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The Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellites program was designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Space Systems Laboratory to: (1) develop a facility for the advancement of control, estimation, and autonomy algorithms for distributed satellite systems and (2) maximize its impact in the use of the International Space Station by adhering to prescribed facility design principles. Each SPHERES unit is a generic satellite bus with propulsion, avionics, power, communications, and guidance sub-systems. The Guest Scientist Program provides investigators a general programming environment to test their algorithms. By developing a generic, risk-tolerant facility, SPHERES follows the principles of iterative research, enabling a field of study, incremental technology maturation, remote operation, optimized utilization, and focused modularity. Operations began in May 2006, running tests on formation flight and docking algorithms. New programs have appeared which use the modular and generic nature of SPHERES. In 2010 DARPA and NASA agreed to name SPHERES an official facility of the ISS National Laboratory Office, to be run by Ames Research Center. This action opens the facility for use by a broad community of space engineers and validates the design principles as a set of guidelines to utilize the ISS to the fullest extent possible.
Dr. Alvar Saenz-Otero was born in Mexico City in 1975, son to Araceli Otero and Fernando Saenz. He grew up in Mexico City until leaving for college. He attended the American School Foundation (ASF) in Mexico City through High School, where he as a member of multiple academic and non-academic groups, the honor society, and salutatorian of the Class of 1994. Dr. Saenz-Otero maintains close contacts with Mexico, with active participation with the Mexican Community of New England, hosting visits of Mexican students to MIT, working with the Mexican General Consulate in Boston, and returning to Mexico multiple times a year.
Dr. Saenz-Otero began his professional development at MIT as a member of Class of 1998. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics in June 1998, a Bachelor of Science and a Masters of Engineering in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in September 2000, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Aerospace Systems in June 2005. His doctoral research concentrated on the development of space-based microgravity laboratories for operation aboard the International Space Station which can provide a platform to incrementally develop new control, metrology, and autonomy algorithms for future space missions. In parallel, he applied his extensive knowledge in EE to the development of the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellites) Laboratory for Formation Flight Research.
Currently he is a Principal Research Scientist and Director of the MIT Space Systems Laboratory at the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He is also a consultant to Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation (previously Payload Systems Inc.). His primary role is as Lead Scientist of the SPHERES program. His tasks include the development of research activities for tests aboard the International Space Station and in ground facilities including the MIT Space Systems Laboratory and the Marshall Space Flight Center flat floor. He manages a team of up to sixteen students (graduate and undergraduate) which uses the SPHERES facilities for research on formation flight controls; metrology algorithm development; fault-detection, identification, and recovery; autonomous docking and reconfiguration; electro-magnetic formation flight; and vision based navigation and inspection. The project has contributed to several missions under planning, including the Mars Orbit Sample Return, Stellar Imager, DARPA F6, and DARPA Phoenix. In addition to the research programs, SPHERES runs the only student competition which annually concludes in space: Zero Robotics. This outreach program allows both Middle- and High-school students to write programs for the SPHERES satellites aboard the ISS. Academically, he has been a mentor in seven capstone design classes at MIT, working closely with Prof. David W. Miller, director of the Space Systems Laboratory. The projects he has mentored (beyond SPHERES) include: a hybrid rover system with wheels and legs, modular spacecraft assembly prototypes, separated optical telescopes, and electromagnetic formation flight satellites.