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Q&A with NASA engineers behind Raspberry Pi–powered ISS Mimic

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Did you see the coolest International Space Station (ISS) on Earth on the blog last week? ISS Mimic is powered by Raspberry Pi, mirrors exactly what the real ISS is doing in orbit, and was built by NASA engineers to make the ISS feel more real for Earth-bound STEAM enthusiasts.

Here’s (most of) the team behind ISS Mimic

The team launched ISS Mimic in celebration of 20 years of continuous human presence in space on the ISS. And they’ve been getting lots of questions since we posted about their creation so, we asked them back to fill you in with a quick Q&A.

And here are newbies Dallas and Estefannie (Estefannie made the ISS Mimic video)

1. Since this is NASA-related, “MIMIC” must be an acronym, right?

Yes, we forced one: “Mechatronic Instantiated Model, Interactively Controlled”

2. What’s your subtitle? 

“The second-most complicated International Space Station ever made”. We also like “1/100th scale for 1/100,000,000th cost”

3. Wait, are US tax dollars paying for you to make this?

No, it’s a volunteer project, but we do get lots of support. It’s done on our own time and money — though many NASA types and others have kicked in to help buy materials. 

ISS Mimic, filmed by YouTube’s finest Estefannie Explains it All

4. So you have supporters?

Yes — mostly other organisations that we have teamed up with. We partner with a non-profit makerspace near NASA, Creatorspace, for tools, materials, and outreach. And an awesome local 3D printer manufacturer, re:3D, has joined us and printed our (large) solar panels for free, and is helping to refine our models. They are also working towards making a kit of parts for sale for those who don’t have a printer or the time to print all the pieces, with a discount for educators.

Particularly helpful has been Space Center Houston (NASA’s visitor center), who invited us to present to the public and at an educator conference (pre-COVID), and allowed us to spend a full day filming in their beautiful facility. Our earliest supporter was Boeing, who we‘ve worked with to facilitate outreach to educators and students from the start.

The real International Space Station (ISS) in orbit

5. How long have you been working on this?

5 years — a looong time. We spent much effort early on to establish the scale and feasibility and test the capabilities of 3D printing. We maintained a hard push to keep the materials cost down and reduce build time/complexity for busy educators. We always knew we’d use Raspberry Pi for the brain, but were looking for less costly options for the mechatronics. We’d still like to cut the cost down a lot to make the project more attainable for lower-income schools and individuals.

6. Have you done any outreach so far?

All of the support has allowed us to take our prototype to schools and STEM events locally. But we really want this to be built around the world to reach those who don’t have much connection to space exploration and hands-on STEM. The big build is probably most suitable for teens and adults, while the alternative builds (in-work) would be much more approachable for younger students.

‘ISS Mimic’ on display

7. So, this just for schools? 

No, not at all. Our focus is to make it viable for schools/educators — in cost and build complexity — but we want any space nerd to be able to build their own and help drive the design.

8. Biggest challenge?

Gravity. And time to work on the project… and trying to keep the cost down.

9. What about a Lunar Gateway or Habitat version of ISS Mimic?

It’s on our radar! Another build that’s screaming to be made is hacking the LEGO ISS model (released this year) to rotate its joints and light LEDs.

Raspberry Pi on the real ISS

There are two Raspberry Pi computers aboard the real ISS right now! And even better, young people have the chance to write Python code that will run on them — IN SPACE — as part of the European Astro Pi Challenge.

Tell the young space enthusiast in your life about Astro Pi to inspire them to try coding! All the info lives at astro-pi.org.

Website: LINK

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