Feeds

Space station sphere-sats to collect rocks from Mars

Star Wars balldroids in chase above red planet

The next step in data security

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. ®

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
SCREW YOU, Russia! NASA lobs $6.8bn at Boeing AND SpaceX to run space station taxis
Musk charging nearly half as much as Boeing for crew trips
Boffins say they've got Lithium batteries the wrong way around
Surprises at the nano-scale mean our ideas about how they charge could be all wrong
Thought that last dinosaur was BIG? This one's bloody ENORMOUS
Weighed several adult elephants, contend boffins
Edge Research Lab to tackle chilly LOHAN's final test flight
Our US allies to probe potential Vulture 2 servo freeze
Europe prepares to INVADE comet: Rosetta landing site chosen
No word yet on whether backup site is labelled 'K'
India's MOM Mars mission makes final course correction
Mangalyaan probe will feel the burn of orbital insertion on September 24th
Cracked it - Vulture 2 power podule fires servos for 4 HOURS
Pixhawk avionics juice issue sorted, onwards to Spaceport America
City hidden beneath England's Stonehenge had HUMAN ABATTOIR. And a pub
Boozed-up ancients drank beer before tearing corpses apart
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Security and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet
Explores the current state of website security and the contributions Symantec is making to help organizations protect critical data and build trust with customers.