SPHERES - Mini Satellites Fly In Formation

Rather than bet all the marbles on one large satellite, MIT undergraduates are trying a different strategy. The SPHERES project imagines lots of small volleyball-sized satellites flying together in formation, working in concert.

The application of interest is a space telescope composed of a number of small satellites precisely positioned relative to each other. The SPHERES project allows scientists to research and prove out flight formation technologies. Important areas include metrology (measuring distance and navigation) and autonomous action.

Students have tested out the minisats on KC-135, a plane that simulates microgravity conditions with it's rollercoaster flight path. They communicate with each other with wireless links and orient themselves using beacons mounted to the wall of the plane that simulate GPS positioning.

The satellites move around using small propellant tanks that can be popped out and replaced easily. SF fans may recall that this problem is explored in Neal Stephenson's 1995 novel The Diamond Age, with swarms of tiny robots.

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