NASA launches new nanosatellites: Android smartphones

Googles HTC Nexus One phones are sending pics, messages from Earth orbit

NASA has launched three smartphones into space in what scientists hope will be the lowest-cost satellites ever tested.

The smartphones, Google-HTC Nexus Ones running the Android operating system, launched aboard the maiden flight of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia on Sunday. The smartphones are encased in 4-inch metal cubes and are hooked up to external lithium-ion battery banks and more powerful radios for sending messages from space.

The goal of this mission is to see just how capable these tiny satellites, dubbed PhoneSats, are and whether they can one day serve as the brains of inexpensive, but powerful, satellites.

"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," said Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology. "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."

The nanosatellites are orbiting Earth about 150 miles up and will fall back toward Earth within the next week and a half, burning up in the atmosphere.

All three PhoneSats are transmitting images taken from space, as well as messages, which generally are about their functions and condition. The transmissions have been received at multiple ground stations on Earth, indicating they are operating normally, reported NASA. The PhoneSat team at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., will continue to monitor the satellites until they fall back toward Earth.

Amateur radio operators also are getting in on the project.

The PhoneSats are emitting packets on the amateur radio spectrum. And NASA reported that more than 200 amateur radio operators from around the world have reported receiving the transmissions since the smartphones went into space.

NASA's off-the-shelf nanosatellites already have many of the systems needed for a satellite, including fast processors, versatile operating systems, multiple miniature sensors, high-resolution cameras, GPS receivers and several radios, NASA noted.

Because the phones already have so many necessary components, NASA engineers kept the total cost of the parts for the three prototype satellites to between $3,500 and $7,000.

This article, NASA launches new nanosatellites: Android smartphones, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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