These are the droids NASA was looking for... These sphere-robots are openly inspired by the remotes from Star Wars. Their full name are the Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites, and they just went flying on the ISS.
A seeker-remote from Star Wars.
In fiction, the remotes are used by Luke Skywalker to test his lightsaber skills. In 1999, MIT professor David Miller started lecture by showing the iconic Star Wars scene to his students, then stood up, pointed, and instructed his students: "I want you to build me some of those." Why? Because in real life, the spheres are perfect for testing automated rendezvous and formation flying in zero-gravity.
For now, they're flying in formation within the space station, but according to project lead and MIT professor David Miller, "We're testing inside the station now because it is more tolerant to failure. The next plan is to go outside, sending SPHERES out through the Kibo airlock to fly away from station and be retrievable."
The SPHERES have been operating intermittently since February 2013, with various additional modules. Since the power supply is a pair of AA batteries, it's pretty easy to bring up replacement parts and keep the experiments going!
Astronaut Rick Mastracchio messes with the SPHERES during Expedition 38. Two of the SPHERES are equipped with Vertigo, and attempt to map the tumbling path of the third hapless SPHERE.
Project Vertigo mounted pairs of goggle-eyes on the SPHERES to provide a pair of stereo cameras. The cameras allow the SPHERES-Vertigo system to make a 3D map of their surroundings, then process it to determine how to navigate the environment.
Rings let the satellites change orientation through the manipulation of electromagnetic fields, saving fuel for other manoeuvres.
SPHERES-Slosh used the satellites to investigate how fluids move in microgravity, while SPHERES-Rings explored how to use electromagnetism to navigate (saving precious fuel), and was the first demonstration of wireless power-transfer in space. The planned SPHERES-Inspire II will be increasing processing power and data-handling sometime mid-2014.
Update: the SPHERES work with a smartphone app!
All images and videos credit NASA, excepting the cropped screen capture from Star Wars.