The european Astro Pi Challenge: what you need to know

By Sophie Hudson . Posted

An Astro Pi computer on the International Space Station

Originally published in Hello World 20: Systems and networks, Jan 2023. All information true at the time of original publishing.

The European Astro Pi Challenge is back for 2022/23! Last year, 28,000 young people participated and had their messages and projects run aboard the International Space Station (ISS). We caught up with UK-based primary teacher Sophie Hudson about her experience of running the challenge in her school last year and the impact it had on her pupils.

What is the European Astro Pi Challenge?

The European Astro Pi Challenge gives young people the opportunity to conduct scientific investigations in space. Despite being a primary teacher for ten years, I found the idea of supporting pupils to take part in a coding challenge quite daunting. But I thought, “What’s the harm in trying? If it goes wrong, it goes wrong.” It just seemed like such a good opportunity, and the children got so excited when I told them about it.

There are two challenges to choose from: Mission Space Lab and Mission Zero. I carried out the Mission Zero challenge — the simpler of the two — for the first time last year. Last year’s challenge guided children through the process of coding a personal message and creating an animation to display to astronauts on the Raspberry Pi computers on the ISS.

It aims to teach the basics of coding, so the children taking part (and their teacher) do not need any prior experience. Importantly for the classroom, you don’t need specialist equipment either, other than internet-connected computers.

Pupils get to learn completely new skills

How did you introduce the challenge to your learners?

The first step was talking about the actual challenge and what we were going to be doing. I showed pupils the Mission Zero website and we looked at the message I had coded, so they could see what the project would look like at the end. We then discussed the ISS and talked about what happens there.

When we started the task, we didn’t just jump onto computers. We planned it all offline first, and then they copied over their code once they were at computers. The Astro Pi website really helped with planning, and the instructions were clear and easy to follow. I also printed off my finished project so that if pupils were getting frustrated, they could go through it line by line, comparing it to a finished one to find any errors. I was so impressed with the whole class — they were so careful with their coding.

I took a mixed-ability group approach, with children working in teams of three at one computer. That worked well, as they could share out the roles depending on their strengths. For each group, we had one person acting as a coach (thinking about what they were going to type), one as a coder (doing the typing), and one as a debugger (checking the work).

It gave them responsibility, but also a safety net. It’s very common and normal for errors to appear when coding, so it was nice that they had a team to lean on and they could problem-solve together.

The coding itself took an afternoon for my Year 3 and Year 4 classes (aged seven to nine), but we broadened the opportunity and started learning about pixels and the ISS — so to teach it thoroughly, it took us about a day. We loved it so much that we’ll be taking part again this year, alongside another class in my school.

What were the benefits for your pupils?

It was super for them to learn about how coding looks in the real world — the fact that it wasn’t just a computer game to play, and that their code actually went into space. Each team also received a personalised certificate listing their names, along with the date, time, and location that their experiment ran on the ISS, which they were all very excited about.

My class is made up of seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds, so for a lot of these children, it was their first look at coding in Python, and it was great to see them learning totally new skills. It also piqued lots of interest in joining our school’s Code Club, which is brilliant. In particular, there was one pupil who was struggling with a lot of problems in their life. This project gave them something they were good at and something they were really into. That pupil is now one of our key members of Code Club, and they come every week. So there were some very clear, real benefits to taking part that went far beyond the challenge itself.

How did it tie in to the wider curriculum?

Last year, our Year 1 and 2 class (aged five to seven) was already doing a project on space, so it tied perfectly into that. For the older class, it was a great way to revisit some previously learnt knowledge about the subject.

In terms of the computing curriculum, they were all very much beginner coders. They’d done a bit of work on Scratch previously, and since the project, we’ve further broadened our curriculum so that in Years 5 and 6 (aged nine to eleven) they do some work with micro:bits and HTML.

Taking part in the European Astro Pi Challenge boosted my confidence to think about incorporating other platforms into Code Club. We’re now using the HTML and CSS Code Club projects, rather than just the Scratch projects. It made me see that they are very accessible, and that the children pick them up a lot more quickly than you would realise.

What advice would you give to teachers who want to try the challenge?

Although it might look daunting, running the challenge is actually very manageable, and there are clear and helpful instructions. For any teacher wanting to take part, my top tips would be:

  • Do the challenge yourself in advance, so you know what you’re letting yourself in for. You’ll also need to register in advance, so you can do that at the same time.

  • Print the code so the children can follow it line by line to iron out any mistakes.

  • Assign individual roles to give each child responsibility and support.

  • Try to give each student as much choice as possible over what they create.

  • Emphasise the real-world impact the activity has — their work will actually be going into space!

All in all, incorporating the European Astro Pi Challenge into my lessons was a brilliant experience and I’m so glad I took that first step. I can’t wait to see what my class comes up with this year!

The European Astro Pi Challenge is a project by the European Space Agency in collaboration with the Raspberry Pi Foundation. It empowers young people, no matter their experience with computers, to write a simple computer program and share a personalised image with the astronauts orbiting above Earth. The challenge is open until 17 March 2023 (


Free - UK only

If you’re a UK-based teacher, volunteer, librarian or something in between, we'll send each issue free to your door.



Just want to read the free PDF? Get each new issue delivered straight to your inbox. No fuss and no spam.


From £6

If you’re not a UK-based educator, you can buy print copies from our store.