SPHERES: Star Wars fiction to NASA fact

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In 1999, MIT Professor David Miller challenged senior students to Conceive, Design, Implement and Operate (CDIO) a piece of equipment which would function in much the same way as the droid which trained Luke Skywalker in the use of a light saber in Episode 4 of Star Wars.

Dr. Miller solicited ideas from industry on the qualifications being sought in graduating students entering the aerospace field. Based on the feedback he designed a program which combined a research program of the Space Systems Laboratory with an academic experiment. The intent was to provide the students with the experience of the full life cycle of an aerospace product.

Dr. Miller states that a concept behind the class was to develop a small satellite which could work with other small satellites, replacing the need for one large expensive satellite.

The result was SPHERES, a free flying satellite which can assist astronauts in tasks and experiments. SPHERES is the acronym of Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellite.

MIT’s website describes SPHERES as “. . . roughly spherical and about the size of a bowling ball.” An aluminum frame is encased in plastic, color coded to distinguish each satellite. SPHERES are designed to operate in zero gravity and have gas thrusters which allow them to maneuver. The satellite is equipped with infrared transmitters which ping pre-positioned ultrasound beacons to navigate.

Each SPHERES is built with one expansion port which can be used to provide assistance for whatever job the astronaut is performing. Up to six expansion ports can be added by attaching a HALO, a plastic attachment which fits around the basic satellite. See the inset pic.SP00006

SPHERES has been functioning on the ISS since May of 2006 and has facilitated research on the use of electromagnets for space systems, the effect of zero gravity on fluid dynamics, as well as the testing of add on components with a view to expanding its role. No light saber training program has yet been developed to date, at least none disclosed by NASA.

Many of the tests on the satellite’s capabilities have been in the area of working and “flying” together.

To date, all of the research has been conducted on the ISS. Longer term, Dr. Miller and his team see much wider applications for SPHERES. One potential uses is in the field of interferometry.

As an example, Dr. Miller describes placing small mirrors on separate SPHERES and moving them a kilometer or more apart to provide a wide view of an area of space. This one kilometer view compares to the two and a half meter view afforded by Hubble.

SPHERES are another example of fiction inspiring reality. Its kind of cool.