Since arriving in 2006, NASA's SPHERES robots have roamed the International Space Station (ISS) assisting in microgravity research by serving as engineering and robotic testbeds. Now it is time for an upgrade. As NASA prepares to launch SPHERES' successor, a free-flying cube-shaped robot known as Astrobee, it is crowdsourcing design concepts for one of new machine's more noteworthy features, a robotic arm to be used for perching and interacting with objects.

Set to launch next year, Astrobee is a compact, cubed robot measuring one foot (30.5 cm) along each side. NASA imagines that it will build on the value of the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Re-orient, Experimental Satellites) robots largely due to a greater degree of autonomy. With the ability to carry out research and monitoring duties without supervision, the agency says it will open up new opportunities to test emerging technologies in microgravity, while also reducing the risks to astronauts.

One example noted by NASA is the exploration of magnetic propulsion, which astronauts actually tested aboard the ISS in 2013. This experimental technology could one day be used to make spacecraft formation flying more practical, using magnetic fields to group together satellites in a tight pattern to form giant space telescopes, for example. NASA says scientists will be able to add magnetic propulsion modules to Astrobee to test different control approaches, without the risk of losing costly satellites in space.

And by taking on the more mundane chores aboard the ISS, Astrobee will also free up astronauts' time for more serious tasks. It will be capable of monitoring air quality, sound levels and relaying the sounds and sights of the station to flight controllers through its onboard microphone and camera. And fitted with an RFID scanner, it will also be able to roam around monitoring the location of the tens and thousands of tools and parts, saving the astronauts the trouble of doing this by hand.

One of the main upgrades to the ISS' new robotic resident will be a small and lightweight arm, allowing it to physically interact with its environment. While NASA has its own designs for the attachment, it is also putting the call out for alternative ideas by tapping into the community, a freelancing marketplace with more than 17 million members.

The competition began on January 14 with a registration process. At the time of writing there has been more than 1,400 submissions, with NASA to eventually whittle this down to 30. The agency will then ask those 30 entrants to break down the system architecture of their designs. By drawing on these finely detailed concepts, NASA hopes to wind up with complementary or enhanced capabilities for Astrobee's robotic arm.

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