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NASA using Android in Space

by Michael Stal on Sep 09, 2011 |

On September 1st, the Official Google Blog reported that two Android-based Nexus phones have been transported to the ISS in the last manned Space Shuttle mission ST-135. Researchers want to investigate how robots

can help humans experiment and live in space more efficiently.

The phones enable the robots respectively satellites called SPHERES to add services& that otherwise astronauts would have to provide such as gathering sensor data or capturing video. This is remarkable, because commodity software and hardware are beginning to become building blocks of system architectures formerly comprisingonly proprietary constituents.


Inspired by the movie "Star Wars", Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor David Miller asked his students back in 1998 to build five volleyball-sized free flying satellites. Three of these deviced called SPHERES (Synchronized, Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) have been on the International Space Station (ISS) since 2006.


What began more than two decades ago is still in the focus of NASA. In particular, Terry Fong, Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group, is investigating the use of cutting-edge technologies in robots which support men in space.
For this reason, the group has equipped the three SPHERES on the ISS with Samsung's Android-based Nexus S handsets. Each SPHERE satellite comprises functionality for power, propulsion, computing, and navigation. Using an extension port the Android phones have been attached to the SPHERE in order to extend this functionality.


As Wheeler, the lead engineer of the group, explains:

Because the SPHERES were originally designed for a different purpose, they need some upgrades to become remotely operated robots. By connecting a smart phone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent. With the smart phone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control.


In the future Android will also help in tasks such as controlling and maneuvering the SPHERE satellites. If you are interested in further details, visit the SPHERES site.


This is not the only example for the integration of commodity or Open Source products into system architecture, but it reveals that, nowadays, innovations in products might influence technologies such as rocket science, not only the other way as it used to be.

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