After putting into orbit satellites based on an off-the-shelf smartphone, NASA looks at future for lower-cost spacecraft.
On April 21, NASA launched a novel project, putting into orbit three satellites that employ an off-the-shelf commercial smartphone as the control system. The satellites hitched a ride on the maiden flight of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia.
Each of the three "phonesats" was a 10-centimeter cube with a mass of about 1 kilogram. The trio operated in orbit for about a week, transmitting back down to Earth. The satellite orbits naturally decayed after about one week, as expected, and they re-entered Earth's atmosphere on April 27.
According to Chad Frost, chief of the Mission Design Division at NASA's Ames Research Center, the success of the mission was an important milestone. Building a spacecraft of any sort generally means using very expensive hardware and software, Frost said. But PhoneSat—comparatively very inexpensive—breaks the mold. According to Frost, this concept could be used to deploy groups of satellites to, for example, monitor space weather or conditions in various parts of the Earth.
"We were very intrigued by the notion that you could build a very low-cost spacecraft based entirely on a smartphone and other consumer electronics devices," Frost said.
According to Frost, the PhoneSat project—which won Popular Science's 2012 Best of What's New Award for innovation in aerospace—proved exactly what he and his colleagues at NASA had hoped for: "That you can build a spacecraft for orders of magnitude less" than what it typically takes.
Frost said NASA is now seriously looking at several PhoneSat concepts that could include hundreds or even thousands of spacecraft working in conjunction to provide, for example, a space weather early warning system or other such networks for monitoring. Since the PhoneSat project utilizes the Android operating system, it opens up the possibility of apps being created by the global Android developer community being used in space, Frost said. He called the concept "wide open and wildly exciting."
The DoD has ben discovering this phenomenon for many years now, applying commercial off the self components in many, many systems. Computers are the most obvious example of COTS content. It shouln't surprise anyone that the migration from military-specific mainframes, of the 1970s and early 1980s, to commerial PCs in the mid 1980s to today, would move on to commercial smartphones.
I would expect that for space applications, you have to do someting to defend against radiation. Not sure how long a commercial smartphone would last out there. I'll bet, not as long as the Voyager spacecraft have been working!!
I was wondering about the temp and vacuum conditions on the interconnects? I would be very curious to see how they put a standard smartPhone into low / middle earth orbit and have it work. I think that this is a very exciting development and would love to see high school/college satellite projects get some payload space on future launches. What a great way to encourage students in STEM related areas and promote space!
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Crowdsourced debugging - an interesting paradigm shift. Rather than spending a fortune in development and testing of a one time use system, select a system that has been used by millions and is known to work. Were any modifications required for vacuum and space temperature conditions? Interestingly, those very changes would introduced the greatest risk of an unexpected failure since they were untested byb the "crowd".
Interest idea but limited use in current forms ... this can be considered an incremental update for preliminary demonstration purposes ... As always, serious engineering needs to be done for real Space products that work 24/7 for years on end.
Add a nice camera and the military will be able to spy on other places around the world and cover large areas per picture when there are multiple units working together. I also wonder about security, Android is not impregnable and a hacker just might call up and get access. Things to think about. Sometimes non-commercial systems make better sense.
DoD spent billions to build something close to smart phones but never got close. And guess what? These things are already here, without a dime of public money!
Anyway add a few accessories, smart phones will make good micro or nano satellites. Radiation will be problem that will shorten the service life. But given almost weightless and almost free of cost you can afford lot of redundancy.