Author Archives: Olympia Brown

We’re sending Raspberry Pi computers to space for the European Astro Pi Challenge

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We’re super excited to announce that the European Astro Pi Challenge is back for another year of amazing space-based coding adventures.

This time we are delighted to tell you that we’re upgrading the Raspberry Pi computers on the International Space Station (ISS) and adding new hardware to expand the range of experiments that young people can run in space!

What’s new with Astro Pi?

The first Astro Pi units were taken up to the ISS by British ESA astronaut Tim Peake in December 2015 as part of the Principia mission. Since then, 54000 young people from 26 countries have written code that has run on these specially augmented Raspberry Pi computers.

Working with our partners at the European Space Agency, we are now upgrading the Astro Pi units to include:

  • Raspberry Pi 4 Model B with 8GB RAM
  • Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera
  • Google Coral machine learning accelerator
  • Colour and luminosity sensor
  • Passive infrared sensor
Astro Pi MK II hardware.
The augmented Raspberry Pi computers we are sending up to the International Space station, in all their glory

The units will continue to have a gyroscope; an accelerometer; a magnetometer; and humidity, temperature, and pressure sensors.

Astro Pi MK II hardware with Coral machine learning accelerator.
The little device on the left is the Google Coral machine learning accelerator

The new hardware makes it possible for teams to design new types of experiments. With the Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera they can take sharper, more detailed images, and, for the first time, teams will be able to get full-colour photos of the beauty of Earth from space. This will also enable teams to investigate plant health thanks to the higher-quality optical filter in conjunction with the IR-sensitive camera. Using the Coral machine learning accelerator, teams will also be able to develop machine learning models that allow high-speed, real-time processing.

Getting into space

The Astro Pi units, in their space-ready cases of machined aluminium, will travel to the ISS in December on the SpaceX Dragon Cargo rocket, launching from Kennedy Space Center. Once the resupply vehicle docks with the ISS, the units will be unpacked and set up ready to run Astro Pi participants’ code in 2022.

Getting the units ready for launch has been a significant effort from lots of people. Once we worked with our friends at ESA to agree on the new features and hardware, we commissioned the design of the new case from Jon Wells. Manufacturing was made significantly more challenging by the pandemic, not least because we weren’t able to attend the factory and had to interact over video calls.

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti aboard the ISS. Credit: ESA

Once we had the case and hardware ready, we could take on the huge battery of tests that are required before any equipment can be used on the ISS. These included the vibration test, to ensure that the Astro Pi units would survive the rigours of the launch; thermal testing, to make sure that units wouldn’t get too hot to touch; and stringent, military-grade electromagnetic emissions and susceptibility tests to guarantee that the Astro Pi computers wouldn’t interfere with any ISS systems, and would not themselves be affected by other equipment that is on board the space station.

Huge thanks to Jon Wells and our collaborators at Airbus, Google, MidOpt, and Shearline Precision Engineering for everything they’ve done to get us to the point where we were able to ship the new Astro Pi units to the Aerospace Logistics Technology Engineering Company (ALTEC) in Italy for final preparations before their launch.

There are two Astro Pi missions for young people to choose from: Mission Zero and Mission Space Lab. Young people can participate in one or both of the missions! Participation is free and open for young people up to age 19 in ESA member states (exceptions listed on the Astro Pi website).

Mission Zero

In Mission Zero, young people write a simple Python program that takes a sensor reading and displays a message on the LED screen. This year, participation in Mission Zero also gives young people the opportunity to vote for the names of the two new computers. Mission Zero can be completed in around an hour and is open to anyone aged 7 to 19 years old. Every eligible entry is guaranteed to run on board the ISS and participants will receive an official certificate with the exact time and location of the ISS when their program ran.

Mission Zero opens today and runs until 18 March 2022.

Mission Space Lab

Mission Space Lab is for teams of young people who want to run their own scientific experiments on the Astro Pi units aboard the ISS. It runs over eight months in four phases, from idea registration to data analysis. 

Have a look at the winning teams from last year for amazing examples of what teams have investigated in the past. But remember — the new Astro Pi computers offer exciting new ways of investigating life in space and on Earth. We can’t wait to see what ideas participants come up with this year. 

To start, Mission Space Lab team mentors just need to send us their team’s experiment idea by 29 October 2021.

Follow our progress

You can keep updated with all of the latest Astro Pi news, including the build-up to the rocket launch in December, by following the Astro Pi Twitter account.

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Distributing Raspberry Pi computers to help families access education

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The closure of schools has called attention to the digital divide, which sees poorer families struggling or unable to access education*. The coronavirus pandemic didn’t cause this divide, but it has highlighted it and its impact on many people in our society.

As our Foundation CEO Philip outlined back in April, part of our response to the pandemic and social distancing measures is to send free Raspberry Pi computers to students who currently lack the technology to complete their school work at home. Generously funded by the Bloomfield Trust, we have started to distribute Raspberry Pis in the UK.

Who is receiving Raspberry Pis?

Our approach for this initiative is to work with partner charities that help us identify the right recipients for the computers; we want them to go to young people who don’t have a suitable device for completing their schoolwork in their home.

The first partner charity we’ve been working with, whose team has been so patient as we’ve learned together how to do this, are the incredible School Home Support, a youth organisation working to improve school attendance, behaviour, and engagement in learning. With their help, we’ve so far distributed more than 120 Raspberry Pi 4 computers (with 2GB RAM), together with all the peripherals including a screen. School Home Support were also able to secure funding to provide high-speed internet access to the recipients’ home so students can reliably connect to their schools.

Families receive a Raspberry Pi Desktop Kit and a screen. Our partner charity funds reliable internet access.

