June 25, 2012
Frank Morring, Jr./Cambridge, Mass.
The independent organization that NASA selected to run National Laboratory work on the International Space Station may be off to a slow start, but outside “pathfinders” on the ISS are demonstrating ways to use its unique environment that already fall outside traditional government methods.
The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis) is taking over management of experiment capabilities provided by Aurora Flight Sciences and NanoRacks, which both found their way onto the station with equal parts chutzpah and hard work. Aurora, working closely with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology here, is planning upgrades for the popular Synchronized Position Hold, Engage & Reorient Experimental Satellites (Spheres)—three control-software testbeds that fly inside the station's laboratory modules to give programmers a quick look at how well their algorithms work in microgravity.
NanoRacks—a commercial startup that knocked on NASA's door and won permission to install a simple set of USB data ports on the ISS for cubesat-size student experiments—has moved on to other facilities, including a small centrifuge that will give scientists a 1g control environment for zero-g experiments.
Both fly in the face of the elaborate, and expensive, process that has generated the government-furnished scientific equipment on the station. Both offer applications that appear to mesh nicely with the National Lab objective of making station facilities available to all. And both give researchers a realistic way to move the scientific method into space.
“The first thing that the space station should be about is creating a laboratory environment in space, and not just going and demonstrating things that will always work,” says Alvar Saenz-Orero, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on ISS utilization while spearheading development of Spheres. “That's a key change in the idea of how to use space. You no longer have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars so everything works the first time, perfectly. You can actually take risks.”
Spheres had its origins in an MIT “capstone” class for undergraduate seniors designed to give them hands-on experience in developing space and aeronautics projects. A set of three miniature “satellites” the size of bowling balls, Spheres uses compressed-gas thrusters to maneuver autonomously with algorithms written for formation flying, docking and other profiles (AW&ST Aug. 25, 2003, p. 17).
In the Destiny lab, crewmembers use their laptops to upload the test software into the three satellites, and then videotape the results. The Spheres can orbit each other like balls without a juggler, hold formation relative to each other and “dock” using Velcro patches, even when the docking “target” is tumbling.