Nexus S SPHERES satellite on the space station

Two and a half years ago, the Human Exploration and Telerobotics Project (HET) equipped a trio of these floating robots with Nexus S handsets running Android Gingerbread. (HET is a project at NASA’s Ames Research Center that uses SPHERES, which stands for “Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites,” and that project itself is called SmartSPHERES). Despite their name, these SPHERES aren’t traditional satellites—they’re currently being used inside the International Space Station (ISS) to investigate applications like telerobotic cameras and high-latency control, and to measure sound and radiation levels.

In Nov 2011, a free-flying robot on the International Space Station successfully gathered and delivered motion data to its astronaut handler via a new smartphone controller. The compact, free-flying satellites — known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES — with a Samsung Nexus S™ handset that features Google’s open-source Android™ platform.

What’s next? Nexus 4 Smartphones

Since the project began in late 2010, it’s moved rather quickly despite some of the aforementioned software and hardware hassles. “We went from concept on the back of a napkin to full flight, to delivering our flight units in about six months,” said Micire. “Normally for any major piece of hardware that’s going up on station, you’re usually talking about a year to two-year process.” The team was able to quickly get the project engineered and “fabbed up,” as Micire put it, because they leveraged a lot of the stuff that was already built into the phones.

The Nexus S handsets made upgrading the “brain” of the SPHERES a less tedious process, not to mention a more affordable one. But despite NASA Ames’ close proximity to Google’s headquarters—Moffett Field is only three miles away—the team at the Intelligent Robotics Group has to purchase their own handsets, though sometimes they do receive help when tinkering with Android from their friends at Google. “One of the catalysts for us being able to successfully downselect and use Android as successfully as we have is because Google is just over the fence from us here,” said Micire. “We created very early on this wonderful partnership with folks both inside and outside.”

The Intelligent Robotics Group is currently looking at building the next generation of the Smart SPHERES with a couple of Nexus 4 handsets they have managed to secure. Micire mentioned that the Human Exploration Telerobotics project has also fostered a few relationships with different handset manufacturers for future development, though he was not at liberty to say who.

SOURCES – NASA, Arstechnica

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