While the International Space Station orbits the Earth, three bowling ball-sized objects are not just free-floating onboard due to a lack of gravity, but free-flying using propulsion to test future navigation systems. In some cases, students are helping design research projects by writing math equations to control the trajectory, or flight path, of these mini-satellites.
The Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES, are self-contained and operate using mathematical algorithms that command their guidance, navigation and control systems. Smart SPHERES uses telerobotics and the mini-satellite platform to accomplish tasks important to future space missions, specifically those that are dangerous or routine. This technology development also is important for multi-body formation flying, unmanned flight vehicles (for both space and air) and autonomous underwater vehicles in a variety of scenarios. The technology development demonstration serves as a springboard to help explore and evolve new telerobotic capabilities in space and on Earth.
In an interview, Mark Micire, SPHERES Engineering Manager at NASA's Ames Research Center, said, "How we use robots in space is very similar to how we use robots on Earth, in terms of them going into hazardous locations and doing mundane tasks … like bomb squad robots, search and rescue robots and even surgery robots. All these robots require a high level of precision and our research in space can better inform how these Earth-based robots might be better designed in the future."
During the interview, Micire talks about his education and career background, work in telerobotics and how the SPHERES operate. He describes a smart phone application that can be downloaded and used to duplicate experiments done on the space station.