Meet Int-Ball: The Japanese Robot Floating Around the International Space Station

This is Int-Ball.

JAXA's Int-Ball

JAXA’s Int-Ball – Source: JAXA/NASA

No, it isn’t a flying BB-8. Int-Ball is the Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) grapefruit-sized camera drone deployed in the Japanese Experiment Module1 attached to the International Space Station. Its full name is JEM Internal Ball Camera. Int-Ball functions autonomously under the direction of ground crews at the JAXA Tsukuba Space Center. Its function is to record images and video for real-time viewing back on Earth. The device uses existing drone technology and its structure is made from 3D printed components.

JAXA estimates that 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) Int-Ball can replace nearly all of the onboard crew’s time spent recording images and video, which is approximately 10% of their total working time. It utilizes ultrasonic and inertial sensors, as well as image-based navigation to make its way between tasks. An array of twelve small fans allow the drone to maneuver in any direction, as well as to hold completely steady in the weightless environment.

A planned future version of the drone will perform additional monitoring tasks to free up even more astronaut working time.

Check out this video for some footage of Int-Ball in action.

  1. nicknamed Kibo (which in English, means ‘hope’

Chinese Space Station Expected To Crash In Early 2018

Artist's rendition of a Shenzou spacecraft preparing to dock with Tiangong-1

Artist’s rendition of a Shenzou spacecraft preparing to dock with Tiangong-1 – Credit: China Manned Space Engineering

In September of 2011, China launched its first prototype space station. Tiangong-1 (translated into English: “Heavenly Palace 1”), was in operation until March 2016. During its operational history, it received three of visits by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The unmanned Shenzou 8 docked with Tiangong-1 in November 2011, followed by two crewed missions: Shenzou 9 docked in June 2012, and Shenzou 10 in June 2013. China’s first two female astronauts participated in the crewed Shenzou missions to the space station: Liu Yang, China’s first woman in space, went up with Shnenzou 9, and Wang Yaping hitched a ride on Shenzou 10.

In March of 2016, CNSA announced that they had retired the station and included a vague comment about losing communications with Tiangong-1. Amateur astronomers observing the station began to suspect that CNSA had lost any ability to control the station; it had gone rogue. In September of 2016, CNSA admitted that they had no control over the space station and that they expected it to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere by the end of 2017.

Previous and calculated future altitude of Tiangong-1

Previous and calculated future altitude of Tiangong-1 – Source: Aerospace.org

The Aerospace Corporation, a California nonprofit corporation that provides technical guidance and advice on space missions, predicts that Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere between December 2017 and March 2018. In an interview with Newsweek, senior member of the technical staff for The Aerospace Corporation, Andrew Abraham stated that they track the “data closely and perform re-entry calculations on a regular basis to monitor any changes in the space station’s orbit or decay rate.”

The Aerospace Corporation has a webpage devoted to the Tiangong-1 re-entry, with a wealth of information, including a very informative FAQ.