SPHERES-Slosh (SPHERES-Slosh) - 10.07.15

Overview | Description | Applications | Operations | Results | Publications | Imagery

ISS Science for Everyone

Science Objectives for Everyone
The SPHERES-Slosh investigation examines the way liquids move inside containers in a microgravity environment. The phenomena and mechanics associated with such liquid movement are still not well understood and are very different than our common experiences with a cup of coffee on Earth. Rockets deliver satellites to space using liquid fuels as a power source, and this investigation plans to improve our understanding of how propellants within rockets behave in order to increase the safety and efficiency of future vehicle designs.
Science Results for Everyone
Information Pending

The following content was provided by Brandon Marsell, Paul Schallhorn, Aerospace Supervisor, and is maintained in a database by the ISS Program Science Office.
Experiment Details


Principal Investigator(s)
Brandon Marsell, Kennedy Space Center VA-H3, FL, United States
Paul Schallhorn, Aerospace Supervisor, Kennedy Space Center, FL, United States

Jacob Roth, Kennedy Space Center, FL, United States

Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, FL, United States
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States
NASA Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL, United States

Sponsoring Space Agency
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Sponsoring Organization
Technology Demonstration Office (TDO)

Research Benefits
Information Pending

ISS Expedition Duration 1
September 2013 - September 2014; March 2015 - March 2016

Expeditions Assigned

Previous ISS Missions
Information Pending

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Experiment Description

Research Overview

  • The SPHERES-Slosh investigation is dedicated to improving our understanding of how liquids behave when there is little to no gravity. Such an understanding is important because our most powerful rockets use liquid fuels to bring satellites into orbit.
  • Today, our best computer models still have not been carefully checked against actual experimental data on the behavior of liquids in microgravity. Unless our models are checked against real data, it is not possible to fully trust these models during rocket design and the planning of important space missions. The International Space Station (ISS) provides the perfect environment to conduct liquid behavior studies in microgravity. This investigation is planned to collect valuable data on how liquids move around inside of a container when external forces are applied to that container – this simulates how rocket fuels move around inside their tanks when motor thrusts are used to push the rocket through space.
  • The data collected and the information learned from the analysis of that data impacts our ability to improve the performance of rockets and spacecraft. The data is used to check computer simulations about how rockets work, ultimately leading to rockets and spacecraft that are more reliable, safer and cost effective. Finally, this investigation is being shared with middle school and high school students and teachers in a planned outreach program to continue to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Accurate prediction of coupled fluid slosh and launch vehicle or spacecraft dynamics (e.g., nutation/precessional movement about various axes, attitude changes, etc.) requires Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) models calibrated with low-gravity, long duration slosh data. Recently completed investigations of reduced gravity slosh behavior have demonstrated the limitations of utilizing parabolic flights on specialized aircraft with respect to the specific objectives of the experiments. Although valuable data was collected, the benefits of longer duration low-gravity environments were clearly established. The proposed research provides the first data set from long duration tests in zero gravity that can be directly used to benchmark CFD models, including the interaction between the sloshing fluid and the tank/vehicle dynamics.

To explore the coupling of liquid slosh with the motion of an unconstrained tank in microgravity, the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) has teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to perform a series of slosh dynamics experiments in the International Space Station using the SPHERES platform. The Synchronized Position Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) testbed provides a unique, free-floating instrumented platform on ISS that can be utilized in a manner that would solve many of the limitations of the current knowledge related to propellant slosh dynamics on launch vehicle and spacecraft fuel tanks. The six degree of freedom (6-DOF) motion of the SPHERES free-flyer is controlled by an array of cold-flow CO2 thrusters, supplied from a built-in liquid CO2 tank. These SPHERES can independently navigate and re-orient themselves within the ISS. The intent of this project is to design an externally mounted tank to be driven inside the ISS by a set of two SPHERES devices. The tank geometry simulates a launch vehicle upper stage propellant tank and the maneuvers replicate those of real vehicles. The design includes inertial sensors, data acquisition, image capture and data storage interfaces to a single-board computer on board the flight article assembly. The design also includes mechanical and electronic interfaces to the existing SPHERES hardware, which include self-contained packages that can operate in conjunction with the existing SPHERES electronics.

