We and our partners at ESA Education are excited to announce that 299 teams have achieved flight status in Mission Space Lab of the 2021/22 European Astro Pi Challenge. This means that these young people’s programs are the first ever to run on the two upgraded Astro Pi units on board the International Space Station (ISS).
Mission Space Lab gives teams of young people up to age 19 the opportunity to design and conduct their own scientific experiments that run on board the ISS. It’s an eight-month long activity that follows the European school year. The exciting hardware upgrades inspired a record number of young people to send us their Mission Space Lab experiment ideas.
Teams who want to take on Mission Space Lab choose between two themes for their experiments, investigating either ‘Life in space’ or ‘Life on Earth’. From this year onwards, thanks to the new Astro Pi hardware, teams can also choose to use new sensors and a Coral machine learning accelerator during their experiment time.
Investigating life in space
Using the Astro Pi units’ sensors, teams can investigate life inside the Columbus module of the ISS. This year, 71 ‘Life in space’ experiments are running on the Astro Pi units. The 71 teams are investigating a wide range of topics: for example, how the Earth’s magnetic field is experienced on the ISS in space, how the environmental conditions that the astronauts experience compare with those on Earth beneath the ISS on its orbit, or whether the conditions in the ISS might be suitable for other lifeforms, such as plants or bacteria.
For ‘Life in space’ experiments, teams can collect data about factors such as the colour and intensity of cabin light (using the new colour and luminosity sensor included in the upgraded hardware), astronaut movement in the cabin (using the new PIR sensor), and temperature and humidity (using the Sense HAT add-on board’s standard sensors).
Investigating life on Earth
Using the camera on an Astro Pi unit when it’s positioned to view Earth from a window of the ISS, teams can investigate features on the Earth’s surface. This year, for the first time, teams had the option to use visible-light instead of infrared (IR) photography, thanks to the new Astro Pi cameras.
228 teams’ ‘Life on Earth’ experiments are running this year. Some teams are using the Astro Pis’ sensors to determine the precise location of the ISS when images are captured, to identify whether the ISS is flying over land or sea, or which country it is passing over. Other teams are using IR photography to examine plant health and the effects of deforestation in different regions. Some teams are using visible-light photography to analyse clouds, calculate the velocity of the ISS, and classify biomes (e.g. desert, forest, grassland, wetland) it is passing over. The new hardware available from this year onward has helped to encourage 144 of the teams to use machine learning techniques in their experiments.
Testing, testing, testing
We received 88% more idea submissions for Mission Space Lab this year compared to last year: during Phase 1, 799 teams sent us their experiment ideas. We invited 502 of the teams to proceed to Phase 2 based on the quality of their ideas. 386 teams wrote their code and submitted computer programs for their experiments during Phase 2 this year. Achieving flight status, and thus progressing to Phase 3 of Mission Space Lab, is really a huge accomplishment for the 299 successful teams.
For us, Phase 2 involved putting every team’s program through a number of tests to make sure that it follows experiment rules, doesn’t compromise the safety and security of the ISS, and will run without errors on the Astro Pi units. Testing means that April is a very busy time for us in the Astro Pi team every year. We run these tests on a number of exact replicas of the new Astro Pis, including a final test to run every experiment that has passed every test for the full 3 hours allotted to each team. The 299 experiments with flight status will run on board the ISS for over 5 weeks in total during Phase 3, and once they have started running, we can’t rely on astronaut intervention to resolve issues. So we have to make sure that all of the programs will run without any problems.
Thanks to the team at ESA, we are delighted that 67 more Mission Space Lab experiments are running on the ISS this year compared to last year. In fact, teams’ experiments using the Astro Pi units are underway right now!
The 299 teams awarded flight status this year represent 23 countries and 1205 young people, with 32% female participants and an average age of 15. Spain has the most teams with experiments progressing to Phase 3 (38), closely followed by the UK (34), Italy (27), Romania (23), and Greece (22).
Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to run every Mission Space Lab experiment submitted, as there is only limited time for the Astro Pis to be positioned in the ISS window. We wish we could run every experiment that is submitted, but unfortunately time on the ISS, especially on the nadir window, is limited. Eliminating programs was very difficult because of the high quality of this year’s submissions. Many unsuccessful teams’ programs were eliminated based on very small issues. 87 teams submitted programs this year which did not pass testing and so could not be awarded flight status.
The teams whose experiments are not progressing to Phase 3 should still be very proud to have designed experiments that passed Phase 1, and to have made a Phase 2 submission. We recognise how much work all Mission Space Lab teams have done, and we hope to see you again in next year’s Astro Pi Challenge.
Once the programs for all the experiments have run, we will send the teams the data collected by their experiments for Phase 4. In this final phase of Mission Space Lab, teams analyse their data and write a short report to describe their findings. Based on these reports, the ESA Education and Raspberry Pi Foundation teams will determine the winner of this year’s Mission Space Lab. The winning and highly commended teams will receive special prizes.
Congratulations to all Mission Space Lab teams who’ve achieved flight status! We are really looking forward to reading your reports.