Actual space robots. The SPHERES aren’t silly humanoid mannequins pretending to be people, but real “little orbs flying around space doing things”. Robosatellites if you like. They were built by incredibly intelligent people watching the lightsabre training droid from Star Wars, and that’s not a joke. That’s really where the idea came from. The SPHERES are real space robots currently being tested to work as janitors around the space station and and as real satellites, and were called Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage and Reorient Satellites (SPHERES). So as well as being geniuses in robotics and space flight, their builders are also masters of acronymology.
Now for the phone part, although the way we have to make this real-life Star Wars tech built by rocket scientists ‘relevant’ is sort of insane. The phones sent up weren’t specially designed to work with the robots – the robots were specially designed to work with the phones. Modern handsets are simply so powerful that the robots hooked into Nexus S’s (standard apart from an extra connector cut into the back of the case) and used them as brains. The phones weren’t a gimmicky addition by fame-hungry astronauts with less fans than Jersey Shore, no matter how horrific that truth is. The phone sensors, wireless capabilities and processors are so powerful that the robot body uses it as a head. Brain, senses, communications, they’re all routed through the phone while the robot chassis takes care of the “flying in space” bit.
A big part of this apotheosis of phone is the Android operating system. The open-source software approach is ideal for innovation and adaptations, and for innovation and adaptation read “making new cool things.” You can even download the sensor-logging app right now. That’s the same program they’re using in space, because your handset can record an awful lot more than your voice.
That’s the sort of thing our phones can do. They’re powerful enough to talk to spaceships, smart enough to steer robots, they can scan the environment, make decisions, and connect to vast free databases of incredible information (in fact, they can do that last one on Earth even more easily.) Think about that the next time you start playing Angry Birds.