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Sept. 8, 1999

Michael Mewhinney

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

(Phone: 650/604-3937, 650/604-9000)



Scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, are developing an autonomous robot to support future space missions. This month they completed a key test of the robot's components.

About the size of a softball, the Personal Satellite Assistant (PSA) will be equipped with a variety of sensors to monitor environmental conditions in a spacecraft such as the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gases in the air, the amount of bacterial growth, air temperature and air pressure. The robot will also have a camera for video conferencing, navigation sensors, wireless network connections, and even its own propulsion components enabling it to operate autonomously throughout the spacecraft.

"We're developing an intelligent robot that essentially can serve as another set of eyes, ears, and nose for the crew and ground support personnel," explained NASA Ames researcher Yuri Gawdiak, principal investigator for the project. "Our research objective is to test intelligent autonomous systems that use advanced sensors and monitoring technologies for supporting current and future spacecraft operations."

"imageClick here to reach links to PUBLICATION SIZE IMAGE of the personal satellite assistant available at 300 dpi at 10" X 7.84".

The little round robot's compact design will enable it to operate in the cramped confines of the Space Shuttle's flight deck and Space Station modules, while keeping out of the astronauts' way. Since it will operate autonomously, the astronauts' hands will be free for other tasks.

The Personal Satellite Assistant represents the next generation of advanced Information Technologies that follows the Wireless Network Experiment (WNE) developed at NASA Ames in 1995 for the International Space Station. As the astronauts aboard Atlantis discovered during the STS-76 mission, wireless computer networks work well in a space environment and the wireless computers' radio signals did not interfere with either the Space Shuttle's or the Russian Space Station Mir's other electronic equipment.

Based on the success of the WNE experiment, the crew recommended handheld wireless portable data assistants that could support their mission operations onboard the International Space Station. The Ames research scientists took their recommendation several steps further by designing the handheld data assistants into autonomous intelligent robots.

This design approach has several key advantages. Besides data assistant capabilities to the onboard crew, payload scientists and mission controllers on the ground, the PSA would be able to remotely monitor their payloads, especially when onboard crew members are not available.

Another key benefit of the design would be the ability to have several PSAs conduct collaborative environmental trouble-shooting activities. In order to accomplish this complicated task, at least three PSAs would use formation flying techniques to zero in on the location of an environmental problem, such a a pressure leak, temperature spike, off-gassing, etc.

The PSA is also being designed to handle more mundane house-keeping chores so as to free the crew to focus on their research activities. The type of routine tasks handled by the PSA would include independent environmental sensor calibration checks, as well as inventory monitoring.

Beyond crew support operations onboard the Space Shuttle and Space Station, the long-term future goals of the Personal Satellite Assistant are to support remote diagnostic operations and to substitute as necessary for damaged or nonfunctioning sensors on future spacecraft.

"We hope to launch a Personal Satellite Assistant in about two years aboard a Space Shuttle and in about three years aboard the International Space Station," Gawdiak said. "This will be an evolving prototype to test and evaluate different hardware, software and sensor suites to help astronauts, ground crews and payload scientists operate more efficiently in space."

Further information about the PSA is available at the project website:

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