We’ve previously reported on the NASA project to base a new generation of small, cheap, spacecraft around Android phones, dubbed PhoneSat. While PhoneSat is still on track to launch in April, the British have beaten their American counterparts to the punch with the Surrey Training, Research, and Nanosatellite Demonstrator (STRaND-1) satellite, currently orbiting the Earth.
STRaND-1 was successfully launched on February 25th from Sriharikota, India; and baring any unforeseen problems, could be switching on its integrated Nexus One phone in as little as a few days.
The STRaND-1 satellite is a very interesting spacecraft in its own right, even if you ignore the fact it is the first satellite to ever carry a smartphone into space (though not the first smartphone to fly in space, as some sources erroneously have been reporting).
It’s carrying cutting edge propulsion systems such as WARP DRiVE (Water-Alcohol Resistojet Propulsion Deorbit Re-entry Velocity Experiment), and 8 pulsed plasma thrusters. These systems are designed to help maneuver the craft while in orbit and eventually push it back into Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its mission, so as not to add to the growing problem of “space junk“. The satellite also makes use of some 3D printed components, which the team believes makes STRaND-1 the first spacecraft to actually rely on 3D printed hardware.
In addition to the Nexus One, the STRaND-1 is also carrying a space-hardened Linux computer. This Linux computer is what the satellite is currently running on, until such time that the team is prepared to begin moving the craft’s functions over to the Nexus.
Nexus One and Android
The STRaND-1 is carrying a now fairly antiquated Nexus One device, which is due to the fact that construction and planning of the satellite started a number of years ago. Even so, raw power is rarely a concern when dealing with space-fairing vehicles, as designers tend to favor more reliable and better understood components than those on the cutting edge (consider that NASA’s now retired fleet of Space Shuttles ran on the 386 processor).
What’s even more impressive than the fact that there is a Nexus One onboard the STRaND-1 is the fact that it’s completely unmodified. Rather than stripping the phone down to the bare board like NASA plans to do with PhoneSat, the Nexus One currently in orbit is in the same state it would be if you bought it from Google (well…if they still sold them, anyway).
So STRaND-1 represents as much of a test of how well a stock phone can survive the rigors of spaceflight as it is of Android’s inherent reliability and flexibility. The team made every effort to utilize the stock hardware and software configuration of the Nexus One to solve the unique challenges of orbit, such as keeping the hardware from freezing:
How are you stopping the phone battery from getting too cold?
The onboard computer will monitor the temperature of the phone battery. If it sees it is getting too cold, it will trigger a processor intensive program to run on the mobile phone, which will warm it up.
Once the team has had enough time to analyze all the craft’s systems and verify the traditional hardware is functioning properly, they will begin transferring key spacecraft systems over to the Nexus One for direct control. Once the Nexus has control of the craft, it will utilize a number of Android applications to take images of the Earth below, measure sound and magnetic data, and relay telemetry information.
STRaND-1 is breaking a lot of new ground, and if everything goes according to plan, it could go a long way towards widening civilian and commercial access to space. If it can prove that a stock Android smartphone can do useful scientific work in orbit, then the sky is literally the limit. We’ve already covered the kind of work the open source and hacker communities want to do in space with their own satellites, and STRaND-1 is bringing that dream one step closer to reality.
But it won’t be alone. NASA will be launching three PhoneSats on the April’s test flight of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, the latest entry into the world of commercial space vehicles, and prime competitor of the SpaceX Falcon 9. These PhoneSats will further qualify the Nexus One and Nexus S hardware for space flight.
With the skill and dedication of the open source community pushing the innovation, and commercial entities like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences driving the cost down, we could be seeing the dawn of a completely different space race than what the world went through during the Cold War. Rather than competing with each other as thinly veiled demonstrations of their capabilities to make war, the participants in this new space race will be competing to bring space down to a level we can all benefit from.
To learn more about STRaND-1, check out its official page on the Surrey Satellite Technology site.