DARPA and NASA are sponsoring a challenge run by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, TopCoder, and Aurora Flight Sciences that will invite coders to write a computer program that enables a satellite to dock with a space object that is tumbling in geosynchronous orbit.

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Crowd-sourced technical competitions have been increasingly attracting savvy programmers, eager to take on a big challenge or win a little prize money. But a new contest announced today offers something else that no open competition has had before: the chance to see their algorithms play out in space.

That’s the premise behind the Autonomous Space Capture Challenge sponsored by DARPA and NASA and run by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, TopCoder, and Aurora Flight Sciences. The programmable tournament will invite coders to write a computer program that enables a satellite to dock with a space object that is tumbling through space. The competition builds off the work of DARPA’s Phoenix Program, which seeks to send up nano-satellites that can attach to non-functioning satellites and re-harvest them as part of a new space system.

Programmers will need to figure the best way for the nano-satellites to hook up with the tumbling failed satellites, which are in geosynchronous orbit about 22,000 miles above the earth. The best submissions will get tested using real satellites in zero gravity aboard the International Space Station’s SPHERES satellite research platform.

Jacob Katz, a doctoral student at MIT who works on the SPHERES satellite laboratory, said they’ve done some limited testing of docking of satellites on the ISS under controlled environments. This will be a full test of the range of maneuvers available to a nano-satellite.

“In this challenge, you have no advance knowledge of how it will be rotating. We’re pushing the limits of what we can do with SPHERES and we hope to break new ground with this challenge,” Katz said.

The competition officially begins on March 28 and will include four week-long rounds of submissions. The top five submissions each week will be published so competitors can build off the work for the next week. The winning submissions will be tested on the space station in late May.

There is no big prize money payout for the winning teams. Instead, the top teams will get up to $1,000 to travel to MIT to see their algorithms in action. This is more about the challenge of solving a tough problem and helping NASA and DARPA get better results than if they tried to do the work all in-house.

Ira Heffnan, general counsel for TopCoder, said it’s unclear how many teams will enter the competition. But he said TopCoder, which has a community of about 400,000 members, often runs marathon competitions that attract hundreds, sometimes thousands of submissions.

The competition highlights the work of companies like TopCoder and Kaggle, which have taken the idea of crowdsourced competitions and hackathons and turned them into big businesses. TopCoder was founded in 2001 and used competitions as part of its consulting business. It later evolved into a full competition platform and now does 40 to 100 competitions a week for enterprise clients, with a payout of $130,000 on average weekly. TopCoder previously managed MIT’s Zero Robotics technical challenges, which involved high school and middle school students creating programs for the SPHERES satellites.

It’s a pretty cool chance to test your skills and see if a program can work in space. I don’t have the chops to enter but if I did, I’d love an opportunity to take on the challenge of space, the final frontier.

To apply, visit www.zerorobotics.org and submit an application form for the competition.

  1. It seems as if you would have to have the “recovery” satellite balance itself around the “being recovered” satellite otherwise you would have to use a ton of fuel to try and match the rotation without being inertially centered.

    1. Yes, you’ve highlighted one of the key difficulties in this challenge. At some point the satellite will need to expend some fuel to synchronize motion with the object, and due to the rotation, it will need to keep firing its thrusters to stay at the capture location. Since that cost is expected and will be similar for most solutions, a distinguishing part of conserving fuel will be figuring out the best way to approach the object.

  2. As if anyone needed another reason to bolster an IT resume. Holy Cow!

    We’re considering sponsoring someone and calling it the “Teeks in Space” Initiative. Launch the first officially certified geek into orbit.

    1. Teeks For Geeks – Thx so much for the enthusiasm, we’re excited about this too. Love the “Teeks in Space” Initiative – great stuff. Suggest follow @TopCoder for updates on this algo contest and other really creative/challenging ones as well – thx again for the support!


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