The shuttle Atlantis is set to carry two Nexus S phones into orbit tomorrow that will turn a trio of floating satellites on the International Space Station into remote-operated robots.
Propelled by small CO2 thrusters, the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (Spheres) were developed at MIT and have been in use on the ISS since 2006.
As seen in the vid below, they look like the Star Wars lightsaber training droid but are designed to test spacecraft maneuvers, satellite servicing, and flight formation.
Normally, the Spheres orbs carry out preprogrammed commands from a computer aboard the ISS, but the Nexus Android phones will give them increased computing power, cameras, and links to ground crew who will pilot them.
Shuttle Atlantis poised for final mission
GoAtlantis iOS app spots space shuttle in real time
Robot gas station planned for final shuttle flight
"The goal is to find out how we can use telerobotics to increase the efficiency of human explorers and ground controllers," says DW Wheeler of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA's Ames Research Center.
The orbs could be used to perform mundane tasks such as inspections and checking inventory and supplies aboard the ISS, which would free up its human occupants for other work. The initial experiments to install the phones on the Spheres could happen in September or October, according to Wheeler.
Meanwhile, MIT is working with high school students under the 2011 Zero Robotics challenge that involves programming and controlling the Spheres in a tournament that happens on the ISS.
Too bad the orbs can't fire lasers yet. They'd make great Jedi training tools.