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August 3, 2014 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Remember the floating training remote in Star Wars? Some people have done DIY versions of the remote that can levitate on your desktop. However, leave it to NASA to create the real thing and call it SPHERES: Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites: robotic bowling balls (OK, 18-sided polyhedron satellites) with autonomous propulsion, power, avionics, software, communications, and metrology subsystems, that fly freely in the ISS. First tested in 2006, they have been upgraded with Android smartphones, which makes them (for now) the less terrifying item in Google's growing robotic arsenal.
posted by elgilito (3 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
But will it blend?
posted by Fizz at 1:12 PM on August 3, 2014

The vision of a small free-flying spherical robot has been floating around NASA for about 20 years.

The first version of this idea was the AERCam Sprint. It was intended to be flown around the Space Shuttle Orbiter and the space station while its camera was used to inspect for damage and provide overwatch during construction activity without requiring an EVA. It used differential GPS for navigation, with GPS transmitters mounted on the structure. An astronaut inside the Orbiter or ISS would joystick it around. My first job out of school was working on an experimental natural language interface for AERCam (in Lisp!), with the idea of reducing astronaut workload--instead of flying it by hand, you'd be able to say "Go to the SSME cluster" or whatever.

A little ironically, it was tested on Columbia during STS-87 (video). Because NASA was worried about the possibility an out-of-control AERCam colliding with the Orbiter, its speed was limited to about 1 inch per second.

Inspektor was a similar free-flying space robot developed in Germany. During its first test outside Mir, it malfunctioned and stopped responding to commands. At the time, I heard that Mir had to take some evasive action to avoid a collision, but I can't find confirmation of that now.

A few years after AERCam Sprint, NASA began development of the Personal Satellite Assistant, or PSA (video). It was a slightly smaller sphere than AERCam, and like SPHERES, it was intended to be used inside the ISS.
posted by jjwiseman at 2:32 PM on August 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:56 AM on August 4, 2014

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