Smartphone Guided SPHERES May Assist Astronauts on ISS


SPHERES being tested aboard ISS. (Credits: NASA).

NASA’s Human Exploration Telerobotics project aims to create robotic systems that complement the crew during space missions. Small flying satellites known as SPHERES for Synchronoized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites, may do just that.

SPHERES could be used aboard ISS in the near future to conduct interior inspections and record photgraphs and videos. “The tests that we are conducting with Smart SPHERES will help NASA make better use of robots as assistants to and versatile support for human explorers — in Earth orbit or on long missions to other worlds and new destinations,” said Terry Fong, project manager of the Human Exploration Telerobotics project and Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center. SPHERES are also being used as a test bed to explore formation flying and docking maneuvers that may translate to full fledged spacecraft.

SPHERES are bowling ball-sized flying robots controlled remotely by an astronaut with a smartphone. The smartphone, Samsung Nexus S, utilizes Google’s Android operating system, which is open sourced and easy for NASA to modify. The smartphone provides computing, power, cameras, and sensors to the satellites.

The SPHERES, originally designed by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have been tested aboard ISS and recently gathered and delivered motion data to their astronaut handler utilizing the smartphone controller.

The video below from Google explains how the smartphone integrates with the SPHERES to perform robotic operations.


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About the author

Merryl Azriel

Merryl Azriel

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Having wandered into professional writing and editing after a decade in engineering, science, and management, I now enjoy reintegrating the dichotomy by bringing space technology and policy within reach of an interested public. I lead a fantastic all-volunteer staff as Managing Editor of Space Safety Magazine and keep my pencil sharp as Proposal & Publication Manager for INNOVIM, a NASA/NOAA contractor. In my spare time, you’ll find me advocating for greater appreciation of the International Space Station, supporting International Space University projects, and every so often, reading a book.