NASA’s Ames Research Center is working on a new project designed to drastically cut the cost of launching and operating small satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The project, known as PhoneSat, will see the Android powered Nexus One and Nexus S phones command their very own small scale spacecraft this year in a first of its kind research mission.
Is Android ready for space? Will this be a fruitless experiment, or the shape of things to come?
Androids In Space
At first glance, the idea may sound a bit silly. Why would NASA trust the operation of a satellite to a Nexus One? Surely NASA could design their own platform to power these spacecraft?
They could, but the question is, why should they? The PhoneSat program is part of the larger Small Spacecraft Technology Program, which aims to leverage the incredible advances made in consumer technology to create cheaper spacecraft. Ames engineer Chris Boshuizen explains that NASA should embrace the latest consumer technology, rather than constantly reinventing the wheel:
Your cellphone is really a $500 robot in your pocket that can’t get around. A lot of the real innovation now happens in entertainment and cellphone technology, and NASA should be going forward with their stuff.
Consider all of the hardware packed into the modern smartphone. GPS, gyroscope, compass, cameras, microphone, light sensors, etc, etc. All of this hardware is exactly what is required for small scale satellites, so why not use what’s available?
Of course, the phones won’t exactly resemble their Earth-bound brethren while in space. To save weight, the screens and cases will be removed from the phones, and their batteries will be replaced with more appropriate power systems.
Then there is the operating system. Android is open source, and when running on an official developer device like the Nexus line of phones, can be easily deployed in any configuration desired. NASA can take the Android source code, modify it however they like, and flash it to their satellite, all in-house.
This isn’t the first time Android phones have been sent on missions of exploration, either. In 2010, a group of engineers loaded two Nexus Ones into high altitude rockets to see if they could handle the extreme forces placed on them during launch. While one Nexus was destroyed when its parachute failed to deploy, the other Nexus landed in perfect working order; and both of them recorded data for the entire ride.
While the hardware may have all the desired features that make up a low-cost satellite, it’s not exactly designed for space travel.
As most people know, space is a pretty nasty place to hang out. Between the monstrous temperature extremes, crippling radiation, and risk of impact with all manners of space junk and micro-meteorites, it’s hard enough for a full scale spacecraft to survive, let alone a smartphone. While these risks can be mitigated by adding shielding to separate the internal electronics from the hellish environment outside, this unfortunately adds considerable weight to the vehicle. Added weight means it takes more energy to put the craft into orbit, which in turn means higher costs.
In the case of our intrepid Nexus phones, the issue is being tactfully ignored. As these are test missions, NASA isn’t concerned about the long-term viability of these craft, and only expects them to last a few weeks or months. Due to their low orbits and lack of thrusters to increase their altitude during the mission, the Nexus-powered satellites will be falling back down to Earth within a year anyway. Even if they were built to better withstand the extremes of space, they would still just burn up in the atmosphere before too long.
Assuming the success of this upcoming mission, future smartphone based spacecraft will likely be designed for longer duration missions, with better shielding and redundant systems. But first we need to see if it will even work…
The PhoneSat mission will launch two different satellites into LEO orbit, with different goals.
PhoneSat 1.0 is based on the Nexus One, and has only one primary goal: stay alive. PhoneSat 1.0 is designed to test if a smartphone can operate in space for a reasonable amount of time. The Nexus One will use its camera to collect images, which will be sent back to Earth along with general information about the state of the hardware. In the event of a problem, an external device will monitor the Nexus and reboot it if the flow of data stops. In addition, there will also be an external radio beacon in place to indicate the satellite itself is still in one piece. If the signal is being received from the beacon and not the Nexus, then scientists on the ground will know the problem must be with the Nexus.
PhoneSat 2.0 will be based around the considerably more powerful Nexus S, and feature additional external hardware to make the craft more useful. Solar panels will allow the PhoneSat 2.0 to operate for a longer duration, and a two way radio will let scientists send commands up to the satellite. This version of the satellite will also have magnetorquer coils and reaction wheels, which are devices that let a satellite orient itself and maintain proper position with nothing more than electricity from the solar panels.
Both satellites will be based on the CubeSat design, which is a cube with dimensions of exactly 10×10×10 centimeters, which has a volume of 1 liter and a mass of less than 1.33 kilograms. The tiny internal dimensions of the CubeSat are usually a challenge to work within, but the extreme miniaturization of smartphone technology makes it a natural fit (no pun intended).
Low Cost, High Availability
By combing consumer hardware, open source software, and commercial launch opportunities; the space program of the 21st century is already shaping up to be very different than the pioneering work done in the 1950’s and 1960’s. These new low cost technologies promise to drive the cost of owning an operating a satellite from the 100’s of millions of dollars down to the 10’s of thousands.
If missions like PhoneSat are successful, and the combination of off the shelf hardware and Android can deliver a spacecraft for literally 1,000th the cost of traditionally engineered vehicles, it could have a big an impact on space technology as Sputnik did in 1957.