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2009: A Space Oddity

The other day we posted some of Arthur C. Clarke's philosophical words on the fate of human evolution, with the caveat that his predictions were still far into the future.But here's a neat video of astronaut Timothy Kopra on the International Space Station on August 15, 2009, conducting an experime...

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The other day we posted some of Arthur C. Clarke's philosophical words on the fate of human evolution, with the caveat that his predictions were still far into the future.

But here's a neat video of astronaut Timothy Kopra on the International Space Station on August 15, 2009, conducting an experiment for the SPHERES project (Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellite).

Ten years ago, Dr. David Miller, Director of MIT's Space Systems Lab, kicked off a new semester by showing a group of students the movie Star Wars. There's a scene Miller especially likes, in which Luke Skywalker practices his light saber work with some help from the Force, and spars with a small, spherical, floating droid. Miller told the new students, "I want you to build me some of those."

They built the three shown in the video below. The project's goal was to demonstrate small, autonomous satellites that could "fly" formation in orbit using mini-navigation systems and CO2 thrusters to maintain or change their positions relative to each other. The research will lead to advances in algorithms needed for small, distributed, affordable satellites in Earth orbit and elsewhere in space, and improved docking methods for both manned and unmanned spacecraft.

The experiment last August, called TS18, was a success. But what we like about the video is the guy way down the corridor who keeps shooting back and forth in weightlessness as Strauss' "Blue Danube" booms away (Stanley Kubrick paired the waltz with a couple of scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, including the one where a Pan Am space plane docks with a space station). "It's sped up a little bit," says the project's chief scientist, Alvar Saenz-Otero, of the video, "but 2001 was the first thing we thought of when we saw it." Hard to tell who the mystery astronaut is, because Expedition 20 was the first six-person crew on the ISS. Judging from the hair length, we can only rule out Nicole Stott.

So put on your headphones and turn up the volume for a truly Arthur C. Clarkian check on just how far we've come toward his predictions.

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