Software in Space: Astro Pi

Children hold thier innovative Raspberry Pi creations.

19 January 2016


Pocket sized and costing just pocket change, the Raspberry Pi is the fastest-selling personal computer to come out of the UK, with almost 8 million units sold to date. And in the few short years since its launch, it sure has gone a long way!

On December 6th 2015, two Raspberry Pi modules complete with regulation flight cases, blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Heading for the International Space Station (British astronaut Tim Peake’s home for the next six months), the computers arrived loaded with competition-winning science experiment programmes, designed and coded by school children from across the UK.

Dave Honess from the Raspberry Pi Foundation has been heading up the Astro Pi project. Speaking to the QEPrize, he said “The Raspberry Pi is so widely available that for the first time we have been able to create a situation where all the schools have access to the same computer and technology as the guys on the ISS. This has been a great way to engage kids with computer science; all you have to ask is ‘do you want to see your code in space?’ and they‘re sold".But it isn’t always an easy ride to get kids into coding, as Dave explains. “There is still a lot of technophobia around teaching coding in schools. Even though it is on the curriculum with maths and science, it doesn’t have the same reverence as other subjects. This project hopes to give it that same standing in the classroom.”

Tim Peake

Tim Peake holds the Raspberry Pi. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency.

The Principia Mission

The Astro Pi mission was designed in partnership with UKSpace and the Raspberry Pi Foundation as a way to promote engagement between schools and the space industry. The competition, which ran from December 2014 to July 2015, saw entries from schools across the country, with seven programmes selected to be sent into orbit. But just because the competition is closed doesn’t mean the project is over. “You can still get involved with Astro Pi,” said Dave, “just head over to our website for loads of great resources to get you started on your own programming project.”

The Astro Pis onboard the ISS were safely unpacked from their cargo crates and installed earlier this month, and are due to go online any day now. The winning programmes, which will be tested by the astronauts aboard the space station, include the ‘Crew Detector’, an environmental monitoring programme that hopes to detect, and photograph, passing crew members by picking up tiny fluctuations in humidity; ‘Flags’, a real-time location programme that predicts what country’s territory the ISS is flying over, as well as showing its flag and a short phrase in the local language on the LED display; and ‘Radiation’, a radiation detector based on the Raspberry Pi’s camera module. To find out how you can get involved in Astro Pi, and to follow their journey through space, visit the Astro Pi website.

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