MIT Zero Robotics Program

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a robot made out of small plastics

MIT Zero Robotics Program

MIT Zero Robotics Program

The MIT Zero Robotics Program is a unique and innovative initiative that combines robotics, computer science, and space engineering to create a challenging and engaging platform for middle and high school students. Launched in 2009, the program was initially a collaboration between MIT and NASA, with the European Space Agency joining in later years.

The primary goal of Zero Robotics is to inspire and encourage the next generation of scientists, engineers, and programmers to explore the fascinating world of robotics and space technology. Through this program, students are given a chance to work with cutting-edge technologies and contribute to real-life space missions.

How does the Zero Robotics Program work?

The program is centered around a series of competitions that allow students to develop their own algorithms to control small, spherical robots called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites). These robots are housed on the International Space Station (ISS) and are used for various research purposes.

The competitions are designed to challenge the participants’ coding, problem-solving, and teamwork skills. Students work in teams to develop algorithms that enable the SPHERES to perform specific tasks in a simulated microgravity environment. The top teams are then given the opportunity to see their code executed in real-time aboard the ISS, with live feedback from astronauts.

The Benefits of Participating in Zero Robotics

Here are the benefits you can take note of if you wish to participate in the program:

  • Skill development: Participants in Zero Robotics are exposed to various aspects of coding, robotics, and space engineering. As they work on their algorithms, they develop problem-solving, critical thinking, and coding skills that are essential in today’s technology-driven world.
  • Collaboration and teamwork: Working in teams, students learn the importance of collaboration and effective communication. These skills are transferable to various aspects of their academic and professional lives.
  • Real-world applications: Zero Robotics offers students the rare opportunity to see their work being put to use in real-life space missions. This experience can be incredibly motivating and inspiring for young minds, showing them the impact they can make through their efforts.
  • Networking: By participating in Zero Robotics, students get the chance to interact with peers who share their interests and passion for space and robotics. They also have the opportunity to connect with experts in the field, opening up doors for future collaborations and mentorship.

"Pepper" robot assistant with information screen in duty to give information

The Objectives of MIT’s Zero Robotics Program

The objectives of the MIT Zero Robotics Program are centered around inspiring, preparing, and empowering the next generation of STEM professionals. As the program continues to expand and evolve, it promises to have a lasting impact on the lives of its participants and the future of space research and development.

Sparking Interest in STEM Fields

One of the primary objectives of the MIT Zero Robotics Program is to ignite a passion for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in young minds. By providing students with the opportunity to work on real-life space missions and engage with cutting-edge robotics technology, the program hopes to pique their curiosity and inspire them to pursue careers in these crucial fields. By doing so, Zero Robotics contributes to the development of a skilled workforce equipped to tackle future challenges in technology and space exploration.

Developing Essential Skills

The Zero Robotics Program is designed to provide students with a platform to develop essential skills that will serve them well in their academic and professional pursuits. Participants learn to code, problem-solve, and think critically as they work on their algorithms to control the SPHERES robots aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Additionally, the program fosters teamwork and communication skills by requiring students to collaborate and work effectively in groups. These skills are crucial for success in today’s technology-driven world and can give participants a significant advantage in their future careers.

Providing Hands-On Experience

The MIT Zero Robotics Program offers students a unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience with real-world applications of their work. Top-performing teams have the chance to see their code executed in real-time aboard the ISS, with astronauts providing feedback on their performance.

This unparalleled experience not only reinforces the practical applications of their efforts but also instills a sense of accomplishment and motivation that can drive students to continue exploring the STEM fields.

Promoting Collaboration and Networking

The program encourages collaboration and networking by allowing students to work in teams and interact with peers who share their interests and aspirations. Through participation in Zero Robotics, students can develop meaningful connections with like-minded individuals, forming the foundation of a strong support network.
Furthermore, the program offers the opportunity for students to engage with experts in the field, opening doors to mentorship and future collaborations that can help them succeed in their chosen careers.

The History of MIT’s Zero Robotics

The history of the MIT Zero Robotics Program is a testament to the power of innovation and collaboration in fostering the growth and development of young minds. From its humble beginnings as an idea inspired by the SPHERES robots to its current status as a global program that has impacted thousands of students, Zero Robotics has continued to evolve and adapt to the changing landscape of space engineering, robotics, and computer science.

The Genesis: SPHERES and the Birth of Zero Robotics

The seeds for the program were planted with the development of the Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) by MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory in the early 2000s.

High school students building and programming electric toys and robots at robotics classroom

These small, spherical robots were designed to operate within the International Space Station (ISS), performing various tasks and experiments in a microgravity environment.

The idea of creating a program centered around these SPHERES emerged in 2006 when astronaut Greg Chamitoff, a former MIT graduate, suggested involving students in developing algorithms to control the robots. This idea laid the foundation for the Zero Robotics Program, which was officially launched in 2009 as a collaboration between MIT and NASA.

Initial Success and Expansion

The first competition of the Zero Robotics Program took place in 2009, targeting high school students from the United States. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and it soon became evident that the program had the potential to reach and inspire a much larger audience. The European Space Agency joined the collaboration in 2010, making the program available to European students as well.

In 2011, the program expanded to include middle school students, further widening its reach and impact. This expansion was made possible through support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA, and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).

Continued Growth and Impact

Over the years, the Zero Robotics Program has continued to grow in both scale and impact. Thousands of students from around the world have participated in the program, with many going on to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The program has successfully introduced countless young minds to the fascinating worlds of space engineering, robotics, and computer science, equipping them with essential skills that are invaluable in today’s technology-driven world.

