The problem with space exploration by humans is that we are incredibly expensive to put into orbit. We’re heavy, we demand very particular environmental conditions (warmth, air, water, food) and you have to budget for a return trip. Meanwhile, robots keep getting smaller and cheaper and more capable. With the cancellation of so many human spaceflight programs, the colonization of the solar system slips further and further away. But there are still missions that require people, so NASA is working on creating helper robots that will support and enhance their human companions’ capabilities.
NASA’s SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) are one step along that path. They’ve been around since 2006. The bowling-ball-sized robots fly around the International Space Station using CO2 thrusters. If you think they look kind of like Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber training droid, that’s no coincidence. MIT professor David Miller used that scene as inspiration when he assigned the project to his students.
In the early days, the main purpose of the experiments was ensuring that the robots were able to get around, fly in formation, and navigate around obstacles. This allowed scientists to test a variety of algorithms for having autonomous satellites coordinate their movements.
More recently, there was a need to expand the capabilities of the robots, so they rigged a Samsung Nexus S to attach to an expansion port. The Nexus S is a stock model except that it uses AA alkaline batteries instead of lithium-ion and the GSM antenna was removed so as not to interfere with station electronics.
To be clear, this is the story of how a flying robot inspired by Star Wars was given extra smarts when it was attached to a cellphone named for Blade Runner.
The newly enhanced robots will be used to conduct surveys and inspections of the station interior, using the built-in camera to record photos and video, saving valuable station crew time from a tedious task by offloading it to a remote operator on the ground. If that goes well, NASA will look at more opportunities to expand the robots’ duties.
My favorite thing about the press images is how utterly mundane they look. With walls plastered in flags and sports team banners, and the casually dressed astronauts, it’s like exploring some college dorm’s maintenance tunnels. Except that everyone’s at a funny angle and there are brightly colored robots floating around. (For a sense of life on the station, check out Bruce Sterling’s interview with ISS astronaut Nicole Stott, published in Dwell.)
I love these quotidian details. More than anything, it’s the shock of the familiar that makes a future for humans in space seem plausible. It’s just a place where people work, with tools and equipment that you could buy from any phone store. The whole environment feels like the anti-Kubrick—messy, patched-together, and lived-in.
As if to drive that point home, here’s a video released by the MIT SPHERES team. It shows a spiral formation test flight, sped up and set to "The Blue Danube." The contrast with 2001's iconic sequence is completely charming.