How are we helping them set up?

The young people set up their Raspberry Pis themselves, and we have provide detailed instructions to guide them through this process. Most of the families have never used a computer like Raspberry Pi, so they need encouragement and support to get up and running. This is being provided both by the excellent School Home Support practitioners, and by Raspberry Pi team members, who answer questions when recipients get stuck.

“My mum was confused by the setup at first, but having a call to explain it really helped, and now we see how easy it is to set up and use.”

Raspberry Pi recipient

Recipients are already benefiting

Before receiving these computers, many of the young people only had occasional access to their parents’ phone to find out what school work had been set for them, and to complete it.

“It’s much easier to do my schoolwork now on the bigger screen. I feel like I’m learning more.”

Raspberry Pi recipient
A young girl sitting at a desk using a Raspberry Pi computer

We’re getting feedback that the Raspberry Pis help recipients focus on their work; they now have their own space to work in and more time to complete schoolwork, as they’re no longer rushing to share a device with other family members.

“I don’t always enjoy doing homework, but it’s better now that I have my own computer to do my work.”

Raspberry Pi recipient

Having a Raspberry Pi has increased the students’ motivation, and it has reduced stress — for parents as well as children:

“The Raspberry Pi kit came at a time when I really needed it. Up until that point, T had to do his homework and access the school’s home learning using my phone, which was not very practical at all. This was made worse by the fact that he had to share my phone with his sister, which ended up causing a lot of arguments. He was so pleased to receive a computer he could use. At first he had a lot of fun playing different games on it, and I was surprised about how well he was able to understand and help me set it up. The only negative was that he enjoyed playing games on it a bit too much! I feel relieved that he has his own computer which he can use. It was very stressful and frustrating having to use my mobile phone. There were times when T would be using my phone to do his work and he would be interrupted if I got a phone call, which meant that he would have to log in again, and sometimes would lose his work.”

Parent of a Raspberry Pi recipient

What are we doing next?

It’s wonderful to hear stories like this of how our computers make a difference in people’s lives. We’re still learning lots: while many families have been able to get up and running easily and quickly, others are still overwhelmed because they are unfamiliar with the device. We know we need to do more to build their confidence.

As we’re learning, we’re also talking to our next charity partners in the UK to help us identify more recipients, and to help the recipients get set up on their new Raspberry Pi devices.

If you are part of an organisation that could partner with us to support families in need of access to technology, please email us at stayconnected@raspberrypi.org. Be aware that your organisation would need to fund the families’ internet access.


* The impact of the digital divide on students has for example been reported on by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT and by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

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Social Action Hackathon with the Scouts

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When you think of the Scouts, do you think of a self-sufficient young person with heaps of creativity, leadership, initiative, and a strong team ethic? So do we! That’s why we’re so excited about our latest opportunity to bring digital making to young people with the world’s leading youth organisation.

On 9 and 10 November, a large group of Scouts converged on their global headquarters at Gilwell Park in Surrey to attend a Social Action Hackathon hosted by a great team of digital making educators from the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

The event was to celebrate internet service provider Plusnet’s partnership with the Scout Association, through which Scout groups throughout the UK will be given free WiFi access. This will allow them to work towards tech-based badges, including the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s Digital Maker Staged Activity Badge.

The Social Action Hackathon

Over two days, the Scouts participated in our cutting-edge hackathon, where they were taught authentic agile development techniques; handed a crate of Raspberry Pi computers, electronic components, and construction materials; and given free rein to create something awesome.

The Social Action Hackathon was designed to directly support the Scout Association’s A Million Hands project, which aims to encourage Scouts to ‘leave the world a little better than they found it’ by engaging with their UK-based charity partners. During the Hackathon, the Scout Association asked the young people to create a technological solution that might benefit one of these important charities, or the people and communities that they support.

Creating with tech

First, participants were shown the capabilities of the technology available to them during the Hackathon by undertaking some short, confidence-boosting programming activities, which got them thinking about what assistive technologies they could create with the resources available. Then, they chose a call-to-action video by one of the A Million Hands charity partners as the basis of their design brief.

The event was designed to feel like a role-playing game in which teams of Scouts assumed the part of a fledgling technology start-up, who were designing a product for a client which they would bring to market. The teams designed and prototyped their assistive technology through a process used all over the world in technology and software companies, known as agile development methodology.

The fundamental principles of agile development are:

  • Only work on the most important things at any given point in time
  • Break those things into bite-sized tasks for individuals to work on autonomously
  • Catch up regularly on progress to work out what is important now, and change your plan to adapt if you need to
  • Start by making something simple that works, then add to it or change it into something better in several steps

The ‘creation’ phase of the Hackathon consisted of several 90-minute rounds called sprints, each of which began with a team meeting (or stand-up) just as they would in a real agile workplace. Teams broke their project idea down into individual tasks, which were then put into an organisational tool known as a kanban board, which is designed to allow teams to get an instant snapshot of their current progress, and to help them to problem-solve, and adapt or change their current focus and plans at each stand-up meeting.

The final pitch

As their final task, teams had to present their work to a panel of experts. The four-person panel included the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s Head of Youth Partnerships, Olympia Brown, and television presenter, Reggie Yates, an advocate for Mind, one of the A Million Hands charity partners.

By completing the Social Action Hackathon, the young people also completed the fifth and most complex stage of the Digital Maker Staged Activity Badge in just two days — a real accomplishment!

Get involved!

If you think your Scout group might like to take their Digital Maker Badge, you can find free curriculum resources for all ages of Scout group, from Beavers to Explorers, on the Raspberry Pi Foundation partner page.

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