Many of us have dreamt of roaming around space as children. While that might sound unimaginable for a majority, it certainly is not for those on the International Space Station (ISS).
On a related note, how would it feel to get recognised by astronauts floating 400 kilometres away from earth?
On October 24, a group of young innovators from Brac University did exactly that and created a new landmark in the field of robotics programming.
Their team 'Enigma Systems' set the record of becoming the first ever Bangladeshi team to upload a computer programme to ISS.
As part of the competition, they sent a message to space that said: "It is an honour to operate Astrobee (a robot) inside the International Space Station. A big milestone for Bangladesh in the space research area. This message is for Bangladesh: আমার সোনার বাংলা, আমি তোমায় ভালোবাসি. Mission complete, take care. Over."
Enigma Systems secured second position in the 'Kibo Robot Programming Challenge' organised by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa).
"We registered out of curiosity and expected to maybe learn something new. But we were surprised by the result when we passed the second round," recalled Md Hashibul Islam, the team leader.
Other members of the team are Suhail Haque Rafi, Razin Bin Issa, Tahsinul Haque Dhrubo, Mursalin Ahmed and S M Abrar Mustakim Taki.
Kibo Robot Programming Challenge, 2021
Kibo Robot Programming Challenge or Kibo-RPC is an educational programme where participants are required to solve problems by programming free-flying robots in the ISS.
This is the second time Jaxa organised the competition and 'Kibo' is ISS's Japanese experiment module.
In this competition, participants were required to operate Astrobee, a robot inside the module, as precisely as possible within the shortest time.
The competition which started in June was divided into three segments.
17 teams from Bangladesh participated in the preliminary round and Enigma Systems secured the top position among them.
"I did not believe Razin when he called and informed me that our team stood first among all the Bangladeshi teams. I had to check for myself to believe it!" said Hashibul.
Then the second round was held where Bangladesh competed with Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, New Zealand, Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia.
In this round, Enigma Systems came in third along with the teams Indentation Error from Thailand and GeminiPYTW from Taiwan who stood first and second respectively.
The final round was held in October and by this time, Jaxa had already uploaded all the programmes to ISS and the Astrobee robot.
Finally, ISS Astronauts announced that Bangladesh had achieved the second position.
The whole event was broadcasted live on YouTube. (Link: https://youtu.be/eDXf1ISUBmA)
Best Crew Award
Enigma Systems was named the only team to receive the 'Best Crew Award'.
After completing the mission, Astrobee played pre-recorded voice messages sent by each team.
Based on the clearest message received, Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide announced the awards.
Reminiscing about that day, Hashibul said, "There was nothing to signify that the message was from Bangladesh. So we thought that we were going to send one of the most significant parts of Bangladesh's identity, our mother language."
This was the first time Bangla was heard in outer space.
The one behind it all
In the first Kibo-RPC, Enigma Systems was able to participate as an observer team and not in the actual competition.
It was Mizanul Chowdhury, a system administrator and architect for ZeroRobotics, a collaborative project of NASA and MIT, who made it happen.
In an interview with The Business Standard, he said, "I tried to convince Jaxa to include Bangladesh this time. I was confident that I did not need to teach them from scratch, our students are very talented."
Mizanul is also creating an international platform named STEMX365 along with his wife Jesmine Chowdhury and daughter Saba Jamin.
The main purpose of this platform is to ensure Stem (Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics) education internationally.
Although this platform is still in the process, it has already started working with a number of innovative teams including Enigma Systems.
In order to participate in Kibo-RPC, the teams need to have a certain background and guidance.
STEMX365 recruited all the Bangladeshi teams, through which they were granted permission to participate.
When asked about the potential of Enigma Systems, Mizanul Chowdhury stated, "When I started working at MIT in 2013, I saw North American students attending such programmes. I thought if a person like me can work here in the space station, why not the Bangladeshi students?"
"I was waiting for a chance to bring Bangladesh to an international platform. If they wanted to participate through MIT, they needed to pay a hundred thousand dollars a year for competitions. So, the idea of creating STEMX365 came from that," he added.
The journey and the future of robotics
Enigma Systems built their first robot in 2017.
During Brac University's residential semester, Hashibul joined the robotics activity and learned to connect various sensors and write codes for them.
In that same semester, their team 'Abyss Watchers' was formed with their first ever robot, Unix_06.
Regarding his early interests, he said, "After HSC exams, one of my school friends and I started following Tamim Shahriar Subin's C programming books. My programming experience started from there."
Although their achievement made history in the technology and robotics sector of Bangladesh, there are miles to go.
While addressing some major obstacles in this sector, Hashibul said, "With the world's silicon supply shortages, the price of the components used in IOT, embedded systems and robotics have skyrocketed in Bangladesh."
Another member of the team, Tahsinul Haque Dhrubo, said, "If we want to catch up with developed countries, we have to increase research opportunities in the area of technology. In the future, the world will be automated and we need vast knowledge about robotics."
The team members also reflected on initiatives the government needs to take. "Embedded systems, IOT and robotics are the future. To have a skilled workforce, competitions and research must be funded," said Hashibul.
However, sounding hopeful, Razin Bin Issa said, "The achievements in recent years, like the two satellites, show that we do not need to wait for anyone to create the platform, we have already created it."