Friday, February 21, 2014

Smart SPHERES: ISS Software upgrade

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 38 flight engineer, conducting a session with a pair of bowling-ball-sized free-flying satellites known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) aboard the International Space Station. 

Credit: NASA

Smart devices, such as tablets and phones, increasingly are an essential part of everyday life on Earth. The same can be said for life off-planet aboard the International Space Station.

From astronaut tweets to Google+ Hangouts, our reliance on these mobile and social technologies means equipment and software upgrades are an everyday occurrence, like buying a new pair of shoes to replace a pair of well-worn ones.

That's why the Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG) at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., with funding from the Technology Demonstration Missions Program in the Space Technology Mission Directorate, is working to upgrade the smartphones currently equipped on a trio of volleyball-sized free-flying satellites on the space station called Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES).

In 2011 on the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis, NASA sent the first smartphone to the station and mounted it to SPHERES.

Each SPHERES satellite is self-contained with power, propulsion, computing and navigation equipment as well as expansion ports for additional sensors and appendages, such as cameras and wireless power transfer systems. This is where the SPHERES' smartphone upgrades are attached.

By connecting a smartphone, the SPHERES become Smart SPHERES. They now are more intelligent because they have built-in cameras to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, powerful computing units to make calculations and Wi-Fi connections to transfer data in real time to the computers aboard the space station and at mission control.

"With this latest upgrade, we believe the Smart SPHERES will be a step closer to becoming a 'mobile assistant' for the astronauts," said DW Wheeler, lead engineer with SGT Inc. in the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames.

"This ability for Smart SPHERES to independently perform inventory and environmental surveys on the space station can free up time for astronauts and mission control to perform science experiments and other work."

NASA astronaut Mike Fossum puts one of the Smart SPHERES through its paces during Expedition 29 aboard the International Space Station. 

The addition of the smartphone helped turn the SPHERES into mobile data acquisition assistants. 

Credit: NASA

Later this year, NASA will launch a Project Tango prototype Android smartphone developed by Google's Advanced Technology and Projects division of Mountain View, Calif.

The prototype phone includes an integrated custom 3-D sensor, which means the device is capable of tracking its own position and orientation in real time as well as generating a full 3-D model of the environment.

"The Project Tango prototype incorporates a particularly important feature for the Smart SPHERES, a 3-D sensor," said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames.

"This allows the satellites to do a better job of flying around on the space station and understanding where exactly they are."

"This is no ordinary upgrade – we've customized cutting-edge commercial technologies to help us answer questions like: How can robots help humans live and work in space? What will happen when humans explore other worlds with robots by their side?

Can we make this happen sooner, rather than later?" said Fong.

"Building on our experience in controlling robots on the space station, one day we'll be able to apply what we've learned and have humans and robots working together everywhere from Earth's orbit, to the moon, asteroids and Mars."

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