Spheres - Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellites

In spring 2000, 13 graduating MIT seniors developed and tested three mini-satellites that could lead the way to similar devices that fly in formation, much like Thunderbirds in an Air Force show. The range of potential applications includes a space telescope more powerful than the Hubble. The satellites, called Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES), are the size of volleyballs, and they allow researchers to test a variety of technologies key to formation flying.

Two of the devices, which communicate with each other and a computer, were tested aboard NASA's KC-135 airplane in February 2000 and again in March. The KC-135 allows satellites (and researchers) to become essentially weightless for short periods of time. The team successfully operated two SPHERES at the same time inside the plane, and collected data that will help improve the devices.

"Rather than fly one large, expensive satellite, the idea is to network together several small ones, much like how computers progressed from large mainframes to networked PCs," said Associate Professor David W. Miller. The application of interest to the SPHERES team is a high resolution space telescope created by stringing several tiny satellites outfitted with mirrors across the sky. Professor Miller and Associate Professor Dava J. Newman, both of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, led the work.

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