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Space Applications
Powerful rockets use liquid fuel to bring satellites into orbit, and are subjected to varying forces as they are propelled forward. But computer simulations may not accurately represent how liquids behave in low-gravity conditions, causing safety concerns. The Slosh experiment improves these models, and thereby improves rocket safety, by measuring how liquids move around inside a container when external forces are applied to it. This simulates how rocket fuels swirl around inside their tanks while a rocket moves through space.

Earth Applications
Many satellites launch on rockets powered by liquid fuel, and improved understanding of these propellants could enhance efficiency, potentially lowering costs for industry and taxpayer-funded satellite launches. More generally, the investigation’s results provide new data for fluid dynamics simulations.

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Operational Requirements
The SPHERES-Slosh investigation is required to operate in the volume of space currently available to SPHERES on the ISS. It is a free-floating experiment therefore requires as much open space as possible. In addition, the testing requires the operational availability of any 2 SPHERES modules themselves with the appropriate amount of propellant and battery power. A single test session is defined to either remain within a specified time period or run until either the on board data memory is full or one of the SPHERES runs out of propellant. The current baseline is for test sessions to be separated by a minimum of one week, particularly for the early test sessions, so the data can be reviewed and future sessions altered if necessary to explore unforeseen phenomena. The only other major requirement is that the data be down-linked as soon as practical after every session using standard methods as currently employed by other on-ISS payloads. The data is stored in on-payload memory while awaiting down-link availability.

Operational Protocols
The SPHERES-Slosh investigation is mostly computer controlled. Depending on packaging and re-supply space requirements, some simple assembly may be required. Once the package is on station, an ISS crew member takes the hardware out of the storage container and assembles a few pieces using simple lock-in-place hinges and rails. Once this operation is complete, the SPHERES units (already on station) are attached on both ends of the assembly. The SPHERES are attached using hand tightened screws that rigidly attach the test tank. Besides this, the ISS crew member also connects any peripherals (cameras, IMU’s, hard drives, etc.) to the on board computer using snap-in type connectors.


Once the unit is fully assembled, it is ready for research operations to begin. This simply involves an ISS crew member powering on all units. This includes both SPHERES units, the on board computer, and the SPHERES Laptop computer. Once all units are up and running, the entire assembly is placed in the center of the ISS module and allowed to free float. The ISS crew member runs the software on the SPHERES Laptop which commands the SPHERES to perform a pre-specified set of maneuvers. After the test run is complete (5 minutes approx.), the unit is reoriented to the center of the module and a new test begins. Another more common operational mode involves having the crew member impose a specific motion to the system while the instruments gather data. This mode of operation provides larger amplitude acceleration changes causing more detectable liquid motion. Provided our allotted mission time allows, these tests continuously run until the on board memory is full, or the CO2 propellant aboard the SPHERES runs out. Initial estimates show this to occur after about ten test sequences. At this point, the crew member attaches the hard drives to the SPHERES Laptop computer and downloads all of the test data for transmission back to earth.

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Decadal Survey Recommendations

Information Pending

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Results/More Information

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Results Publications

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Ground Based Results Publications

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ISS Patents

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Related Publications

    Lapilli GD, Holicker CA, Gutierrez H, Kirk D.  Design of a liquid sloshing experiment to operate in the International Space Station. 51st AIAA/ASME/ASCE/AHS/ASC Structures, Structural Dynamics, and Materials Conference, Orlando, FL; 2015 July 27-29

    Chintalapati S, Holicker CA, Schulman RE, Wise BD, Lapilli GD, Gutierrez H, Kirk D.  Update on SPHERES-Slosh for acquisition of liquid slosh data aboard the ISS. 49th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint PropulsionConference, San Jose, CA; 2013 July 14-17 13 pp.

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Related Websites
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Florida Institute of Technology
NASA Launch Services Program

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image NASA Image: ISS038E034558 - NASA astronaut Mike Mastracchio conducting the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) - Slosh experiment.
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image NASA Image: iss038e033884 - NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins holds a plastic container partially filled with green-colored water which is used in the free-flying satellites known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES - Slosh experiment.
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image NASA Image: ISS038E058027 - Image of the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) - Slosh experiment.
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