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A self-flying robot called the Astrobee is heading for the International Space Station in 2019. The robot can help astronauts with everything from housekeeping to spacecraft monitoring and maintenance.
The Astrobee is one of the newest systems developed around NASA SPHERES research.
SPHERES stands for "synchronized position hold engage and reorient experimental satellites." The robots are not actually spherical. Instead, they are one-foot by one-foot cubes with rounded corners and bumpers.
Packed with cameras, sensors, a touchscreen and an arm, the Astrobee can perch in place on the ship as needed. Fans and lasers on the robot help it maneuver around when it is floating in zero-gravity.
"A crew can't be depended on to do everything necessary to maintain a spacecraft. Astrobee is a step in advancing that type of technology," Astrobee Program Manager Jose Benavides told CNBC during a visit to NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.
Among other capabilities, the Astrobee can cruise autonomously around the ISS taking account of things like air quality, sound levels, and the location of the thousands of tools that astronauts need to do their jobs. This alleviates the need for astronauts to expend energy and time on patrolling the ship or searching for misplaced items.
Autonomous mode will make the Astrobee useful on trips to Mars, when spacecraft may not be able to maintain communications with other ships or with Houston. But the robots can also be controlled remotely, by researchers on Earth. They can use Astrobees to check up on, and interact with astronauts, systems and experiments aboard the ISS, for example.
Astrobee's design was inspired, in part, by the "training remote" in "Star Wars." The training remotes, smart, self-flying robot used in combat training helped Luke Skywalker learn, blindfolded, how to wield a light saber.