Today at 11.02 a.m. British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake will board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, on his way to a six month mission on the International Space Station.
If all goes well, Tim will be the first Brit to ever set foot on the International Space Station, which is arguably the most ambitious (and certainly the most expensive) undertaking in the history of humanity. It’s quite rightly a moment of national pride in a country that boasts a significant and growing space technology industry, but which hasn’t had its own astronaut for 25 years.
There are lots of good and well-documented reasons for space exploration, but one of the most powerful is the potential it has to inspire new generations of scientists. For every astronaut that makes it to ISS, there are hundreds of thousands of scientists on the ground, inventing the technologies that make human space flight possible, devising experiments that run in zero gravity, and translating those new technologies and insights into practical applications that benefit us all.
For Tim, this is one of the main priorities for his mission Principia. He wants to use his time at the ISS to inspire a generation of young people to get excited by science and to choose to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering or maths).
For ten teams of children and young people in the UK, Tim’s mission has an extra special significance. They were the winners of the Astro Pi competition, which is a collaboration between the Raspberry Pi Foundation, UK Space Agency, European Space Agency, and UK Space.
We’ve been supported by a huge number of technology and educational partners, including Nesta, who have made a great contribution to the educational outreach programme.
Whatever scientific discipline you choose, learning how to make things with computers is an increasingly important skill. Our goal has been to use the medium of space exploration as a way of getting young people to learn how to make things with computers.
We took two Raspberry Pi computers and added sensors that measure temperature, humidity, air pressure, and 3-dimensional orientation, together with an 8x8 LED output. We put that technology into the hands of school-aged children and invited them to develop their own experiments that would run on the ISS.
The results were amazing, from a crew detector programmed by 10 year olds, to a radiation sensor created by A-Level students, the winners demonstrated how powerful these low-cost technologies can be when combined with imagination and creativity (you can find all the winning programs here).
I am delighted to say that the Astro Pi units, with the winners’ code, made it safely to the ISS last week, and they’re waiting Tim’s arrival to be unpacked and switched on.
These are the youngest programmers ever to have their code as part of a space mission, and they’re only the tip of the iceberg.
Many thousands of school-aged children took part in the competition, and tens of thousands more have been involved with Astro Pi since the formal competition closed. There’s a huge amount of space-themed projects and resources available online for coders at different levels of skill. Coder Dojos and Code Clubs across the country have been running space-themed sessions in the run up to Tim’s launch.
We think that using contexts like space, weather, or nature, are powerful ways to engage a wider group of young people in learning about how to make things with computers. I couldn’t put it better than Tim did: “keep going and, one day, maybe your code can be part of a space mission.”
Raspberry Pi Foundation is an educational charity with the mission to put the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world. We do this by providing low cost hardware and free educational software, making computing more relevant and accessible to people from all backgrounds, training educators, and providing resources that help people learn how to make things with computers. Follow us on twitter @Raspberry_Pi