Zero Robotics was created in 2009 by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory (SSL) and astronaut Greg Chamitoff with the goal of opening research on the International Space Station to large groups of secondary school students. Zero Robotics draws significant inspiration from FIRST robotics (hence the name) and shares common goals including building lifelong skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. Zero Robotics is envisioned as a complementary competition to FIRST, since FIRST robotics concentrates on the building of hardware and human control techniques, while Zero Robotics concentrates on the development of autonomous software.
In fall 2009, the SSL conducted a pilot program of the Zero Robotics competition with two schools from northern Idaho. The competition was motivated by the idea of a satellite assistant robot. The first robotics competition aboard the ISS took place on December 9th, 2009.
Zero Robotics was a component of NASA's Summer of Innovation, a nationwide program targeted at encouraging STEM education for middle school students. During this competition, 10 teams and over 150 students from schools in the Boston area worked for five weeks to program the SPHERES to compete in an obstacle course race. After diligently working, the students sent their programs to the ISS and watched the live competition on August 19th, 2010.
In fall 2010, Zero Robotics conducted a nationwide pilot tournament for high school students named the Zero Robotics SPHERES Challenge 2010: HelioSPHERES. Over 200 students from 19 US states participated as part of 24 teams. The objective of the game was to complete the assembly of a solar power station by maneuver a satellite to dock with a floating solar panel then bring it back to the station to finish the mission, before the opponent does.
Zero Robotics now runs two annual competitions, one for middle school in the summer and one for high school in the fall. There is a new game with new challenges every year.
The Zero Robotics Program is led by the MIT Space Enabled Research Group, Innovation Learning Center and Aurora Flight Sciences with funding and in-kind support from the Center of the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the Aerospace Corporation and NASA.