NASA Astronaut Tests Microsatellite Aboard Space Station
NASA science officer and Expedition 13 flight engineer Jeffrey Williams experiments with a SPHERES microsatellite inside the International Space Station's Destiny laboratory.
Credit: NASA/JSC.

NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams has put a small satellite through its initial paces aboard the International Space Station (ISS), deploying the free-flying craft inside outpost's Destiny lab.

Williams, NASA science officer and ISS Expedition 13 flight engineer, piloted the SPHERES microsatellite in the first of a series of test aimed at demonstrating fundamental concepts for autonomous docking in small vehicles and formation flying. The tests could lay the groundwork for cooperative satellites and helper robots to aid spacewalking astronauts, NASA officials said.

SPHERES - short for Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Satellite - is an experiment designed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to aid the development of future cooperative space robots.

Williams watched over the single SPHERES satellite last week as it approached two beacons - one handheld and one wall-mounted - during simulated rendezvous and docking maneuvers. The satellite's first flight included up to 15 pre-planned maneuvers, each of which lasted 10 minutes, to check attitude control, station keeping, collision avoidance, target tracking and fuel balance performance, NASA officials said.

The eight-inch (20-centimeter) wide, seven-pound (three-kilogram) SPHERES satellite is the first of three to launch toward the ISS and arrived at the space station aboard Progress 21 on April 26. Two additional units are expected to launch toward the station on future NASA shuttle visits.