News / Science & Technology

Rely on a Smartphone? New NASA Satellites Do

NASA's PhoneSat project has won Popular Science's 2012 Best of What's New Award for innovation in aerospace. PhoneSat will demonstrate the ability to launch one of the lowest-cost, easiest-to-build satellites ever flown in space -- capabilities enabled by
NASA's PhoneSat project has won Popular Science's 2012 Best of What's New Award for innovation in aerospace. PhoneSat will demonstrate the ability to launch one of the lowest-cost, easiest-to-build satellites ever flown in space -- capabilities enabled by
Suzanne Presto
Smartphones.  We carry them in our pockets, toss them in our tote bags and have them at the ready whenever we want directions to a destination or to snap a picture or to call a friend. 

Perhaps we're often guilty of taking the gadgets' microprocessing powers for granted.  Not so with NASA, which just sent three smartphones into space as low-cost satellites.

PhoneSats    

When Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on its first test flight Sunday, the privately built booster carried a payload to simulate the cargo craft that will one day dock with the International Space Station.

But Antares also placed into orbit several new mini-satellites built mainly with smartphone components, which the U.S. space agency is calling their PhoneSats.
The three so-called PhoneSats are named 'Alexander,' 'Graham,' and 'Bell,' after the inventor of the telephone. 

The PhoneSats are small cubes, each about the size of a beverage mug and weighing a little more than a kilogram.  At the core of each is a Google-HTC Nexus One phone, whose zippy little microprocessor -- running the Android operating system -- serves as the onboard computer.

Operating in Orbit

Jim Cockrell, the PhoneSat Project Manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, described the project in a video broadcast on NASA TV ahead of the Antares launch.

"Someone here asked the question, 'Can we fly a cell phone as the avionics for a satellite and have something that's very capable but really, really inexpensive?' So PhoneSat was launched to try to answer that question," he said.   

NASA says the three PhoneSats are operating in orbit, and transmissions from the trio have been received at various ground stations here on Earth.

Low-Cost Satellites

Engineers spent between $3,500 and $7,000 for the PhoneSat components. They did add a larger, external lithium-ion battery bank and a more powerful radio to send messages.  

The space agency says smartphones have more than 100 times the computing power of an average satellite.  Researchers note that smartphones come equipped with fast processors, high-resolution cameras, global positioning system receivers, radios and sensors.       

"The smartphone vendors have put a lot of R&D [research and development] money into making very, very capable microprocessors that have a lot of processing power and speed in a package that's very rugged," said NASA's Cockrell.

Monitoring PhoneSat Transmissions

Researchers continue to monitor the satellites, which could remain in orbit for about two weeks.  NASA adds that amateur radio operators can monitor the transmissions themselves.  Each satellite will broadcast a signal every 30 seconds on the amateur UHF band 437.425 MHz.   

The PhoneSats will attempt to take pictures of our planet as well as send information via radio back to Earth.  

Think about that next time you pull your phone from your pocket.  But don't think about texting 'Alexander' 'Graham' or 'Bell.'  NASA says it has disabled their ability to send and receive calls and texts.

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