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Astro Pi Mission

Astro Pi challenge in 2021    References

Background: As part of British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s Principia mission (2015–2016) on the ISS, two space-hardened Raspberry Pi computers, called Astro Pis, equipped with environmental sensors, were sent to the ISS and then used to run students’ and young people’s programs, with ISS crew support. As well as Tim, astronauts Thomas Pesquet, Alexander Gerst, David Saint-Jacques (CSA astronaut) and Luca Parmitano have all acted as ambassadors for the challenge. 1)

Two augmented Raspberry Pi computers (called Astro Pis) were flown to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake’s mission. They are both equipped with the mighty Sense HAT that can measure the environment inside the station, detect how it’s moving through space, and pick up the Earth’s magnetic field. Each Astro Pi is also equipped with a different kind of camera; one has an infrared camera, and the other has a standard visible spectrum camera.

The European Astro Pi Challenge offers young people the amazing opportunity to conduct scientific investigations in space by writing computer programs that run on Raspberry Pi computers aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The Astro Pi computers

An Astro Pi computer is a Raspberry Pi computer equipped with sensors and housed in a special case. Raspberry Pi is a very affordable credit-card-sized bare-bones computer, great for use in education.

Astro Pi Izzy: Teams that choose to investigate ‘Life on Earth’ will use the Astro Pi computer known as “Izzy” to investigate life on the planet’s surface. Izzy has multiple sensors and a near-infrared camera (with a blue optical filter) that faces out of a window in the ISS and is pointed at Earth. Experiment ideas should make use of Izzy’s camera; use of the sensors is optional.

Astro Pi Ed: Teams that choose to investigate ‘Life in space” will use the Astro Pi computer known as “Ed” to investigate life inside the Columbus module. Experiment ideas should make use of Ed’s LED matrix and at least one of its sensors, which include a visible-light camera. This camera is not permitted to take photos or record videos inside the module, but you may use its camera as a sensor to take data readings.


Raspberry Pi

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Figure 1: Raspberry Pi is a very affordable credit card sized bare-bones computer, great for use in education (image credit: Astro Pi)


Sense HAT

Raspberry Pi Sense Hat sits on top of the Raspberry Pi computer and includes a range of sensors, such as gyroscope and temperature sensor.

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Figure 2: The Sense HAT is an add-on board for Raspberry Pi, made especially for the Astro Pi mission (image credit: Astro Pi)

The Sense HAT has an 8×8 RGB LED matrix, a five-button joystick and includes the following sensors:

- Gyroscope

- Accelerometer

- Magnetometer

- Temperature

- Barometer pressure

- Humidity


Camera Module V2

The Raspberry Pi Camera Module v2 replaced the original Camera Module in April 2016. The v2 Camera Module has a Sony IMX219 8-megapixel sensor (compared to the 5-megapixel OmniVision OV5647 sensor of the original camera).

The Camera Module can be used to take high-definition video, as well as stills photographs. It’s easy to use for beginners, but has plenty to offer advanced users if you’re looking to expand your knowledge. There are lots of examples online of people using it for time-lapse, slow-motion, and other video cleverness. You can also use the libraries we bundle with the camera to create effects.

You can read all the gory details about IMX219 and the Exmor R back-illuminated sensor architecture on Sony’s website, but suffice to say this is more than just a resolution upgrade: it’s a leap forward in image quality, color fidelity, and low-light performance. It supports 1080p30, 720p60 and VGA90 video modes, as well as still capture. It attaches via a 15cm ribbon cable to the CSI port on the Raspberry Pi.

The camera works with all models of Raspberry Pi 1, 2, 3 and 4. It can be accessed through the MMAL and V4L APIs, and there are numerous third-party libraries built for it, including the Picamera Python library. See the Getting Started with Picamera resource to learn how to use it.

The camera module is very popular in home security applications, and in wildlife camera traps.

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Figure 3: The Camera Module is part of Ed. The camera module can be used to take high-definition video, as well as still photographs (image credit: Astro Pi)


Raspberry Pi NoIR Camera Module

The Infrared Camera Module (Pi NoIR) is part of Astro Pi Izzy. This camera Module gives you the ability to see in the dark.

The v2 Pi NoIR has a Sony IMX219 8-megapixel sensor (compared to the 5-megapixel OmniVision OV5647 sensor of the original camera).

The Pi NoIR gives you everything the regular Camera Module offers, with one difference: it does not employ an infrared filter. (NoIR = No Infrared.) This means that pictures you take by daylight will look decidedly curious, but it gives you the ability to see in the dark with infrared lighting.

We bundle a little square of blue gel with the Pi NoIR, which you can use with the camera to monitor the health of green plants. The Pi NoIR is very popular among wildlife hobbyists: with a few infrared LEDs, you can monitor what nocturnal animals are doing in your garden without disturbing them.

