NASA pilot smartphone satellite with smartphones


A team of young engineers from Australia, Canada, France, Spain and the U.S. have sent a small satellite into orbit, controlled by three Android smartphones. A device that looks like a cage, that NASA calls a "Smart Box," is being used to protect the smartphone they launched as a satellite.

"They're cheap. They're light. They're super-powerful. They have sensors, memory… They come with additional power that's outstanding. So, all these reasons make them ideal," said Oriol Tintore with the Phonesat engineering team.

They also have GPS, motion sensors, and a camera built-in. So, the project cost less than $10,000 using off-the-shelf technology. A custom-built system might have cost upwards of a million dollars. The module was equipped with extra lithium-ion batteries. Data, along with photos from the smartphone camera, are still being analyzed.

Ham radio operators from every continent except Antarctica were able to monitor the satellite's data. A major concern was whether smartphones could withstand space temperatures. "On Earth here, there's not many situations where your phone will reach to 40, 50 degrees Celsius, and so I think we were pushing the limit, but we were really interested in seeing if this would really work," said Watson Attai with the PhoneSat engineering team.

And it did. PhoneSat Project Manager Jim Cockrell gave high praise to the young engineers. "They can take these pieces and put them together in unique ways. And especially because of their youth, they have novel ideas about things that may not occur to an older engineer who has been steeped in the traditional ways of doing engineering," he said. "Who would have thought that idle conversation about using a cell phone in space would have turned into a successful collaboration and such a successful project?"

Work is already under way on the launch of another smartphone-controlled satellite later this year.

By the way, if you're wondering why an Android phone and not an iPhone? Engineers working on the project say the Android phone was easier to program.

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