Orbital Science's Antares rocket took off from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia containing two PhoneSat 1.0 satellites, dubbed Graham and Bell, and an early prototype of PhoneSat 2.0, called Alexander. What makes the satellites unique is their use of commercial off-the-shelf smartphone components. PhoneSat 1.0 was built using HTC Nexus One, and PhoneSat 2.0 -- which has improved software and more sensors -- is powered by Samsung Nexus S.
Smartphones have more than 100 times the computing power of satellites, including fast processors, multiple sensors, high-resolution cameras, GPS receivers and radios. That's the main reason why they were chosen as microprocessors for PhoneSats, NASA said. However, some components had to be added that are missing in smartphones, including a larger, external lithium-ion battery and a more powerful radio for sending messages from space.
[ Learn about a new Obama Administration initiative to boost STEM education. Read Future Scientists Showcase Inventions At White House. ]
Each miniature satellite, measuring only four inches on each side and weighting less than four pounds, cost $3,500 to construct. NASA said its goal with PhoneSats is to send cheaper, easier to build satellites to space. Sunday's launch is estimated to cost as little as $50,000. As a comparison, a typical satellite costs as much as $500 million.
"Smartphones offer a wealth of potential capabilities for flying small, low-cost, powerful satellites for atmospheric or earth science, communications or other space-born applications," Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology, said in a written statement. "They also may open space to a whole new generation of commercial, academic and citizen-space users."
Since the demonstration flight began, Alexander, Graham and Bell have been broadcasting signals over amateur radio band at 437.425 MHz. NASA created Phonesat.org, a website where anyone around the world can upload data "packets" they receive from the PhoneSats. The site has already collected more than 200 packets from amateur radio operators who have been tracking the satellites.
NASA has been working on this project since 2010, and has been finding different ways of using smartphones to make satellites more intelligent. The project is part of the space agency's Small Spacecraft Technology Program. PhoneSats were created by a small team of engineers at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, Calif.
The Antares rocket, which NASA's commercial partner Orbital Sciences is testing in orbit with the PhoneSats, will eventually be used to carry experiments and supplies to the International Space Station.