6 mins read 15 Jul 2020

From a classroom in Wangaratta to the Intl. Space Station

Regional Victorian school students working towards the next round of programming a robotic mission that is set to save the International Space Station after a fictional meteor collides with it.

The Int-Ball robotic camera, floating in the Kibo module of ISS. Credit:

Out of this world! Playing with robots on the planet earth in gravity is cool, but in microgravity and on the ISS would be crazy, next-level – Rutvik, Student on Galen VEX team.

Young Australian’s are learning how to program robots that will save the International Space Station (ISS) from a dangerous air leak after a meteor crashed into it. This is the fictional scenario in which a small team from Wangaratta (and a range of other teams across the nation) are participating in as part of the global project known as the Kibo Robot Programming Challenge (Kibo-RPC) – hosted by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA.

The purpose of the project is to encourage young people across the country to partake in a space-based robotics challenge, related to human space activity, that would also help nurture and inspire future pathways into STEM-related fields, as well as develop programming skills for future careers.

A total of 15 teams from across Australia have participated in the Kibo-PRC this year, which included submissions from Hamilton Secondary College Space School and UNSW. Locally, the project is supported by the Australian Government and the Australian Space Agency and being delivered through One Giant Leap Australia – an organisation dedicated to helping boost science, technology, engineering, and maths education through space-based projects and learning programs.

“These are the innovative, challenging, and exciting opportunities into the careers of tomorrow that we offer,” said Bob Carpenter. “It is a privilege to be part of such a groundbreaking program and offer it to all young Australians.”

Australian teams have been competing against a total of 313 teams from Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, and Bangladesh, with the preliminary round being hosted in June 2020 and the final round set for September.

As part of the challenge, teams were asked to create their own programs to stop the fictional leak on the ISS, operating the Astrobee – a system of three cube-like robots that assists astronauts aboard the ISS with daily chores, and the Int-Ball, a circular robotic camera that floats in the Japanese Kibo module of the space station.

The Galen VEX team

Credit: Galen VEX.

The Galen VEX started team started in 2016 when maths and science teacher (and Galen VEX team leader) Maree noticed a few tweets being sent between students about some skills they were learning. She thought to herself this would make the perfect STEM program for students at her school.

Based in the regional city of Wangaratta in northeast Victoria, the Galen VEX team includes senior students Jorja, Ryan, Rutvik, and Mitchell. Eager to take on city schools and compete on the global stage, the team initially found their legs with the completion of a two-day workshop that was facilitated by an expert programmer – organised through the One Giant Leap Australia program.

“When we first saw the Kibo challenge it excited us all. Even though we are from a small regional area, we had the confidence to give this a crack,” said Maree.

What started off as a team of 5 members meeting during their lunch break in the science lab, quickly expanded to a wider group of 30 students participating from year 7 through to year 12 in a number of activities like VEX robotic programming and mentoring. The school now has robotics as a 10-week introductory program as part of the main curriculum for year 7 students and offers the subject as an elective for year 8 and 9 students.

Credit: Galen VEX

The learning curve has been steep, yet exciting for the students in the project – having to take on the application of complex mathematics, computer programming languages, and understanding troubleshoot code bases.

“I’m still learning about programming have gone from being a very confident blocks coder to learning how to code in C++ for VEX robotics and now this is in a new language again, so will help me have more skills in coding and using my brain to think logically,” said Jorja.

“Real-world application of maths – especially with 3D coordinate and we had to learn what quaternions were,” added Mitch.

A project of this magnitude, and with this much international collaboration does not come without any challenges – which have recently been compounded by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

All global teams are required to upload their programs into the simulated environments, which can cause crashes that impact downstream teams in the main network with JAXA. This step is pivotal and requires the space agency’s confidence before the code is uplinked to the Space Station – where there are extremely tight margins for errors.

To get around this, teams like Galen VEX practice by uploading their specific code to local networks and computers, which gives them some practice when it comes to how the simulators will work.

“We got the confidence to put our base code into the simulator and it crashed, this has been a big challenge, we have had to try and install an offline simulator on one of our special school laptops as this has a Linux set up on it. As the offline simulator only works on a Linux. We are still working on this,” said Ryan and Rutvik from the team.

Credit: Galen VEX

The students in the Galen VEX team, like many other teams in the Kibo-RPC, are not only working towards having their program run on a robotic interface aboard the ISS – which in itself is a noteworthy achievement – but also have ambitious plans to use the learnings, experience, and knowledge from this project for their future ambitions.

Jorja hopes to follow her passion into cybersecurity, whilst Ryan is also already starting up as a tech entrepreneur with his own business. Mitch is set to inspire the next generation by becoming a teacher and Rutvik has dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer.

“We’re really excited at the possibility of representing Australia. This is our first time, and we’re excited to be involved,” said Maree.

“There’s also further opportunity for all of the teams to try again when the new Kibo Challenge comes out in October, so by then we’ll also have some learnings under our belt”

One Giant Leap Australia is an organisation that is focused on providing immersive learning experiences in the STEM fields, as well as supporting students in learning critical analysis and creative thinking skills. The organisation has been operating since 2015 and worked with organisations like Space Camp USA.

The company, run by Jackie and Bob Carpenter, are the regional facilitators of the Kibo-RPC program for two years, working closely with the Australian Space Agency on the project’s current first phase and the second phase, which commences in October this year.