Bay Area technology bound for International Space Station

If conditions are right on Sunday, a rocket will take supplies to the International Space Station, along with projects from innovators in the Bay Area.
If conditions are right on Sunday, a rocket will blast off lifting a capsule packed with supplies and technology headed for the International Space Station -- and two of the projects come from innovators in the Bay Area.

San Jose State grad student Jose Mojica is on the team of students building the latest "TechEdSat" or Technology Education Satellite. The last one was deployed from the space station a few weeks ago. The one they worked on has a single purpose -- to fall out of the sky and land exactly where they want it to.

"When you want to deliver something back from the International Space Station, you could use tech like this to do it very cheaply. So just throw something out of the International Space Station and have it land where you want on the ground," explained TechEdSat software engineer Gabe Pearhill.

To do it, they've installed a tiny modem to communicate over the satellite phone network. "One of our young colleagues will be actually steering the satellite when it gets deorbited," said TechEdSat principal investigator Marc Murbach.

By steering, they mean using a motor that can adjust the shape of a thin parachute that pops out of the satellite, a parachute with struts made out of an off-the-shelf measuring tape. "The reason we use measuring tape is it's flexible and it's rigid at the same time, so it can unfold quickly," Mojica explained.

Perhaps the ultimate use of off-the-shelf technology is a new brain for the Spheres flying robots aboard the space station made using an almost-ordinary smartphone. Testing them on a frictionless granite table, engineers on the Smart Spheres Project are using Google's new Project Tango smartphones.

"It has an infrared projector and camera, so it can project its infrared and sense that projection and therefore, sense 3D. It can do 3D sensing," explained Smart Spheres Project Manager Chris Provencher.

Using vision to move around all by themselves, the Spheres could do chores like sniffing for toxic gases. Of course, they had to modify the phone a bit. "We butterflied the phone open so it's really twice as wide as a typical smartphone," Provencher said.

They put in a space-rated battery and stuck the cameras on the front. Asked if there will be a lot of astronaut selfies taken with the phone, Provencher says, "You never know."
Related Topics:
technology nasa space international space station u.s. & world Moffett Field
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