DIY in space

March 1, 2015 OpenSystems Media

It's been an exciting time for space exploration. Philae landed on Comet 67P, the Orion mission is working to develop reusable spacecraft, and SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are rapidly developing private and commercial space technology.

I was also intrigued about NASA's recent embrace of 3D printing at the International Space Station (ISS) – which can potentially shorten the time for replacement tool/part delivery down to hours from months! – bringing space travel beyond even the commercial realm and into that of DIY. Printed part specs are strict due to the critical nature of aerospace projects, but makers can be a part of the ISS and space exploration in another way: through the Astro Pi (astro-pi.org) challenge.

Education Resource Engineer Dave Honess from the Raspberry Pi Foundation (raspberrypi.org) announced late last year a partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake to send Raspberry Pis to the ISS. Primary and secondary school children in the UK can enter a competition to develop code for two Raspberry Pis connected to the sensor-loaded Astro Pi boards that will be flown to the ISS as part of Peake's six-month mission. They'll be deployed around the ISS to collect data in orbit and send that data back to Earth to the winning teams.

Projects are split up into five themes: spacecraft sensors, satellite imaging, space measurements, data fusion, and space radiation. Primary school students are tasked with developing an idea for an experiment or application that can be conducted by the Astro Pi on the ISS. Two winners will get the opportunity to have their ideas interpreted and coded by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Secondary school students are split into three age categories where the best 50 submissions in each will win a Raspberry Pi and Astro Pi to use to implement their idea. The top two teams who developed code based on their concept will have their code prepared for the mission by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The secondary school winning teams will also have Raspberry Pi and Astro Pi boards sent to their entire classes. The competition officially opened in January, and the idea phase closes April 3.

The European Space Education Resource Office for the UK (ESERO-UK) is developing teaching resources with the Raspberry Pi foundation that help STEM teachers explain how to use the Astro Pi board/sensors and write code for it, and link the Astro Pi to other curriculum areas (The resources are available through the National STEM Centre at opsy.st/AstroPiResources). The UK Space Agency is supporting further outreach activities around the mission to inspire more interest in STEM fields. I think this is a pretty exciting project to get students into DIY and making, and in turn engineering.

Though you and I aren't UK students (though if you are one working on an Astro Pi project I'd love to hear from you!), we can get our hands on the Astro Pi and related resources and at least pretend like we're developing for the ISS. At press time the Astro Pi hardware attached on top (HAT) board wasn't yet available for purchase, but it was expected to be available in February 2015 for around £30 at swag.raspberrypi.org. On Tim Peake's mission the Astro Pi will be used with the Raspberry Pi 1 B+, though it's also compatible with the Raspberry Pi 1 A+, 2 B+, and 2.

Until space exploration is in reach of everyone, space isn't likely the destination for most of our projects, but the features of the Astro Pi aren't just useful for space. Any sensing and data collection heavy project could find use in the Astro Pi HAT. Its sensors include a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, temperature sensor, barometric pressure sensor, and humidity sensor. Other features include visible light or infared (Pi NoIR) cameras, five-button joystick, 8x8 RGB LED matrix display, additional function push buttons, and real-time clock with backup battery (See details at astro-pi.org/hardware).

It'll be interesting to follow the progress of the challenge and see what ideas students come up with and how they'll be implemented. If it's a successful challenge, I hope to see it spread to other countries so students and space enthusiasts of all ages can have a shot at sending their projects to space.

Monique DeVoe (Managing Editor)
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