The camera works with all models of Raspberry Pi 1, 2, 3 and 4. It can be accessed through the MMAL and V4L APIs, and there are numerous third-party libraries built for it, including the Picamera Python library. See the Getting Started with Picamera resource to learn how to use it.

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Figure 4: The Infrared Camera Module (Pi NoIR) is part of Astro Pi Izzy. The camera module gives you the ability to see in the dark (image credit: Astro Pi)


Flight Case

The flight case is made from 6063-grade aluminium. Only eight cases were ever produced, but you can 3D print your own case.

Background: Back in December 2016, British ESA astronaut Tim Peake took two specially augmented Raspberry Pis, called Astro Pis, to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of his six-month mission. These Astro Pis are running experimental Python programs written by school-age students; the results will be downloaded back to Earth and made available online for all to see.

To satisfy the safety requirements that ESA and NASA have for small payloads aboard the ISS, we had to build the Astro Pi flight unit and put it through a rigorous qualification process.

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Figure 5: One of the two Astro Pi flight units (image credit: Astro Pi)




Astro Pi challenge in 2021

• June 2, 2021: Nearly 15,000 young people had their programs run on the ISS during the European Astro Pi Challenge 2020-21 Astro Pi 2020-21. ESA and the Raspberry Pi Foundation are excited to announce that 9408 computer programs written by young people participating in the European Astro Pi challenge this year have been successfully deployed on the International Space Station (ISS)! - Congratulations from ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. 2)

Figure 6: In this video ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet congratulates Mission Zero and Mission Space Lab participants whose programs were run on the International Space Station during the 2020-21 edition of the European Astro Pi Challenge (video credit: ESA)

•November 11, 2020: Thomas Pesquet presents: Send your code to space with astronaut Thomas Pesquet | European Astro Pi Challenge. 3)

Figure 7: ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet is this year’s ambassador of the European Astro Pi Challenge. In this video, he welcomes students to the challenge and gives an overview of the project (video credit: European Astro Pi Challenge)

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Figure 8: ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet with the Astro Pi computers onboard the ISS (image credit: ESA/NASA)

• April 6, 2021: ESA Education and Raspberry Pi Foundation are excited to announce that 214 teams participating in this year’s European Astro Pi Mission Space Lab Challenge have achieved Flight Status. That means they will have their computer programs run on the International Space Station (ISS) later this month! 4)

Mission Space Lab gives teams of students and young people up to 19 years of age the amazing opportunity to conduct scientific experiments aboard the ISS, by writing code for the Astro Pi computers — Raspberry Pi computers augmented with Sense HATs. Teams can choose between two themes for their experiments, investigating either life in space or life on Earth.

Life in Space

For 'Life in space' experiments, teams use the Astro Pi computer known as Ed to investigate life inside the Columbus module of the ISS.

Life on Earth

In 'Life on Earth' experiments, teams investigate life on our home planet’s surface using the Astro Pi computer known as Izzy. Izzy's near-infrared camera (with a blue optical filter) faces out of a window in the ISS and is pointed at Earth.


Phase 3: Flight Status achieved

During phase 2, that runs from November to February, Mission Space Lab teams write the programs for their experiments in Python. Once teams are happy with their programs, have tested them on their Astro Pi kits, and submitted them to us for judging, we run a series of tests on them to ensure that they follow experiment rules and can run without errors on the ISS. The experiments that meet the relevant criteria are then awarded Flight Status.

The 214 teams awarded flight status this year represent 21 countries and 862 young people, with 30% female participants. 137 teams with 'Life on Earth' experiments and 77 teams with 'Life in space' experiments have successfully made it through to Phase 3.
Spain has the most teams progressing to the next phase (26), closely followed by the UK (25), Romania (21), France (21), and Greece (18).

In the next few weeks, the teams' experiments will be deployed to the Astro Pi computers on the ISS, most of them being overseen by ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who will be flying to the ISS on 22 April on his new mission, Alpha!

In the final phase, running we'll send the teams the data their experiments collect, to analyze and write short reports about their findings. Based on these reports, the ESA Education and Raspberry Pi Foundation experts will determine the winner of this year's Mission Space Lab. The winning and highly commended teams will receive special prizes.

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Figure 9: Astro Pi Mission Space Lab 2020-21 timeline (image credit: ESA)



1) ”About Astro Pi,” URL: https://astro-pi.org/about/

2) ”Astro Pi 2020-21 Congratulations from ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet,” ESA-Agency, 2 June 2021, URL: https://www.esa.int/Education/AstroPI/Nearly_15_000_young_people_had_
their_programs_run_on_the_ISS_during_the_European_Astro_Pi_Challenge_2020-21

3) https://astro-pi.org/

4) ”214 teams granted Flight Status for Phase 3 of Mission Space Lab 2020-21,” ESA / Education / Astro PI, 6 April 2021, URL: https://www.esa.int/Education/AstroPI/
214_teams_granted_Flight_Status_for_Phase_3_of_Mission_Space_Lab_2020-21



The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net).

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