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Google and NASA Team Up to Build Floating Robots

Eventually, astronauts could get a hand on the International Space Station from floating robotic SPHERES.

Remember in "Star Wars" when Luke Skywalker deflects lasers from a floating orb with his lightsaber?

Google and NASA are planning something like that, minus the lasers, the Millennium Falcon and the Force.

Instead, the floating robots, or SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) will roam around the International Space Station equipped with Google’s Project Tango technology.

There are three SPHERES currently aboard the ISS, each one with its own propulsion and power systems contained in a free-flying satellite about the size of a volleyball.

Right now, they use ultrasound and infrared technology to navigate their way around. It’s not exactly the most advanced system, which is where Google comes in. In February, the company unveiled Project Tango, its initiative to put 3-D mapping technology inside of an Android smartphone.

A Project Tango smartphone is scheduled to be launched into orbit sometime this summer. A video detailing a zero-G test of the SPHERES-Project Tango collaboration was released last week.

“The Project Tango prototype incorporates a particularly important feature for the Smart SPHERES — a 3-D sensor,” Terry Fong, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, said in a statement in February. “This allows the satellites to do a better job of flying around on the space station and understanding where exactly they are.”

The better the mapping and navigating technology, the more autonomous the SPHERES could become, allowing them to assume the role of robotic assistants for the astronauts in the future.

If the technology really takes off, the possibilities are pretty exciting: SPHERES, either controlled by astronauts or operators on the ground, could help service satellites, assemble spacecraft and conduct emergency repairs of the ISS — all while floating in Earth’s orbit.

Eventually, NASA speculates, they could help inspect the exterior of spacecraft during deep-space missions. Lasers, one assumes, will not be included.