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.
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"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."