Astro Pi: Ready for launch

By Claire Given and Tom Hadfield. Posted

Claire Given and Tom Hadfield share how young people can run their computer programs in space with Astro Pi

The European Astro Pi Challenge gives young people in 26 countries the opportunity to write their own computer programs and run them on two special Raspberry Pi units — each called an Astro Pi — on-board the International Space Station (ISS).

Astro Pi is a collaboration between the Raspberry Pi Foundation and the European Space Agency (ESA). This year’s ambassador of the European Astro Pi Challenge is ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Thomas will accompany the Astro Pis on the ISS and oversee the programs while they run.

The challenge offers young people the opportunity to conduct scientific investigations in space.

In the last challenge, a record 6,558 Astro Pi programs from over 17,000 young people ran on the ISS, and even more young people are invited to take part in the new 2020/21 challenge.

There are two different Astro Pi missions — Mission Zero and Mission Space Lab — and participants can choose based on their level of coding experience.

Mission Zero

In Mission Zero, the challenge is to write a simple program to take a humidity reading on-board the ISS. The reading is then displayed to the ISS astronauts for 30 seconds alongside a personalised message.

Mission Zero is designed for beginners and younger participants up to 14 years old. It can be completed online in around an hour and doesn’t require any previous coding experience or specific hardware. It’s a perfect activity to introduce beginners to digital making; the time frame makes it ideal for a coding club activity or for children at home. 

All Mission Zero participants who follow the challenge rules are guaranteed to have their programs run on the ISS in 2021 so the astronauts are able to see their messages.

There are some exciting changes to this year’s Mission Zero challenge:

  • Participants will measure humidity on the ISS, instead of temperature

  • Individual entries will be allowed, as well as teams of up to four people

The challenge will be open for entries until 19 March 2021.

Mission Space Lab

Mission Space Lab is aimed at more experienced or older participants aged up to 19 years old. It takes place in four phases over the course of eight months.

Teams of two to six young people will design and program an experiment, which will run for three hours on-board the ISS, to answer new scientific questions. These could relate to how being in space changes processes we are familiar with on Earth, or they could exploit the unique observations of Earth that can be made from ISS. The best experiments will be deployed on the ISS itself, and the winning teams will be able to analyse their experimental data and report on the results. 

A member of one of the winning teams, from Lycée International de Londres Winston Churchill, a bilingual international school in the United Kingdom, explained why he enjoyed the project: “The best thing about taking part in Astro Pi was working together with my friends as a team to take my dream — space and coding — and put it all together.”

There is a 23 October 2020 deadline for team registration for Mission Space Lab 2020/21, with an outline of an idea for an experiment. Teams must be supervised by a teacher or mentor.

An Astro Pi taking photos of Earth from the ISS.

Who can take part?

For both missions, each participant has to be at least one of the following:

  • Enrolled full time in a primary or secondary school in an ESA member state (see the full list at astro-pi.org), or Slovenia, Latvia, Canada, or Malta

  • Homeschooled (certified by the national ministry of education or delegated authority in an ESA member state or Slovenia, Latvia, Canada, or Malta)

  • A member of a club or after-school group (such as Code Club, CoderDojo, or Scouts) located in an ESA member state, or Slovenia, Latvia, Canada, or Malta

Get involved today!

More information about taking part in the European Astro Pi Challenge 2020/21, including guidance for Mission Space Lab ideas, is available at the new and improved Astro Pi website, astro-pi.org

Some of the winning Mission Space Lab Entries from last year

  • Vidhya’s code from the UK aimed to answer the question of how a compass works on the ISS, using the Astro Pi computer’s magnetometer and data from the World Magnetic Model (WMM)

  • Unknown from Externato Cooperativo da Benedita, Portugal, aptly investigated whether influenza is transmissible on a spacecraft such as the ISS, using the Astro Pi hardware alongside a deep literature review

  • Space Wombats from Institut d’Altafulla, Spain, used Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) analysis to identify burn scars from forest fires; they even managed to get results over Chernobyl

  • Liberté from Catmose College, UK, set out to prove the Coriolis effect by using Sobel filtering methods to identify the movement and direction of clouds

  • Pardubice Pi from SPŠE a VOŠ Pardubice, Czech Republic, found areas of enormous vegetation loss by performing NDVI analysis on images taken from the Astro Pi and comparing them with historic images of the location


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