Mechanical Engineering News
Team Space Lark, a group of five Tokyo Tech master's program students, have finished in third place at the global Kibo Robot Programming Challenge (Kibo-RPC) finals, held on October 29.
Kibo-RPC is an international programming contest hosted by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in which participants put their engineering skills to the test using Astrobee, a cube-shaped robot developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The programs submitted for the finals are applied in the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo on the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits the Earth. Participants must create a program to carry out missions based on the Astrobee source code published by NASA, and are evaluated based on the degree of mission accomplishment and elapsed time.
The main feature of the 2022 contest was the randomly changing position of the target that had to be illuminated using Astrobee's laser. In order to achieve a high score, teams were required to direct Astrobee not only to complete its missions quickly, but also to improve laser irradiation accuracy by reading AR tags, locating the center of the target using image recognition technology, and utilizing control algorithms to move the robot to the target position and orientation.
Team Space Lark won the domestic qualifying round in Japan on July 9, and therefore progressed to the in-orbit finals. In the preliminary round, the participating teams competed using a simulator that faithfully simulates the space environment. In the finals, the teams write programs in advance for the Astrobee and run them on the ISS.
Participation in Kibo-RPC is one component of the Space Systems Initiative, a course offered to master's students in Mechanical Engineering at Tokyo Tech. In 2020, the first year of the competition, Tokyo Tech students performed well despite registering only two weeks before the entry submission deadline. In 2021, the team improved further, finishing second in the national qualifiers just shy of first place. Using knowledge from the experiences of previous participants, the 2022 Tokyo Tech team spent more time on preparations and managed to win the national qualifying round. In the worldwide in-orbit finals, the team actually operated NASA's Astrobee in the pressurized module of Kibo, finishing in third place.
All Team Space Lark members are 1st-year master's student in Mechanical Engineering.
Personally, I was drawn to the idea of being able to run Astrobee on the ISS using a program I had written, so I applied for Kibo-RPC. For the domestic qualifying round, we aimed to create a program that could obtain high scores consistently by repeatedly improving the program and running simulations. In particular, we struggled to improve the irradiation accuracy for the second target because its position changed, but we achieved improvements by openly discussing issues and trying out various ideas as a team. As a result, we were able to win the qualifying round and advance to the in-orbit finals.
During the finals, we assumed that the simulation environment differed from that of the ISS, and while referring to the video of the in-orbit finals from last year, we modified the program so it could cope with unexpected situations. When viewing the actual motions of Astrobee in the final, we could see that the movement errors were larger than those during the simulation, which indicated that our program modifications were successful.
Kibo-RPC offered us valuable experiences such as visiting the Kibo mission control room and interacting with astronauts. I was excited to be able to step into the world that I had longed for after reading the manga Space Brothers during my high school days.
Overview of Tokyo Tech’s Space Systems Initiative course
Tokyo Tech's Space Systems Initiative is a course for master's program students that focuses mainly on satellite and rocket systems. The course is taught by Professor Saburo Matunaga from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Tokyo Tech's School of Engineering, and several other faculty members.
Regarding satellite systems, Matunaga offers lectures on small satellite systems and mission ideas, and spacecraft dynamics and control, based on students’ presentations, proposals, and discussions, while sharing knowledge and reference materials as needed. One of the course goals is for students to participate in a satellite design or a spacecraft control contest, or Kibo-RPC, and to present their own pieces of work.
In terms of rocket systems, video footage and other materials are used to demonstrate the design of a rocket, which represents huge system design, an overview of development and launching operations, engine combustion tests, and rocket launching procedures. Students learn about the fundamentals and concepts of a series of rocket designing processes through system designing methods, basics for rocket sizing, guidance control, structure, electric power, propulsion, and other systems.
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