Space is Calling – Can your phone do that?

PhoneSat 1.0

PhoneSat 1.0 (image courtesy NASA)

What coverage areas are included in your mobile phone plan? Does it include the section of space – outer space that is – defined as low Earth orbit? If not, don’t worry, NASA’s PhoneSats have that covered.

This past Sunday, 21 April 2013, NASA successfully launched a trio of low-cost nanosatellites; all built using Google Nexus smartphones. Collectively referred to as the PhoneSat mission, these satellites are a technology demonstration project being used to determine if smartphones can be used to control satellite avionics, i.e., the general communication and navigation requirements for standard satellite operation.

But these aren’t the first smartphone-enabled satellites. You may recall that earlier this year on February 25 the United Kingdom launched STRaND-1, also built using a Google Nexus device, thus taking honors as the first smartphone satellite in orbit.

In addition to the PhoneSat mission, the April 21 launch from NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia also marked an important milestone for Orbital Sciences Corporation. With the successful maiden launch of their Antares rocket, and subsequent satellite payload delivery, Orbital Sciences completed a significant step towards ultimately providing cargo supply missions to the International Space Station. As with similar missions already being conducted by SpaceX, this launch represents another important achievement for NASA and the U.S. commercial space industry, and another contribution to the exciting new future of our space economy.

The three PhoneSat satellites, which are part of NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program, were predominantly assembled using off-the-shelf components and all conform to the specifications of 1U CubeSats, measuring just 10x10x10cm. Despite the smartphone capabilities, however, you won’t be getting a call from these satellites anytime soon; the ability to send and receive both calls and messages has been disabled on the phones. Modifications have also been made to incorporate a larger external lithium battery and integrate a powerful radio transmitter. But otherwise the satellites are designed to specifically take advantage of the powerful microprocessors and other miniaturized components inherent to today’s smartphones.

Among various tests on how phone hardware and software operates in a space environment, the PhoneSat mission is using the built-in cameras on all three smartphone satellites to acquire images of the Earth’s surface. The images are then being transmitted at regular intervals via small data packets such that amateur radio operators around the world can receive the individual packets and send them to researchers at NASA Ames Research Center. Using this citizen science approach, the ultimate goal is to assemble a complete mosaic of the Earth using a compilation of just these smartphone images.

With the successful initiation of the PhoneSat and STRaND missions, think of what might be next on the horizon. Think of what apps you might develop that could be implemented on an orbiting smartphone? Just think of the possibilities.

For more information on the PhoneSat program: