Google's 3D mapping tech flying to space station

Cygnus cargo spacecraft launches Sunday on its way to a Wednesday rendezvous

After a successful Sunday launch, a cargo spacecraft is on its way to the International Space Station, carrying a Google 3D smartphone, along with a flock of tiny satellites.

Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus spacecraft, filled with more than 3,000 pounds of food, supplies, hardware and scientific experiments, lifted off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Sunday at 12:52 p.m. ET.

The Cygnus cargo craft launched on top of Orbital's Antares rocket.

Cygnus cargo spacecraft launches
The Cygnus cargo spacecraft launches on top of the Antares rocket Sunday. The cargo craft is expected to rendezvous with the space station Wednesday morning. (Photo: NASA)

The spacecraft is taking a few days to catch up to the space station. Cygnus is scheduled to rendezvous with the orbiter at 6:39 a.m. Wednesday, when astronauts are expected to use the station's robotic arm to grab hold of the craft.

Besides food, scientific experiments and spare parts, the Cygnus is carrying equipment for Google's Project Tango. Google's 3D mapping technology comes out of Project Tango, the company's effort to create tablets and smartphones that are 3D-enabled.

Next month, astronauts are expected to integrate the 3D technology with its smart Spheres(Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites), free-flying space robots that NASA has been testing on the space station since 2011.

The Spheres have only been operating in a small area of the space station. Once the sensors and cameras that enable Project Tango's 3D navigation are operational inside the floating robots, astronauts will move the Spheres throughout the station, mapping its entire layout.

Once that map is complete, the Spheres can begin using the map to maneuver throughout the space station.

NASA wants to use the flying robots, which are about the size of a volleyball, to perform tasks on the space station. For instance, the Spheres might be used to manipulate a camera to give flight controllers in Houston views of the inside of the station. The flying robots also will carry air quality and noise sensors, saving astronauts from doing the monitoring themselves.

The Cygnus spacecraft also is carrying a fleet of 28 small satellites, called CubeSats, to the space station. The CubeSats, nanosatellites about the size of a loaf of bread, will be deployed from the station's Japanese Experiment Module airlock and will be used to image the entire planet. The images then can be used to identify and track natural disasters and relief efforts. They also will be used for environmental and agricultural monitoring and management.

NASA is upgrading smartphones on space satellites called Spheres with 3D-sensing Android smartphones developed by Google.

This article, Google's 3D mapping tech flying to space station, was originally published at

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

See more by Sharon Gaudin on

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon