January 31, 2018

PRISMS Robotics Team Wins First Place In International Space Competition at MIT

ROBOTICS CHAMPS: From left, freshman Alex Maiorov, advisor and engineering instructor Gregory Herman, and team leader senior Savva Morozov traveled to MIT earlier in the month as part of the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science Zero Robotics team and scored a victory in the International Space Station Finals of the Zero Robotics High School Tournament 2017.

By Donald Gilpin

Competing against more than 400 high school students from around the world, Princeton International School of Math and Science’s (PRISMS) 13-student team claimed a championship spot at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) earlier this month in the Zero Robotics High School Tournament 2017. 

Robotic satellites aboard the International Space Station (ISS) used programs written by the students in the NASA-sponsored competition refereed by cosmonaut Alexander “Sasha” Misurkin and astronaut Joe Acaba aboard the ISS, with astronaut Steve Swanson hosting the proceedings at MIT, as additional students participated from Politecnico di Torino, Italy and the Abercrombie Business School at University of Sydney, Australia.

The 2017 competition, Life Spheres, required that the student teams write code to control the Spheres satellites in the search for life on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, by drilling in the icy surface, avoiding geysers, and returning samples to a base station for analysis. The PRISMS team worked in an alliance with New York City’s Stuyvesant High School and L.S.S. Leonardo Da Vinci School of Treviso, Italy.

“Meeting and talking to the astronauts was just a mind-blowing experience for me,” said PRISMS senior and Zero Robotics team leader Savva Morozov.

“I’m very proud of this multinational cooperation,” the Moscow native continued. “At the very end of the competition cosmonaut Misurkin actually addressed in Russian the Russian students who were participating in the competition. That moment when he was talking to us in my native language was a very deep moment. He greeted us saying ‘Nice job. Keep it up,’ and he ended by saying that every ‘no’ is just a step towards a ‘yes.’ That was very inspirational.”

Morozov founded the PRISMS Zero Robotics Club last September after a visit to MIT and a tour of the astro labs there in the summer. He loved the idea of the zero robotics competition and recruited 13 PRISMS colleagues to join the club and prepare for the online simulations competition elimination matches. There were 182 teams at the beginning from four continents, 14 different countries, and 23 different states. Morozov and his teammates found out in November that they would be going to the finals at MIT.

Gregory Herman, head of optics research of the PRISMS engineering department and advisor of the Zero Robotics Club, explained that this year’s Life Spheres competition was tied to the success of the recent Cassini mission. The goal was for the spheres satellites to find and collect the most samples with the richest concentration of microorganisms. In order to win, however, students had to avoid contact with the uneven topography of the icy surface and beware that beneath the surface of Enceladus’s southern pole exist large amounts of high pressure gases, so drilling has the potential to activate powerful geysers which can push the satellites off course and cause loss of collected samples.

Herman, himself an MIT alumnus and former NASA scientist, noted that in this phase of aeronautics education MIT and NASA are trying to get students actively involved in space exploration itself and collaborating with other students outside their communities and countries.

“They’re reaching out to schools to participate in this challenge to send their software to the ISS to contribute to the development of space exploration technology,” Morozov pointed out. “It’s similar to what was happening in the 1960s when Yuri Gagarin went into space and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went to the moon. These events inspired generations and generations of kids to study science and engineering, because space was a fascinating topic, and this is what MIT is doing to get more students into the field.”

Morozov, who as part of another project will be sending a cube payload to the ISS this spring, would like to attend MIT after graduating from PRISMS in June, and looks forward to pursuing aerospace engineering in the future. “Coming from Russia, space exploration is almost in my veins,” he said. “Maybe I could become an astronaut. That sounds like a fascinating job.”

One of the younger members of the club, freshman Alex Maiorov of Princeton, added that he too is interested in pursuing the aerospace field in the future. “I’m from the U.S. and space exploration is also in my veins. I hope space exploration becomes less expensive and more accessible for more people.”

Commenting on what a motivating experience it was to see their code and the computer program they had created being implemented on the space station, Maiorov expressed appreciation for the support from the Princeton community, that raised significant funds to help sponsor the trip to the competition at MIT.

In addition to Morozov from Russia and Maiorov from Princeton, the PRISMS Zero Robotics team included four other students from New Jersey, one from New York, one from Florida, one from Spain, and four from China.