Collaborations and Future Prospects

As the MIT Zero Robotics Program has evolved, it has attracted numerous partners and collaborators from academia, industry, and government. These partnerships have not only provided valuable resources and support for the program but have also helped create a robust network of professionals and experts dedicated to fostering the growth and development of the next generation of STEM professionals.

As the program looks to the future, there is tremendous potential for further growth and expansion. The continued development of new technologies and advancements in space exploration and research will only serve to enhance the opportunities and experiences offered by the Zero Robotics Program.

Who Can Participate?

You might be wondering who can participate. To answer that, the MIT Zero Robotics Program is primarily designed for middle and high school students, with separate competitions and challenges tailored to each age group. Students interested in STEM fields, particularly space engineering, computer science, and robotics, are ideal candidates for this program.

While the program is primarily targeted toward students from the United States and Europe, it has expanded its reach over the years to include participants from other countries as well. The program encourages diversity and inclusivity, welcoming students from different backgrounds, genders, and socioeconomic statuses to participate and benefit from this unique learning experience.

Registering for the Zero Robotics Program

Let’s discuss how you can register for the Zero Robotics Program. Here are some steps you’ll need to follow:

Step 1: Forming a Team

The first step in joining the MIT Zero Robotics Program is to form a team of interested students. Teams can be formed within a single school or in collaboration with students from other schools or educational institutions. Each team must have a designated adult mentor, such as a teacher, coach, or an individual with expertise in STEM fields, to guide and support the students throughout the program.

a female student tinkering with robotics and wires

Step 2: Registering Your Team

Once a team is formed, the adult mentor must register the team on the Zero Robotics website. Registration typically opens several months before the competition season and requires basic information about the team, its members, and the mentor. Keep an eye on the website for announcements regarding registration dates and deadlines.

Step 3: Preparing for the Competition

After registering, teams should begin preparing for the competition by familiarizing themselves with the SPHERES robots and the programming languages and tools used in the competition. The Zero Robotics website offers resources, such as tutorials and sample code, to help teams get started.

Teams are encouraged to work closely with their mentors and seek guidance from experts in the field to ensure they are well-prepared for the challenges ahead.

Step 4: Participating in the Competition

The Zero Robotics Program comprises a series of competitions that challenge participants’ coding, problem-solving, and teamwork skills. Teams must develop algorithms to control the SPHERES robots to perform specific tasks in a simulated microgravity environment.

Throughout the competition, teams will have access to a web-based interface where they can test and refine their algorithms using a 3D simulator.

Step 5: Advancing to the Finals and Beyond

The top-performing teams in the competition will have the opportunity to see their algorithms executed in real-time aboard the International Space Station (ISS), with astronauts providing live feedback on their performance.

Participating in the MIT Zero Robotics Program not only offers a unique learning experience but also allows students to network with their peers and experts in the field, opening doors for future mentorship, collaboration, and career opportunities.

The Competition Structure of the MIT Zero Robotics Program

Through its multi-level competition structure, the program challenges participants to develop innovative and effective algorithms to control the SPHERES robots and complete complex tasks.

Structure of the Competition

The Zero Robotics Program is centered around a series of competitions that involve developing algorithms to control the Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) robots aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Close up of school students designing and testing STEM robot vehicle project model in robotics class for the competition.

These competitions typically consist of multiple levels, with each level presenting increasingly complex tasks and objectives. The teams are required to develop and refine their algorithms to enable the SPHERES robots to complete the assigned tasks efficiently and effectively.

Competition Levels

  1. Preliminary Rounds: The preliminary rounds involve a series of virtual competitions where teams must develop and test their algorithms using a web-based interface and a 3D simulator. These rounds focus on fostering learning, collaboration, and problem-solving skills among the participants, allowing them to refine their algorithms based on the simulator’s feedback. Teams that perform well in the preliminary rounds advance to the semifinals.
  2. Semifinals: In the semifinal round, the competition’s complexity and difficulty increase as the objectives become more challenging. Teams must continue to refine and improve their algorithms to ensure that their SPHERES robots can successfully complete the tasks. The semifinals are also conducted using the web-based interface and the 3D simulator. The top-performing teams in the semifinals are then invited to participate in the final round.
  3. Finals: The final round of the competition is a unique and thrilling experience for the participants. The top teams have the opportunity to witness their algorithms executed in real time aboard the ISS. Astronauts provide live feedback on the students’ performance, making this an unparalleled learning experience for the participants. The team whose algorithm achieves the best performance in the final round is declared the winner of the competition.

Competition Objectives

Each year, the Zero Robotics Program vary, but they generally revolve around the capabilities of the SPHERES robots and the potential applications of their technology in space exploration and research. Examples of past competition objectives include docking and undocking maneuvers, satellite servicing, and space debris mitigation.

These objectives are designed to challenge the participants and expose them to real-world problems and applications in the field of space engineering and robotics.

Scoring and Evaluation

Teams are evaluated and scored based on their performance in the competition, which includes the efficiency and effectiveness of their algorithms in completing the assigned tasks. The evaluation criteria often consider factors such as the completion time, the accuracy of the maneuvers, and the optimization of the robot’s resources.

Teams that demonstrate exceptional performance, innovation, and problem-solving skills are more likely to advance through the competition levels and ultimately emerge as the winners.


The program is a fantastic initiative that not only engages young minds in the exciting world of space and robotics but also prepares them for future careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

By providing students with hands-on experience, real-world applications, and opportunities for collaboration, Zero Robotics Program is inspiring the next generation of innovators who will shape the future of space exploration.

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a female and two male mechanical engineering students gathered around and studying a tiny robotic vehicle

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