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Space Shuttle to Deliver Alum’s Project

Smartphones Will Control Space Station Robots

Shuttle crew with smartphones
Three volleyball-size SPHERES robots float freely inside the International Space Station during a test in October 2008. Looking on from left are astronauts Greg Chamitoff and Michael Fincke and American space tourist Richard Garriott.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

When the space shuttle Atlantis embarks on its 12-day mission on Friday, July 8, its primary objective will be to deliver the shuttle payload to the crew of the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

The cargo includes a multi-purpose logistics module filled with supplies and spare parts for the station as well as a pair of Android smartphones that a UMass Lowell alumnus helped develop.

Mark Micire, who received his doctorate in Computer Science last year, says the smartphones are designed to control a trio of miniature free-flying robots residing in the ISS. Called the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES, the robots were created by engineers at MIT to test automated rendezvous and formation flying in zero-gravity.

“The smartphones will provide the robots with the sensing, navigation and planning needed for remote operation from the ground,” says Micire, who joined Carnegie Mellon University as a research scientist after graduation and is now working with the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

He says the SPHERES robots will help assist in human-robot activities aboard the ISS.

“We hope to be operating the robots by the end of the year,” he says.

Micire says in future NASA missions to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere, crew time will always be limited, and some work will not be feasible for astronauts to do manually.

“Robots, such as NASA’s Robonaut 2, can complement human explorers, performing work under remote control from a crew vehicle or even from Earth. Therefore, a central challenge is to understand how human and robot activities can be coordinated to maximize crew safety, mission success and scientific return,” he says.

Also heading to the ISS aboard Atlantis is a pair of iPhone 4 smartphones that are loaded with apps to assist astronauts in conducting experiments in space.

Mark Micire holds an off-the-shelf Samsung Nexus-S smartphone that has been modified to control the SPHERES robots.