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.

22 thoughts on “Robots in space

  1. 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. 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. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. @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

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