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SPHERES Project Shatters Record For Highest Operating Tempo in Supported International Space Station Activities
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SPHERES Project Shatters Record For Highest Operating Tempo in Supported International Space Station Activities

The Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) International Space Station (ISS) National Lab Facility will break its previous record for the highest operating tempo in supported ISS activities. Six ISS activities will be conducted in a two-week period:

  • 1/27/2017: Zero Robotics Finals event
  • 1/31/2017: SLOSH Tank Maneuver
  • 2/01/2017: SPHERES-Tether Science 1
  • 2/02/2017: SPHERES-Halo Checkout part 1
  • 2/03/2017: SPHERES-Halo Checkout part 2
  • 2/09/2017: SPHERES-Docking Port Science 1

This is in addition to a successful Zero Robotics unit test and dry run on January 4th and January 16th. Also upcoming this year will be four more SPHERES-Halo sessions, a SPHERES-Docking Port session, a Slosh-Coating session, and three more Zero Robotics sessions. A calendar of upcoming SPHERES activities can also be found online.

There is the potential for even more exciting research conducted with SPHERES this year and next. There are also many more exciting upcoming activities with the next-generation Astrobee free flyer heading to ISS in 2018, so stay tuned!

BACKGROUND: The Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) are bowling ball-sized spherical satellites with power, propulsion, computers, and navigation that can be used for inspections, maintenance, spacecraft assembly, and other intravehicular operations. The International Space Station (ISS) has been using three of them to conduct science and test a diverse array of hardware and software for more than a decade.

The SPHERES Tether Demonstration project onboard ISS will help with understanding tethering dynamics to capture loose objects and “space tug” chase vehicles in zero gravity. With this new capability researchers will be able to improve computer programs and modeling needed for free-flying satellites to remove space debris and capture scientific samples from planetary objects on future deep space missions. The SPHERES Tether is a new integrated payload designed and developed by Airbus Defense and Space, in collaboration with NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After completing thorough research and development phases, the Tether hardware was launched April 8, 2016, on the SpaceX CRS-8 mission to ISS. On December 1, Expedition 50 crew members, Commander Shane Kimbrough and European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Thomas Pesquet, performed a successful SPHERES Tether Checkout test session with two different tethers - a nylon monofilament and a Kevlar thread.

Halo is a ring-shaped structure that is fastened around a SPHERES satellite that is intended to make the SPHERES platform more versatile. The structure is made out of several pieces of 3D-printed plastic that enclose six printed circuit boards. Halo provides six expansion ports and power, data connections, and computing power for each. The device vastly increases the capability and flexibility of SPHERES and allows a wider range of experiments to be conducted. Used in conjunction with the Universal Docking Port (UDP), Halo allows docking of the three SPHERES in many different configurations. For example, two SPHERES can dock on one Halo-equipped SPHERE, allowing tests involving complicated docking configurations. The development of Halo will also allow for tests involving navigation using multiple sensors in conjunction with each other, complex docking maneuvers, and many other experiments. Particularly important, Halo also creates the opportunity for future development by providing a platform for future hardware use on the SPHERES satellite. This architecture allows continued improvement of SPHERES for years to come.

The SPHERES Slosh investigation examines the way liquids move inside containers in a microgravity environment. The phenomena and mechanics associated with such liquid movement are still not well understood and are very different than our common experiences with a cup of coffee on Earth. Rockets deliver satellites to space using liquid fuels as a power source, and this investigation plans to improve our understanding of how propellants within rockets behave in order to increase the safety and efficiency of future vehicle designs.

Zero Robotics is an international robotics programming competition, which is based on the programming of SPHERES.

NASA PROGRAM FUNDING: SPHERES is funded by the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) program, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).

ARC SPHERES TEAM: Jonathan Barlow, Jose Benavides, Jose Cortez, Robert Hanson, Simeon Kanis, Aric Katterhagen, Darryl Levasseur, Don Soloway, and Andres Vargas

POINT OF CONTACT: Jose Benavides, jose.v.benavides@nasa.gov

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