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Space station sphere-sats to collect rocks from Mars

Star Wars balldroids in chase above red planet

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It's all go this week in the field of tiny, spherical robots that float inside the International Space Station (ISS) on their own independent orbits about the Earth.

Not only are the Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellite (SPHERES) units to be upgraded by DARPA with various radical new capabilities such as tractor beams, they are also to be used as testbeds for a mission designed to bring rocks and soil back from Mars.

The news comes in an announcement issued yesterday by famous crazytech firm Aurora Flight Sciences, noted for its work on such projects as the "Z-Wing" five-year solar stratocruiser, the Titanian balloon probe atmo-burner pilot light etc etc.

Aurora is pleased to announce that it now has a deal from NASA to work in partnership with the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, birthplace of the SPHERES floater-ball droids now resident on the space station.

The idea is that the MIT and Aurora boffins will develop the SPHERES' cunning orbital manoeuvring abilities for the purpose of allowing a "chaser" Earth-return spacecraft in orbit about Mars to capture a sample module fired up from a lander on the surface of the red planet.

According to the firm:

The Aurora/MIT team will demonstrate automated visual tracking of the Orbital Sample, emulating the vehicle dynamics of both the chaser spacecraft and sample module using the SPHERES satellites ... Initially, the team will demonstrate these features in two-dimensions using a flat-floor facility. Eventually, however, this system can augment the existing SPHERES test facility on the International Space Station (ISS) and demonstrate these capabilities in microgravity, without the comparatively high cost and risk involved in a dedicated satellite launch.

This ties in neatly with the announcement last week that the SPHERES satellites are to be given "vision based navigation", allowing them to manoeuvre with respect to another body "moving and possibly tumbling" close by, previously mapped in 3D and now observed solely by an optical system. Aurora specifies that the Martian sample-snatch rendezvous is to be "optically guided".

According to yesterday's announcement, the Aurora/MIT NASA push will sort out the "last several metres problem" of getting the chaser craft to snap up an orbiting sample which can't manoeuvre itself and is perhaps tumbling as well.

Exactly when a real sample-return mission might fly to Mars is unclear: however it is widely seen in NASA and the other main space agencies active at the red planet as the next major step once the enhanced, nuclear-powered "Curiosity" rover (and perhaps a robotic Martian aeroplane) have been deployed. If President Obama's words can be taken at face value, manned missions - necessarily including an ability to return samples, one would think - will be setting out in 20-25 years, so presumably automated ones would be sooner than that. The ESA suggests "the timeframe 2020-2022".

It's not clear to what degree the previously announced DARPA-funded SPHERES enhancements are formally linked to the new NASA contract. However, one objective of the earlier scheme was to engage interest in high technology from the wider community, if possible pulling in all kinds of crowdsourced code contributions and so on.

If the chance to work on software which will guide spacecraft to a rendezvous above Mars before returning rocks from the red planet to Earth doesn't stimulate some interest, there would seem to be little hope. ®

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