Three PhoneSats were delivered to Earth orbit on the maiden flight of the Antares launch vehicle on April 21, 2013. The PhoneSats are 10-centimeter cubes with a mass of about 1 kilogram. They employ an off-the-shelf commercial smartphone as the control system for the satellite, and use a UHF radio beacon to transmit data and images to the ground. The objective was to demonstrate the application of consumer electronics as the basis of an extremely low-cost satellite bus. The PhoneSat project is a technology demonstration mission developed at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA.According to Chad Frost, Chief of the Mission Design Division at NASA Ames, “We all carry around smartphones these days, so we’re intimately familiar with what a smartphone is and what it can do. And a few years ago, we had the intriguing idea that you might actually be able to build a spacecraft around a smartphone. So, we were very intrigued by the notion that you could build a very small spacecraft based entirely on consumer electronics devices and other low-cost systems,” he said. “That turned into the PhoneSat project. Those spacecraft proved exactly what we were hoping — that you could build a little spacecraft that is very capable for a couple orders of magnitude less cost.”
The PhoneSats use a Google Nexus smartphone running the Android 2.3.3 operating system. Two of the PhoneSats have standard smartphone cameras that were used to take images of the Earth from space.
With the success of the initial mission, NASA is investigating the possibility of using the smartphone-based satellites for larger-scale deployments. Said Frost, “We’re seriously looking at concepts where you might have hundreds, or even thousands, of really small spacecraft up there doing something. At that scale, the hardware cost per unit device becomes quite important.”
Open-source software also will enable more applications for the satellites. “You’re using the same software across all those little systems, and you only have to develop it once. But, with the PhoneSat project, we actually are flying Android and we’re able to leverage, potentially, a global community of developers who have learned how to write code for smartphones — hobbyists and professionals alike,” explained Frost.
“So, the notion of apps in space becomes a very real possibility,” Frost said. “Now that you’ve got a whole swarm of these little spacecraft up there, and people can, potentially, send applications into space — even on a satellite-by-satellite basis — we don’t know what you’re going to do with that yet. It’s wildly exciting.”
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