Raspberry Pis are headed to the International Space Station

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Astro Pi

We talk with Tim Peake, British ESA Astronaut, who takes two Raspberry Pis into space with him in November to run student projects.

On December 10, 2014, David Honess, the Education Resource Engineer at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, made a public announcement: Raspberry Pis are going to the International Space Station [1].

British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake [2], UK Space, and the European Space Agency are joining forces to encourage students to design and code apps and experiments to run in space. Two Raspberry Pis connected to new "Astro Pi" boards will travel to the International Space Station as part of Peake's six-month mission in November 2015. The "Astro Pi" will be configured to run with a host of sensors and gadgets.

Peake said, "I'm really excited about this project, born out of the cooperation among UK industries and institutions. There is huge scope for fun science and useful data gathering using the Astro Pi sensors on board the International Space Station. This competition offers a unique chance for young people to learn core computing skills that will be extremely useful in their future. It's going to be a lot of fun!"

The Astro Pi competition [3] was officially opened at the BETT (information technology in education) Show [4] January 21-24, 2015, in an event held by the UK Space Agency. The competition is open to all primary and secondary school-aged children who are resident in the United Kingdom. This competition is supported by a comprehensive suite of teaching resources being developed by ESERO-UK and Raspberry Pi. ESERO-UK [5], also known as the UK Space Education Office, aims to promote the use of space to enhance and support the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in schools and colleges throughout the UK. It is funded by the European Space Agency.

I was able to catch up with Peake by telephone and talk with him about this exciting project that aims to encourage young people to become interested and involved in STEM and space exploration.

Richard Ibbotson: How did you get involved with the Pi in space project?

Tim Peake: It came from the UK Space Agency via Libby Jackson on educational outreach activities surrounding my mission.

RI: This seems like a good engineering and educational project as well.

TP: Yes. It's fantastic! Everyone was extremely keen, of course. We haven't got much time. This is electronic hardware that would need to be cleared for flight on board the space station … We were delighted to get the Raspberry Pi through the system and get it cleared for flight.

RI: It's great to see that someone has done something useful and is trying to train the next generation of budding scientists and engineers.

TP: Yeh. That's right and now we are getting better at building the space station. Now we are focusing on science. As part of that, we are getting better about educational outreach activities and opening up the station to as many people as possible.

RI: A comprehensive suite of educational resources are being developed by EBERO UK and the Raspbery Pi Foundation.

TP: Comes back to what I was saying about tying it all together to try to maximize the potential of what we are doing up there. There will be spheres on board the space station as well. These are programmable robots which can be made to steer a course through the space station. Code that is being written down here on this planet by the students can be uploaded to the station. Helps them feel the ownership of what they are doing.

RI: Yes. Before the Internet came along with it's accelerated learning capabilities, it might take five to 10 years to learn something. With the Internet, it takes a few minutes or an hour. This has got to be much better than old-fashioned pencil and paper or chalk and a blackboard.

Do you have any preference for a particular version of Raspberry Pi software yourself?

TP: Not really. I haven't really had time to get my hands on it yet, which is why I'm looking forward to spending more time on it myself.

RI: You can actually get Wolfram's Mathematica for free on the Pi platform. Do you think that this might be a useful tool for data analysis or for other things?

TP: It would be interesting for me to have a look at this kind of stuff when I'm on board the space station. That's when I'll get more of a feel for Raspberry Pi rather than just a bleeding edge piece of hardware. We'll use it for future space exploration as well.

RI: Is the B+ or the Pi 2 going upstairs?

TP: It's going to be the B+. This is easily available for schools and most people; it's been tested for flight on the space station.

RI: The competition mentions categories for the use of the Pi in space. For example, the Astro Pi board will be a Raspberry Pi HAT [6] and will be made up of a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer, with temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity sensors, as well as a camera module (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Astro Pi HAT (left) and Rasp Pi B+ (center) combine to create the Astro Pi (right).

TP: This is to help teachers and students so they can understand the opportunities that are open to them. In the same way, I wouldn't want people to feel channeled or restricted by these boundaries. Best to say to people, "Here is a Raspberry Pi and here is a suite of sensors. What would you do?" You find that people come up with some wonderful cross-boundary kinds of ideas.

RI: You need to be able to think and create with this kind of project.

TP: Absolutely. I don't have a background of programming or computer engineering, but I spent 10 years flying the Apache helicopter. [While I was] a test pilot, we introduced three or four different versions of the flight software.

RI: I should think it's important to have that kind of experience. When you were younger, did you have any interest in being an artist or military leader of some sort?

TP: No. I was pretty much tech based as a kid, I guess. At school in the early days of GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education] [7] I did graphic design and computing design and engineering design. At one point in my teenage years I was considering a career as an architect. Then later, I knew I was placing myself for a career in the sciences or engineering. I left school at 19 after A levels. I did have an offer of a degree at Manchester University, but I chose to become a British Army pilot instead.

RI: It's a sensible idea, isn't it? Because in England other than the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, there isn't really any way that you can get into advanced science or engineering projects as a civilian. Even if you go to a university.

TP: Of course, flight training takes a long time. I knew that there was a long and difficult path ahead. My decision was that if that's the route I want to do, I might as well get on with it and do it. Worked out brilliantly for me. Might not work for other people.

RI: Is there anything else you would like to say?

TP: I am really keen and enthusiastic about the project. I'm looking forward to running this code on that Raspberry Pi on the space station [and] the satisfaction of reporting back to the students that, "Hey, this works," or "This doesn't. Have another go. Try again."

RI: I suppose that a lot of this will be on Facebook and Twitter. We can get some live feedback from that.

TP: Yes.

RI: Thank you for the phone call and your time.

The Raspberry Pi appears to be well positioned to stay in space-based projects for a while. Additionally, the CubeSat space exploration project [8], including a CubeSat course at Capitol Technology University [9] in cooperation with NASA under a Space Act Agreement, should provide access for students and researchers in many countries who want to do more than just play games on their computers.

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