SPHERE Fishing for Space Debris

Behold! The SPHERES. Image from DARPA.

The International Space Station (ISS) sure could use some help, and eventually might get it if people buy off on this latest idea.  If you weren’t aware, the ISS has three robot test satellites aboard, called SPHERES.  SPHERES have been highlighted on this site before for a different project, so here’s what they’re used for just in case you missed it:  the SPHERES are used to test different payloads, software programs and ideas while up in the ISS.  The latest idea, according to the Hindu Business Line, is to test the satellites in their ability to go out in space, and take a look at objects that are close to or pose a threat to, the ISS.

The SPHERES would have a 3-D camera payload, allowing the ISS astronauts to also get a good look at nearby objects, then giving them time to figure out what to do next.  This is what we call situational awareness and it’s information the ISS astronauts probably can’t get enough of.  They’ve already tested the SPHERES’ ability to move around a simulated unknown object in the ISS in microgravity.  It seems like the SPHERES overcame the test just fine.

The SPHERES themselves won’t be used in an operational capacity for day-to-day inspections.  But the information gained from the testing will help people determine just how well such an idea would work.  It would likely help inform the design of satellites charged specifically with the mission of hunting for space debris.  Hopefully they won’t use the space launch cannon to launch those satellites–I understand it’s a little unreliable right now.

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