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Technology aboard the space station: Forum highlights advancements

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NASA took the opportunity provided by a televised forum to highlight some of the latest high-tech devices being used aboard the International Space Station.

The highlight of the presentation was a description of camera-equipped, self-flying bowling-ball-sized robots that could someday be used to observe and monitor far-flung extremities of the station without help from crew members.

During the forum in Huntsville, Ala., researchers presented an update on the SPHERES robots -- "Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites" -- one of the longest-running technology experiments on the space station.

Developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the SPHERES robots are self-contained with power and propulsion, computing and navigation systems.

The robots, powered by compressed carbon dioxide gas, have been tested by astronauts since 2006 but have recently been upgraded with Android smartphones that have given them new vision and intelligence capabilities that gives them 3D scanning of their environment, researchers said.

Limited to the Japanese Experimental Module of the ISS until now, they will be venturing out of there in the next month or so and will eventually be allowed access to the entire orbiting facility, they say.

As an example of their possible use, they described a scenario in which Mission Control here on Earth might desire to check out unusual readings on a piece of space station equipment.

"Without having to bother an astronaut, the ground operator can navigate the SPHERES over to take a look," said Jose Benavides, chief engineer for the SPHERES robotic flier program at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.

A SPHERES robot might be asked to locate a missing wrench, allowing the astronaut who needs it to continue with a task, he said.

"A lot of the astronauts' time has been spent looking for things," he explained.

Robotic helpers similar to SPHERES may someday work beyond the space station conducting maintenance, repairs, inspections and the monitoring or de-orbiting of malfunctioning or defunct spacecraft, the researchers said.

The technologies being perfected on the ISS today will help humans go beyond the Earth in the near future, they said.

"The station is the only place in space where we can test technologies in the environment where these critical systems will operate," says astronaut and Expedition 41 flight engineer Reid Wiseman, who lives and works on board the space station.

"Living on the station has taught me how much we need to learn before we can travel to Mars," he says.

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