The August 24, 2016 NASA news item: New NASA Record Holder For Cumulative Days in Space congratulates ISS station commander Jeff Williams for passing 520 total days in space - a new NASA astronaut record.

While I was contemplating the challenges of spending a few percent of one's entire life in a (very large) tin can, I noticed the two microgravity robot things with him. Where can I read more about them, or at least what are they called?

Then the one on Cmdr. Williams' left caught my eye - that looks like art! Where can I read more about the pattern on the outside of that unit?

Who is the space artist??

below: from http://ssl.mit.edu/spheres/projects/vertigo.html which also shows another photo of the red sphere sans décoration.

enter image description here

below x3: Images courtesy of NASA.

enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here


2 Answers 2


To answer the question as it is asked: the "artist" would most likely be one of the SPHERES PIs.

However, the patterns, aesthetically pleasing though they may be, have a specific purpose other than "art".

They are part of the VERTIGO upgrade to the SPHERES payload, which is intended to test computer vision algorithms for maneuvering around an unknown target. The patterns are "textured stickers" used to aid the computer vision algorithm.

See the image below (from the link above) for a description.


  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Ninja'd! Yesterday I asked a former colleague who now works on SPHERES about this, and I just got the email back, and was coming here to post! Well done. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Tristan, excellent work. Thanks for the research and the photo with the orange sphere also donning retro patterning. @OrganicMarble gets an "E" for effort as well. I think the stickers have been applied very artistically at least. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 16:18

These are some of the SPHERES satellites. They're little flying robots, driven by pressurised gas, intended to fly around inside the station. They were created for various indoor experiments, such as docking and formation flying, without needing some extremely complicated (and easily lost) system rated for independent flight outside the station.

They've been on the station since April 2006. They've been modified a lot over the years, your picture shows various add-ons I can't identify. They have been used in schools outreach projects so perhaps that's the source of the arty designs...

And yes; various NASA sources admit the idea came from the first "Star Wars" movie; the little flying droid used for Luke's sword training.

  • $\begingroup$ Wow OK there is a lot out there to read. It looks like they returned to Earth around January 2014, and back in space by December 2014 - and "Blue" now has the new "artsy" look I'm asking about. No Wait! This is confusing me! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ That's interesting - I had no idea they'd been returned to Earth then sent up again later. That must have been expensive (their mass is about 3-4 kg each I think.) $\endgroup$
    – Andy
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 10:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The blue one has a grapple fixture! I also had not seen all these add-ons. Cool. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 11:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.