Robots in space

SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites) are experimental robots made at MIT for the purpose of testing robot locomotion in space. As you can see in the video above, they are capable of maneuvering pretty well. They seem to hold formation fairly tightly. They are using compressed CO2, through 12 different thrusters for positioning. They should be capable of autonomously navigating around each other as well as docking to one another.


  1. MS3FGX says:

    Is the idea here for these to be used in open space at some point in the future? Otherwise, couldn’t they use ducted fans for propulsion instead of the CO2 jets?

  2. mess_maker says:

    I saw an early version of these back in mid to late 90’s on a Discovery Channel show about the future of space exploration. The tests that they were showing were based on Earth and the sphere was holding it’s position (basically hovering) using quick bursts of CO2. Since they were contending with gravity they had to use a bunch of CO2 to keep the thing airborne and it looked like their tests were only in 5 second bursts. It was really very impressive stuff. The way the show made it seem was that these were to be used as assistants to the astronauts inside of spacecraft. You might be right, ducted fans could probably work very well in that scenario.

  3. cripers1 says:

    This is awful room))

  4. touq says:

    for a second i thought they were using gyroscopes to move them around.. dont know if its possible though..

  5. tinyhands says:

    Reminds me of AERcam, yet another good idea cancelled before its time because NASA wanted men to do a job that a robot can do cheaper and more safely.

  6. robomonkey says:

    Can you say “Robotic cameras to survey heat tiles? I pitched an idea to the NASA line a few years back about using a released satellite the size of a soccer ball to survey if any launch damage had occurred to the heat tiles….I doubt I’m the reason for the research, but that’d be a good use, don’t you think? Get it to autonomously pull in CO2 from an outboard port and it would be very useful in futher exploration.

  7. EdZ says:

    That was probably footage of early tests of Lockheed Martin’s MKV prototype (, progenitor to the KEI, LEAP, and Raytheon EKV.

    I remember reading about the concept years ago. Nice to see they finally got prototypes into space (and working).

  8. dbear says:

    Any else reminded of the lightsaber trainer from
    Star Wars?

  9. dbear says:

    “Anybody else” I mean

  10. wilco says:

    That’s exactly what the developers were thinking of (the Star Wars training droids).

  11. banon says:

    really? no 343 guilty spark references yet?

  12. mess_maker says:

    @EdZ Yes, that is it. Great find. That is the footage, but I thought it was more spherical than that :blush:

  13. lyric says:

    Somehow it seems just plain wrong to be releasing quantities of CO2 inside a spacecraft with humans inside. A perfect gas may not exist but it sure seems like Oxygen would be a better choice for these experiments.

  14. MS3FGX says:

    I thought the same thing at first, but then realized the volume of compressed gas these things carry around must be considerable. In the event of a life support emergency, you don’t want all your oxygen stuck inside robots. Quick, everyone start sucking on the nearest droid!

    On the other hand, CO2 needs to be removed from the air anyway. Why not pump it into these handy storage containters that just happen to also do usefull (eventually) work? Sure they will let it back out into the air, but it will just keep getting recycled anyway.

  15. hkgfjkfg says:

    Why not Nitrogen?
    The air consists of 78% of nitrogen, it is non toxic.

  16. Satiagraha says:

    I had the privilege to play with these things while working at Kennedy Space Center. I have to say that they are quite fun. We had contests to see who could hold the bot the stillest. The steadier you are in holding it in your hand, the less often it sends out bursts from it’s co2 valves (which btw are just paintball gun solenoids :P )

    I think co2 was used out of ease. The SPHERES group mentioned that the modified paintball parts were not intended for a final micro-satellite design and was only used for their prototype spheres. Most of their objectives are not in the physical bot anyways, their research is in the coordination and navigation of them in three-space. It’s more about developing the pathing algorithms, which can be used on bots of any configuration later.

  17. Alan says:

    How fast do they really move? The video clip seems to be significantly sped up.

  18. Satiagraha says:

    Well, they can’t fly on Earth, but those videos are sped up to about 2x

  19. tre says:

    @lyric – The main reason not to use Oxygen would be Apollo 1… Oxygen is highly corrosive.

    @hkgfjkfg Why not nitrogen? Because it’s not stored as convenient as liquid CO2. nitrogen requires much higher pressures (resulting in heavier support equipment).

    If this is for free space – why not Torque Coils and arc thrusters like other satellites? I mean, technically artificial satellites are maneuvering in orbit – how far must we go to classify something as a robot in space?

    Unless, of course, these were never intended to stay in orbit and can return to refuel :p Then CO2 makes more sense – not to mention, parts are off the shelf :p

  20. Riq says:

    Is it just me, or has that guy started to dance around from all the CO2 dizziness?

  21. marlboro says:

    MAAAN how do you believe this? it is a clear time lapse video.

  22. mesoiam says:

    I thought the guy was having a fit before I realised it was a time lapse video.

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