NASA’s PhoneSat mission using smartphones as low cost satellites

Posted Apr 27, 2013 by Robert Myles
Last Sunday NASA launched into Earth orbit three satellites in the shape of three smartphones likely to be the lowest cost satellites ever as part of NASA’s PhoneSat mission.
Not a Borg cube! PhoneSat 1.0 during an earlier high-altitude balloon test flight.
Not a Borg cube! PhoneSat 1.0 during an earlier high-altitude balloon test flight.
Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
The launch of those cellphone satellites took place from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia aboard the maiden flight of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares launch vehicle.
Where could my old Nexus phone end up?
NASA has dubbed the three satellite phones ‘Alexander,’ ‘Graham’ and ‘Bell’ in memory of Alexander Graham Bell, the Scots born scientist, engineer and inventor generally credited with perfecting the world’s first practical telephone. Earth’s latest three satellites are said by NASA to be “old” HTC-Nexus One phones enjoying a second generation career with a difference, 240 kilometres (150 miles) above the Earth after undergoing extensive ground tests prior to launch.
According to NASA, the three phones' performance has barely changed in orbit and all seem to be working perfectly. For their extraterrestrial mission, NASA customised the phones grafting on a large battery and a more powerful radio transmitter. The modified phones are housed in a cube of about 10 cm (4 inches) square and are said to be coping much better with the intense cold of space and incessant radiation than ground engineers had expected.
That apart, each PhoneSat, says NASA, is basically an off-the-shelf smartphone already having inbuilt systems in the shape of fast processor, versatile operating system, multiple miniature sensors, high-res camera, GPS receiver and several radios, to enable it to operate as a satellite. NASA hasn’t even needed to design an operating system as each satellite comes with the Android operating system pre-loaded!
The net result is that the estimated cost of the three prototype satellites in the PhoneSat project comes in at $3500 to $7000 as commercial hardware and design costs and mission objectives are kept to a minimum.
Back to the future
The aim of the three NASA PhoneSats is to ascertain if an ordinary shop-bought smartphone can be deployed to provide the main flight avionics of a viable, but inexpensive, satellite. NASA reports that transmissions from Alexander, Graham and Bell have been received at a number of Earth-based monitoring stations, proving the cheap and cheerful satellites are operating normally. Monitoring of the PhoneSats will continue over the coming days and these initial, expendable PhoneSat experimental modules are expected to remain in orbit for up to two weeks, before their orbit decays and they fall back to Earth.
The PhoneSat mission could be regarded as technology disappearing inside itself. It’s a ‘back to the future’ scenario where the initial impetus given by Gemini and Apollo missions of the 1960s to greater miniaturization of spacecraft computers and systems ultimately fed through to the tiny communications devices — cellphones — that all of us, nowadays, take for granted. With the PhoneSat mission, the direct descendant of the technological innovations of half a century ago has found itself back in space at the forefront of technological advancement — all the makings of a Doctor Who script, except this is reality!
Commenting on the PhoneSat mission, Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology in Washington, said,
“It's always great to see a space technology mission make it to orbit -- the high frontier is the ultimate testing ground for new and innovative space technologies of the future. 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. They also may open space to a whole new generation of commercial, academic and citizen-space users."
As well as returning data concerning the satellites’ state of health, the newly orbiting smartphones undertake a series of tests designed to demonstrate their suitability as space-faring satellites. Attempts will also be made to have the tiny spacecraft take pictures of Earth using their inbuilt cameras.
NASA are keen for members of the public to get involved with the mission and amateur radio operators worldwide can monitor transmissions and retrieve image data from the three PhoneSat satellites. More information on signing up to assist in the mission can be found at the PhoneSat website.