Android Smartphones To Power NASA Satellites - InformationWeek

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8/27/2012
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Android Smartphones To Power NASA Satellites

NASA plans to use Nexus Android smartphones as the on-board computers on tiny, low-cost satellites.

NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
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In October, NASA plans to send a two-pound, ten-ounce cube-shaped satellite the size of a coffee cup into space aboard a rocket launched from Wallops Island, Va. However, it's not just the size of the satellite that likely will pique curiosity, but the fact that the on-board electronics will consist of the guts of HTC Nexus One and Samsung Nexus S smartphones running Android.

The effort, known as PhoneSat and run out of NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, is part of the space agency's Small Spacecraft Technology program, which aims to support the development of new technologies to improve the capabilities of small spacecraft that weigh less than 100 kilograms, or about 220 pounds. Phonesat qualifies as a nanosatellite in NASA parlance, as it is between one and 10 kilograms.

NASA is developing two generations of PhoneSat satellites: the Nexus One-powered PhoneSat 1.0, which takes pictures and records its position during its time in space; and the Nexus S-powered PhoneSat 2.0, which will add solar panels and a GPS receiver and let engineers command the satellite from Earth via a two-way radio.

[ Read NASA Satellites Track Tropical Storm Debby. ]

Because PhoneSat satellites are being built from consumer hardware, their overall cost is relatively miniscule: the cost of parts on the PhoneSat 1.0--which include the Nexus One phone, batteries, a radio beacon, and a watchdog circuit to monitor the condition of the phone--is only $3,500. NASA scientists have estimated that a launch might cost as little as $50,000. This all compares to typical satellite costs of as much as $500 million.

NASA has been working on its PhoneSat effort since 2010, and has since subjected PhoneSat to a high-altitude balloon test and other tests. Among those helping out have been Google employees, who have helped with an image compression algorithm and a serial data port.

PhoneSat satellites won't be the first tiny satellites in space. Space Shuttle Endeavor in May carried with it on its last journey three "Sprite" satellites developed by Cornell University and Sandia National Laboratories that will for three years collect data about the solar wind from their perch on the International Space Station.

There are a number of different possibilities for the types of research that PhoneSat satellites could eventually do, including research on the sun, debris tracking, and low-Earth orbit observation.

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