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SPHERES Projects

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Demonstration of Electromagnetic Formation Flight On the International Space Station

The UMD Space Power and Propulsion Laboratory, in collaboration with Aurora Flight Sciences and the MIT Space Systems Laboratory (SSL) is developing the Resonant Inductive Near-Field Generation System, an experiment that will demonstrate two technologies on the International Space Station (ISS). Both technologies are implemented using a pair of tuned resonant coils that generate a time varying magnetic field. In the first form of the technology, Electromagnetic Formation Flight (EMFF), the coils are both actuated to generate forces and torques that can be used to control the relative degrees of freedom of spacecraft without the use of propellant. In the second form, one of the coils is active while the other is passive, allowing for the wireless resonant inductive coupling of power between them. The hardware, called RINGS, will be mounted to an existing flight testbed on ISS called SPHERES, which was developed collaboratively between the MIT SSL and Aurora Flight Sciences. The project is funded by DARPA and the contract is managed by NASA Goddard.


Precision Spacecraft Formations for Telescope Systems

The purpose of the Synthetic Imaging Maneuver Optimization (SIMO) program is to develop a methodology, calibrated through hardware-in-the-loop testing, to optimize S/C maneuvers to more efficiently synthesize images for missions such as Stellar Imager (SI). Time and fuel-optimal maneuvers are only a part of the optimization problem. Selecting the maneuver waypoints (number and location) determines the quality of the synthesized image. The number of S/C, the size of the sub-apertures, and the type of propulsion system used also impacts imaging rate, propellant mass, and mission cost. Capturing all of these mission aspects in an integrated mission optimization framework helps mission designers to select the most appropriate architecture for meeting the needs and constraints of missions such as SI.


An ISS facility for on-orbit validation of advanced spacecraft control algorithms

The MIT Space Systems Laboratory developed the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) laboratory environment to provide DARPA, NASA, and other researchers with a long term, replenishable, and upgradable testbed for the validation of high risk metrology, control, and autonomy technologies for use in formation flight and autnomous docking, rendezvous and reconfiguration algorithms. These technologies are critical to the operation of distributed satellite and docking missions such as Terrestrial Planet Finder and Orbital Express. To approximate the dynamics that will be encountered during these missions, the testbed consists of three small, self-contained vehicles, or 'spheres,' which can control their relative positions and orientations, and is operable on a 2-D laboratory platform, NASA's KC-135, and the International Space Station. SPHERES draws upon the MODE family of dynamics and control laboratories (STS-40, 42, 48, 62, Mir) by providing a cost-effective laboratory with direct astronaut interaction that exploits the micro-gravity conditions of space.


Self-assembling Wireless Autonomous Reconfigurable Modules

The Self-assembling Wireless Autonomous Reconfigurable Modules (SWARM) project will demonstrate the use of a modular spacecraft utilizing wireless communication that is capable of self-assembly and reconfiguration. Demonstrating these functionalities can advance the design of reusable, modular spacecraft by showing that such a design is feasible and cost-effective and has several advantages over traditional monolithic spacecraft. A modular spacecraft is advantageous because reusing and reconfiguring the same modules, either in-flight or pre-flight, will eliminate much of the expensive design, testing, and integration work associated with developing a unique space system. In addition, allowing modules to be easily reconfigured will provide flexibility for overall spacecraft designs, thereby allowing different missions to be conducted using the same basic satellite systems. Having standardized interfaces utilizing wireless technology for communication can simplify the interface design and more easily allow for modularity.


A Vision Based Navigation upgrade to the SPHERES satellites that will perform Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping of non-cooperative, tumbling targets.

The Visual Estimation for Relative Tracking and Inspection of Generic Objects (VERTIGO) program is developing computer vision based navigation and mapping algorithms capable of building a three-dimensional map of another unknown, non-cooperative target object and performing relative navigation solely by reference to this three-dimensional model. The principal open research problem that is being investigated in the VERTIGO program is how to perform this mapping and navigation when the target object is tumbling and translating with significant velocities (i.e. an upper stage that is spin stabilized at 20 RPM). In order to test these algorithms, the VERTIGO program will design, build, test and launch, to the International Space Station, a hardware upgrade to the SPHERES satellites. This hardware upgrade includes stereo cameras, an upgraded processor (1.2 GHz x86 Linux Computer), a high-speed communications system (802.11n) and additional batteries. This hardware package is collectively known as the SPHERES Goggles. A prototype version of the SPHERES Goggles was built under the Low Impact Inspection Vehicle (LIIVe) Program with the US Naval Research Laboratory.

Zero Robotics

Robotics programming games and competitions onboard the International Space Station

Zero Robotics (ZR) is an endeavor to demonstrate the development of spaceflight software by crowdsourcing and improve the accessibility of SPHERES to amateur users. It is a robotics programming competition where participants write programs that control a satellite in space, all from a web browser. The robots are miniature satellites called SPHERES an experimental testbed developed by the MIT SSL on the International Space Station (ISS) to test control and navigation algorithms in microgravity. The participants compete to win a technically challenging game by programming their strategies into the SPHERES satellites. To create code, they may use a graphical editor or a C editor to write code, simulate their program immediately and see the results in a flash animation. The simulation uses a high-fidelity 3D model of the SPHERES satellites. Astronauts run the final robotics competition on the ISS and interact with participants via a live video broadcast in a large event at MIT, webcast live so that remote viewing is possible. The entire software framework for the program is being built in collaboration with TopCoder by crowdsourcing contests within their community of 250,000 developers. Zero Robotics is currently in its second year of nationwide operation with over 1700 users, clocking an average of over 1600 simulations per day. There have been 2 high school tournaments and 2 middle school tournaments. ZR launched a European pilot program in 2011 and is looking to expand further internationally.