7 mins read 01 Mar 2021

KIBO Robotics Challenge to save ISS is Back in 2021

Students from around the world are being encouraged to join the 2021 Kibo Robotics Programming Challenge – which presents the opportunity to write a computer program for the robots aboard the space station to perform. We spoke with One Giant Leap Australia Foundation founder Jackie Carpenter, who runs the program and Maree Timms, who with her students in the GalenVex team took out third place in the 2020 challenge.

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

In 2020, a small meteor – roughly the size of a marble – hit the International Space Station (ISS), which was orbiting 400 km above the Earth. Whilst only small, it was moving at tremendous velocity – about 28,000 km/h, and just like a small bullet hitting a big object, the meteor caused a rupture in the wall of the Space Station.

Alarm bells started ringing. Ground crews mobilised. Emergency procedures were activated.

But it was the work of a team of students, who developed code here on Earth and uploaded it into the robots that saved the day. You see, the code they wrote, instructed these robots (who are already onboard the ISS to use their lasers and tools to patch the rupture, thereby stopping precious atmosphere from leaking out into space.

This was the fictional scenario in which students from around the world were given, as part of the 2020 Kibo Robotics Programming Challenge (Kibo RPC) – an initiative that JAXA runs in collaboration with NASA and other Asia Pacific Space Agencies and schools.

The aim of the challenge is to get young people learning about robotics, coding and sustainable safe practice management, whilst inspiring them to learn about space, exploration and STEAM activities.

Now, the Kibo RPC is back in 2021, with a new challenge which is extended to students and teams from around the world to participate in not only patching the rupture but building a permanent solution to ensure that future meteors don’t harm the space station and its precious human inhabitants.

Once again this year, the Kibo RPC is being run in Australia through the One Giant Leap Australia Foundation – a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to advancing the careers, education and opportunities of young Australians into STEAM pathways and opportunities within the space community. One Giant Leap Australia Foundation is also the point of contact for the Australian Space Agency, coordinating Australia'sparticipation in the program.

The organisation is now asking young people, parents and teachers across Australia to join the 2021 Kibo RPC, with applications opening last week. Currently, there are 10 teams that have already registered, including lots of interest from University teams. The requirement for this year is that teams have three or more members, and not yet be graduated from University, with a recommended age of 15 and over. 

"Last year's challenge was lots of fun. Being the inaugural year - the simulator was interesting at times. A glitch here and there added to the complexity," said Jackie Carpenter, who is a Director and co-founder of One Giant Leap Australia Foundation. 

"If you live solving real-world problems, love programming and dream of robots and space - this is the challenge for you!"

Once applicants have registered with their teams (minimum of three people), they will be given to a Github repository to learn about programming the robots, as well as a 2-day weekend training course provided by One Giant Leap Australia Foundation.

In April, the organisers of the Kibo RPC will release the simulation environment in which students and teams will be able to participate in creating programs within JAXA’s simulation, which mimics the main system that will eventually be used – much like a practice sandbox.

Then in June, the competition will start heating up with teams going into a preliminary round to gain feedback and selection to the final round, which will occur in October.

Selected teams will then have their code plugged into the real systems used by JAXA at the Tsukuba Space Centre, with their program sent to the actual ISS to complete a real-world simulation – presenting an excellent opportunity for young people to work directly with a space-based application.

From Australian Classrooms to the Space Station

The Galen VEX team – (L-R) Brett Webber (VEX Teacher), Rutvik Chaudhary (Charles Sturt University, Galen Alumni), Malay Shah (Mentor), Jorja O’Connor (Year 10), Jorja O’Connor (Year 10), Ryan Falconer (Year 11), Mitchell Hobbs (Year 11), Maree Timms, e-Learning Coordinator, Galen Catholic College.

In October 2020, a small team of secondary school students from the Galen Catholic College in Wangaratta (regional Victoria) watched on via a live link, as their program and code was uplinked to the ISS to control the robots as part of the Kibo RPC.

The team, who call themselves GalenVEX and work under the supervision of e-Learning Coordinator / Science Teacher Maree Timms and ICT Teacher Brett Webber made it to the final three teams (from hundreds across eight countries) that had their code sent up to the ISS for implementation.

"My Colleague Brett Webber and I entered the team into the 1st Kibo Robotics Challenge as a learning experience, we never expected to reach the finals," said Maree.

"The look of pride and astonishment on the students’ faces as their code successfully navigated the Astrobee on the International Space Station is something that we will never forget."

In the 2020 competition, the Indonesian and Thailand teams did exceptionally well - taking out first and second place, so third place was an excellent result none the less for the GalenVex team, to have seen their code being executed by robots aboard the space station. As a special treat, the team were also able to spend an hour chatting (via Skype) to Australian engineer Andrea Boyd, who works at the European Space Agency as the Flight Controller for the ISS and had been following their progress from along the way.

"You must have patience and resilience! Using the Simulator provides challenges, as it doesn’t give a lot of feedback if there is an error in your code, a run in the simulator can take between 40misn – 1hr," said Maree, offering advice for future participants in the challenge. "t’s really important to look at the fine details, read the guidebook and manual carefully and keep checking the updates."

"We [GalenVex] will be entering again this year, with a new young team, and last year’s team will support them, as last years team members will be heading into their final year of studies. Having completed the 1st Kibo challenge, we have a bit more of an advantage and insight into the programming involved," said Maree.  

"But what makes the 2nd Kibo challenge interesting is that it continues the storey line. Last year we were just trying to learn about the targeting system, but being in front of the target, the curveball is that now there is a “keep out zone” covering part of the target so you have you fire the laser from an angle. You also have to undock the Astrobee from its charging station and use other functions of the Astrobee, not used in the 1st Challenge."

Another team that has also signed up for this year's challenge are the Gadget Girls (who also participated in last year's event) and are made up of a team of eight young women from around NSW who have their hearts set on changing the mindset that only boys get involved in coding, robotics and working in the space industry.

After last year’s success, the 2021 Kibo RPC is set to be another big event for schools and students to participate in from around the world, with the prestigious opportunity of building a program that will be implemented and tested by the robots on ISS.

"It's free. It's a challenge. Form a team and give it a go! You never know what you can achieve," said Jackie, encouraging young people to apply for this years Kibo RPC. 

The sentiment and excitement were echoed by Maree as too, discussing how all Australian teams work collaboratively to support each other during the challenge.

"Go for it! You have to be in it to win it! We will be going in with the same attitude, as a learning experience with no expectations. We hope to be able to support other teams with what we have learnt in the 1st Kibo RPC. It will be great to have a collaboration between all the Aussie Teams, yet still, have that competitive spirit"

Video credit: One Giant Leap Australia Foundation.

Read more and submit your application on the One Giant Leap Australia Foundation website