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New NASA satellites are powered by everyday itemsNASA is showing off a new generation of satellites that are capable of all sorts of extra-terrestrial work -- and they are powered by something you probably already own. Sumi Das has the story.
-This is NASA's latest tech toy, SPHERES. Soccer ball-sized robots that fly freely in space. Wondering why they looked familiar? -One of the inspirations for this was the light saber trainer droid from Star Wars. Remember, Luke Skywalker and the Millennium Falcon trained with it. -SPHERES which stands for Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient, Experimental Satellites are a type of nanosatellite basically, a miniature satellite. Powering these extra terrestrial robots is a device well-known to earthlings, a smartphone. The Google Nexus S. -We needed to have cameras, gyroscopes. It would be nice if it had a screen. We wanted a Wi-Fi capability which the SPHERES didn't actually have. And as we laid up all of these requirements, we realized very quickly that a smartphone might be a good way to go. -Why build all that technology from scratch when you can buy it at relatively cheaper price off the shelf. -With budgets being, you know, constantly under pressure to do more with less. We can build, launch, fly, test and then do it again actually, you know, months later using small spacecraft and that helps us to advance technology we hope a lot more quickly. -SPHERES are controlled remotely from space or ground control. Three are already in use on the international space station. -When the computer decides to open one of the thrusters then CO2 gas is expelled. And it's a combination of those different thrusters that allows it to move around on station. -NASA aims researchers have embedded smartphones in another nanosatellite about a size of a tissue box, PhoneSat. -We've actually removed the batteries. You can't put your simple rechargeable lithium-ion battery up in the space and expect it to last for a long time. So we've replaced that with nickel cadmium batteries and a big power pack that can last for a long time. -These nanosatellites are modular, so NASA can launch them in groups of 3, 8 or 1 day, even hundreds. -If one of them breaks, you just add a new one and you still have the functionality of the whole system. -PhoneSat inaugural launch is set for late April. NASA says, it wants to prove the technology's capabilities. -It's gonna do its basic Sputnik moment where it's gonna go beep, beep, you know. Tell us if I'm here, I'm alive. Give us what we call housekeeping data, it says I'm this hot. I'm this cold. I'm pointed this way. Here's the magnetic field-- -These nanosatellites have great potential for moon exploration or to test technologies for space flight. They may also eliminate the need for flight crew to perform risky space walks. It would be use to go outside of the vehicle-like space station and to fly around it to do inspections looking for damage or other things that the ground controllers just can't see what-- from the ground. -The stuff of sci-fi minus the light saber training. In Mountain View California, I'm Sumi Das, cnet.com for CBS News.