PSA_small.jpgIt's shaped like a basketball. It was inspired by Spock's tricorder. And, if NASA researchers have their way, it could be helping out astronauts aboard the International Space Station in as little as three years.The Personal Satellite Assistant is a robot prototype designed to buzz around the space station, performing a variety of jobs for astronauts and mission controllers: monitoring life-support systems, keeping tabs on the day's tasks and reminding space scientists how to do their experiments right.After six years of development, engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center say they now have a version of the Personal Satellite Assistant, or PSA, that's fully mobile, with a sensor suite that's nearly space-ready.But it's unclear whether the red spherical bot will ever make it into orbit. Like so much else at the space agency these days, the fate of the PSA remains uncertain. The drone's makers hope to have an answer from the higher-ups by the end of the summer.My Wired News article has details.THERE'S MORE: In case the PSA wasn't sci-fi enough for you, consider how the prototype drone is built. Or rather, printed. A 3D printer's laser zaps a vat of plastic, constructing the PSA a tiny layer at a time. When it's done, the globe rises out of the liquid, fully formed. "Pretty cool," Keith Nicewarner, the project's lead system engineer, giggles.psa_inaction.JPGAND MORE: Then there's the matter of testing the PSA. That's done in a full-scale mockup of the International Space Station's American wing. Over this, a force-feedback gantry crane tangles a cable, which holds a gimbal. The PSA floats inside. The set-up simulates the effects of microgravity, and allows the 'bot to buzz around, unencumbered by friction or drag.AND MORE: Via Xeni and SMZ, here's a picture of the PSA being tested, circa 2000...

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