Scientists are already receiving and analyzing information coming in from a fleet of tiny satellites launched into space last week.
NASA and the U.S. Air Force teamed up to launch an Air Force Minotaur 1 rocket carrying 28 small satellites, some built by college students, on Nov. 19 from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The satellites, dubbed CubeSats because of their cube shape, were built by people from various organizations and universities, including NASA, Vermont Technical College, University of Kentucky and University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The CubeSats, nanosatellites about the size of a loaf of bread, are now in in lower Earth orbit.
The satellites measure about 4 inches on each side, have a volume of about 1 quart and weigh less than 3 pounds, according to NASA. The developers of the technology are focused making relatively inexpensive satellites that can be used to create distributed networks in space.
The organizations developing the CubeSats launched this month each have different missions. By launching all at the same time, scientists anticipate multiple technology advances to result.
"Instead of having a single satellite go up and do one type of science, we can have multiple missions run for different applications and prove out different technologies on these small platforms," said James Chartres, a project manager at the NASA Ames Research Center. "It keeps evolving the technology. By having a lot of these technologies available, we can launch faster and make strides quicker."
NASA's CubeSat, called PhoneSat 2.4, is powered by a Nexus S smarthone and uses a solar array to keep it charged. Engineers are hoping it can stay working in orbit for at least two years. Part of its mission is to find out how long it can remain active and send data back to earth.
Carl Brandon, director of the CubeSat Lab at Vermont Technological College, said the device built there, dubbed the Vermont Lunar Cubesat, was the first of the 28 devices to send data back to earth.
Before it had completed its first orbit, it began sending back a beacon with its radio call sign identification and data on its power supply, said Brandon, also a professor at the school.
"The biggest challenge was getting it built," he said. "We had much too small of a team to do this. We got it finished. It's in orbit and it's working. That was the big challenge."
Brandon said 80% of the school's CubeSat's software was built by one student.
"What it does is it really shows that you can build a lot of these relatively small and inexpensive satellites," said Brandon. "This will encourage other universities to get involved. It's an enormously valuable experience for our students."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.