The STS-135 mission is the final flight of the Space Shuttle Program. Its main task is to deliver a new module, parts, and supplies to the International Space Station. The mission is scheduled to last for 12 days, and Friday's launch was a perfect start to the last flight of the Atlantis.
In addition to the parts and supplies, the Samsung Nexus S Android phone was sent along to help out with some on-going research. The smartphones will be added to the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites), which the astronauts aboard the ISS use daily to perform a wide number of tasks.
Samsung explains that undergrads from MIT -- with a little help from the Department of Defense and NASA -- built five small satellites back in 1999. Three of these satellites, each of which has its own propulsion, power, navigation and computing equipment, were added to the ISS in 2006. The Nexus S smartphones will be attached to an expansion port built into the SPHERES, where they will then help serve as a secondary brain for each of the satellites.
Samsung notes that with the Nexus S smartphones plugged into the SPHERES, the satellites can be controlled by NASA from the ground to perform mundane tasks such as running inventory or environmental surveys on the space station. This will help free up time for the astronauts to perform real experiments, rather than worry about maintenance tasks.
"By connecting a smartphone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent," explained lead engineer of NASA's Intelligent Robotics Group, DW Wheeler. "With a smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control."
The experiment will also use the smartphone-enhanced SPHERES to study how robots can support future human exploration. (HAL 9000, Cyberdyne Systems Model T-101, and R. Daneel Olivaw need not apply.)
The MIT students, along with their governmental advisers, probably never imagined that a smartphone could become the new nerve center of their satellites, but the small and capable Nexus S will surely become a vital part of how the SPHERES are used by both the ISS astronauts and NASA.