Friday, June 11, 2010

NASA Expanding Tests of Star Wars

You won’t find any light sabers on the International Space Station, but you will find a trio of “droids” that look a lot like what any self-respecting science fiction fan remembers as a Star Wars “remote.”

That’s the tricky little device that Luke Skywalker used to hone his light-saber skills before he went up against Darth Vader and the rest of the evil empire.

But instead of being used for light-saber practice, the droids on the space station are being used to test automated rendezvous and formation flying in zero-gravity. And soon, there may be a host of other things the droids will be used to test as their capabilities and uses are expanded and made available for National Laboratory and other uses.

Known officially as Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES, the droids have been on the station since 2006. Astronauts have conducted more than 20 experiment sessions with them, and are on tap to conduct many more. Each SPHERES droid is self-contained with power, propulsion, computing and navigation equipment. Together, they are testing techniques that could lead to advancements in automated dockings, satellite servicing, spacecraft assembly and emergency repairs.

Those techniques can be tested in computer simulations on Earth, but the space station is the only place they can be tested under sustained microgravity conditions. So far, the tests have all occurred in the safety of the station’s interior, but in the future upgraded SPHERES satellites may venture outside the station as well.

In 1999, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor David Miller showed the movie Star Wars to his students on their first day of class. After the scene where Skywalker spars with a floating droid “remote,” Miller stood up and pointed: "I want you to build me some of those."

So they did. With support from the Department of Defense and NASA, Miller's undergraduates built five working droids. Three of them are on the station now.

“What is happening,” explained Miller, SPHERES’ principal investigator, “is that DARPA, who owns the facility on orbit, is transferring it to NASA.”

NASA, in turn, plans to make the capability available to other U.S. government agencies, schools, commercial concerns and students to expand the pool of ideas for how to test and use these bowling ball-sized droids.

Someone who has first-hand microgravity experience with the droids is Greg Chamitoff, who spent six months on the station as a member of the Expedition 17 and 18 crews, and was a co-investigator for the original SPHERES experiment.

“It was really incredible to be able to watch the SPHERES fly around in real-time following the logic of my algorithms right in front of me,” Chamitoff said. “As free-flying robots, these SPHERES are pretty amazing. There’s no other test bed where you can do this kind of research and development in 3-D. You can simulate it in a computer, but to do it in zero-G, and 3-D, that’s a unique capability.”

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