A little spherical spacecraft may soon be buzzing around the exterior of the International Space Station and the space shuttles to inspect for any damage.

The Miniature Autonomous Extravehicular Robotic Camera has now completed a docking test at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and could be ready for its first space mission as early as 2006 or 2007. If it is flown on space shuttle missions, Mini AERCam could hover under the orbiter’s belly to check for damage to the heat shield.

But it will not fly on the next shuttle mission. Instead, astronauts aboard Discovery will use an extension of the shuttle’s robotic arm to peer underneath the orbiter. Astronauts say that the manoeuvre is awkward and there is very little clearance between the robot arm and the shuttle’s wings – using Mini AERCam in the future would avoid those problems.

“The advantages of Mini AERCam are you can see anywhere you’d like to look at, from any angle, and from any standoff distance,” says Steven Frederickson, Mini AERCam’s project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, US. Another advantage is that it weighs just 4.5 kilograms, much less than the robotic arm extension.

More here.