Last August, Japan launched the world's first humanoid robot astronaut into space. The diminutive and adorable Kirobo now resides on the International Space Station (ISS) alongside its human counterparts — as well as a trio of other robot crew members who happen to have been there for years.
At least that's one way of thinking of NASA's Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES). The three odd little orbs have been aboard the ISS and taking part in dozens of microgravity experiments since September of 2010. In 2011, the final voyage of Space Shuttle Atlantis brought the SPHERES their first smartphone brains, increasing their processing power. Now, thanks to Google's Project Tango, the robot satellites are about to get another upgrade — one which could give them the smarts to actually become productive members of the station's crew.
Project Tango's real-time 3D mapping technology will allow the SPHERES to autonomously navigate their surroundings in zero G, even completing tasks as complicated as taking inventory and interior environment surveys for the station's crew. Already capable of maneuvering themselves about the station, NASA feels that the SPHERES are on the verge of becoming "mobile assistants" for astronauts, both inside and outside the station's walls. Astronauts doing repairs during a spacewalk will have a robot assistant holding their tools and carrying out odd jobs. Also, by turning over the day-to-day operation of the space station to the SPHERES, astronauts will have more time for experimentation and communication with mission control.
Obviously none of this will happen overnight. Before making it to the ISS, the Project Tango phones will have to be tested aboard a reduced gravity aircraft. Then the phones will have to be hitched up to the SPHERES and tested. Someday, however, NASA sees the SPHERES working in tandem with other robot crew members to help space-faring humans operate their ships. They could quite literally become the first astromech droids to exist outside of a galaxy far, far away.