Orbital robot runs Linux

NASA 'personal satellite assistant' is based on Star Wars and Star Trek, but runs on off-the-shelf PC components

NASA's Ames Research Center is building a "personal satellite assistant", powered by a Pentium III with the Linux operating system, to help out astronauts on space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) missions.

The robot is a six-inch sphere inspired by the sparring droid that Luke Skywalker fights in the movie "Star Wars", but NASA engineers say its functionality is closer to the "tricorder" tool used in Star Trek: it senses the pressure and temperature of the ambient atmosphere, and detects concentrations of gases like carbon dioxide and oxygen.

It will also contain fans for movement and video cameras for sight, and will be able to be controlled from the ground, making it possible for mission controllers to have a "virtual presence" in orbit. Engineers also envision speech capabilities, a small LCD screen for displaying lists and a wireless network connection to the on-board computer.

Ames researchers said the machine, which is now at the prototype stage, was built using off-the-shelf components like the Pentium chip and Linux to keep costs down.

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