NASA to launch small experiments from Space Station


"These are actually the very first smartphones to be used in space," said Terry Fong, the NASA Intelligent Robotics director.

They're ordinary phones being used for an extraordinary purpose. About six years ago, MIT built robots called "spheres" that fly around the space station in microgravity. They can't really do much until you add a faster processor, a camera, a few sensors and a WiFi chip.

"A brain upgrade... and it happens to now look like a cellphone," said Fong.

With a little Velcro, what was an experiment becomes an assistant.

"This way we can have people in Houston, for example, control the robot to do inventory onboard station, to do surveys, and we can do this all without having to bother the astronauts who are very, very busy in space," said Fong.

Less than a decade ago, engineers could never have predicted that such a small and inexpensive device could pack so much computing power. Using consumer technology saves lots of money over reinventing the wheel, like the CO2 cartridges that propel the robots around, they actually come out of paintball guns.

Fong says a camcorder battery will power a tiny satellite -- being tested in a lab at Ames Research Center.

"This is where we bring things to break them. And actually qualify them for space flight," said Marc Murbach, a NASA researcher.

If it survives testing, this will be among the first group of satellites ever launched directly from the space station -- each carrying a different experiment. This one's designed by San Jose State students -- to test a way that astronauts could use consumer satellite phones to communicate with earth.

"We're preparing the next generation of students to go into the engineering world and to advance their careers in aerospace," said Murbach.

And to keep those astronauts safe from a particular problem, is a high-tech test tube.

"In space, something as easy as mixing two different fluids is not that simple because you don't have gravity," said Macarena Parra, a NASA researcher.

They'll use the test tube to study a yeast infection that causes problems for astronauts.

"Certain bacteria are more virulent, meaning they're more likely to cause infection, in space -- than they are on Earth," said Parra.

All these experiments will blast off in the next few months.

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