ready to be loaded onto the rocket has been a project of more than three years. That’s because, in addition to manufacturing the Astro Pi units, we also had to ensure they pass the necessary safety and certification process. The official name for this is the Safety Gate process. It’s been set up by ESA and NASA to ensure that any items sent to the ISS are safe to operate on board the station.

For the three separate safety panels the Astro Pi units needed to get through, we put the units through different tests and completed various safety reports. The tests included:

  • A vibration test: To make sure the Astro Pi units survive the rigours of the launch, we tested them using the sophisticated rigs at Airbus in Portsmouth. These rigs are capable of simulating the vibrations produced by various different launch vehicles. We needed to test all possible options, because the Astro Pi units didn’t have a confirmed vehicle to travel to the ISS yet.
A vibration test of the new Raspberry Pi-powered Astro Pi units at Airbus in Portsmouth
  • A thermal test: To make sure no harm can possibly come to the crew from the Astro Pi units, we needed to check that the touch temperature of the Astro Pi units’ surface is never above 45°C.
  • A test for sharp edges: Each Astro Pi unit also needed to be manually inspected by someone wearing a latex glove who carefully feels the case for sharp edges.
Testing the new Raspberry Pi-powered Astro Pi units for sharp edges using a latex glove.
  • Stringent, military-grade electromagnetic emissions and susceptibility tests: These are required to guarantee that the Astro Pi units won’t interfere with any ISS systems, and that the units themselves are not affected by other equipment on board.
  • We built two additional Astro Pi units and sent them to NASA so that they could test that plugging the units into the ISS power grid wouldn’t cause a power overload. 

For almost all of these tests, we created custom software to do things like stress the Astro Pi units’ processors, saturate the network links, and generally make the units work as hard as possible. 

To accompany these safety and test reports, we also had to create the Flight Safety Data Package (FSDP), which contains exact technical information about every component of the Astro Pi hardware, and about all the necessary safety controls to qualify the use of certain materials and safely manage operation of the units. The current FSDP paperwork stands at over 700 pages, which thankfully we haven’t had to actually print out!

Young people’s code will run on the new Astro Pi units next year — is yours on board?

All of this work culminated today in the Astro Pis being launched up into space from Cape Canaveral. And we’re doing all this so that more young people can take part in the European Astro Pi Challenge and send messages to the ISS astronauts using code as part of Mission Zero, or write code for new, ambitious experiments to run on the ISS as part of Mission Space Lab.

Young people can take part in Astro Pi Mission Zero right now! Mission Zero is a beginners’ coding activity for all young people under the age of 19 in ESA member and associate states. It gives them the chance to write code to show their own message to the astronauts on board the ISS using the Astro Pi units. And this time, Mission Zero participants can also vote to name the new Astro Pi units!

To participate, young people follow our step-by-step instructions to write their Mission Zero code. As an adult supporting a young person on Mission Zero, all you need to do is sign up as a mentor to get them a registration code for their Mission Zero entry. Once your young person’s code has run in space, we’ll send you a special certificate for them showing where the ISS, and the Astro Pi computers, were when their code ran.

Inspire a young person to learn about coding and space science today with Astro Pi Mission Zero!

7 comments
Jump to the comment form

Avatar

Awesome work from everyone involved. You know everyone now wants an upgraded Sense Hat so we can keep up with the AstroPi project at home. Also, will the old units be returned to Earth? A small piece of British history.

Reply to Chris Smith

Avatar

Thanks Chris! Yes, we’re all very proud (and quite tired…). Sadly the new Sense HATs aren’t commercially available. We’re very much hoping that the old units will come back, yes. Keep your fingers crossed we can book a space in a return vehicle!

Reply to Olympia Brown

Avatar

Awesome effort!
Please, what is the lens and lens mount used on the new Astro Pi?

Reply to Anton

Janina Ander

A 6mm C-mount lens

Reply to Janina Ander

Avatar

Is there any chance the stress test used to verify the power draw of the Pi systems is open source or could be shared?

Reply to Eric Olson

Janina Ander

Hi Eric! Unfortunately we can’t share the code. In broad terms, we used selected CPU stress tests from stress-ng, some standard image classification tasks for the Coral machine learning dongle, and a sample Mission Space Lab experiment.

Reply to Janina Ander

Avatar

It’s great to know that the raspberry pi is participating in the ISS program. I’ve been using raspberry pi 4 and Ubuntu linux to help with my day-to-day work for a year, and have been very satisfied with their performance. Hopefully raspberry pi will make more useful contributions to science and humanity.

Reply to Surya Anggraito

Leave a Comment