Androids in Orbit: Smartphones Become Satellites

NASA Ames Research Center

A NASA PhoneSat on a test flight.

Smartphones do some impressive things these days: navigation, speech recognition, Angry Birds. Now, add “flying through space” to that list.
Engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center have turned three off-the-shelf smartphones into miniature satellites, currently orbiting 150 miles above the Earth.
“A cell phone has all the kinds of sensors that you need for a satellite, such as gyroscopes, accelerometers,” said NASA’s Jim Cockrell. “Well, we got the idea of: Can we use a cell phone as the controller for a satellite and yet do it very inexpensively?”
Cockrell and a team at NASA Ames outfitted three Nexus One smartphones with larger batteries and radio transmitters. They’re encased in 10 centimeter cubes, a standard created for the small, experimental satellites known as CubeSats.
All three PhoneSats, as they’re known, are successfully sending back data after their launch. “Your cell phone is pretty rugged,” Cockrell said. “You could probably drop it off the desktop and it would survive. It turns out that’s enough to get it to survive the launch environment and mostly operate in the space environment.”
The mission will run about two weeks before the satellites burn up in the atmosphere. The PhoneSats are running special Android apps designed for the mission. One app is snapping photos with the smartphone’s camera and transmitting them back to Earth, where amateur radio operators are monitoring the signal and sending the data back to NASA.
“Our goal was to explore the edge of the envelope,” said Cockrell. “How much capability can we build into a satellite at a very low cost?”
Two of the satellites cost around $3,500 to build, while the other cost $7,500 because of added solar panels. “Those are maybe three orders of magnitude less than a traditional satellite might cost,” said Bruce Yost, program manager for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program.
Small satellites could potentially fly more serious missions in the future. “Day after day, I’m seeing a trend where more and more groups within NASA, but also within the military and other parts of the government ,are looking at CubeSats to use for their missions as well,” Yost said. “It won’t be too long until we’re considering operational or scientific-based missions using these devices.”
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