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NASA's E.T. smartphone satellite has phoned home

A 4-inch device using a Samsung Nexus S phone sent data back to its Santa Clara University ground station. The smaller equipment could reduce costs of space exploration.

December 07, 2013|By Geoffrey Mohan

NASA's extraterrestrial smartphone has phoned home.

The 4-inch-square satellite, PhoneSat 2.4, which uses an off-the-shelf Samsung Nexus S phone running Google's Android operating system, transmitted data back to its Santa Clara University ground station, the space agency announced last week.

As the number implies, this is not the first smartphone NASA has hurled into orbit. The first, in April, proved the concept of using commercially available electronics for satellites in low-Earth orbit. The satellite has long since burned up on re-entry to Earth's atmosphere, ending the planned one-week mission.

The new-generation smartphone satellite isn't strictly off-the-shelf — it got some serious mods at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., including solar batteries. This one also uses a two-way, S-band radio that lets engineers guide its orientation.

"NASA is committed to opening up the high frontier to a new generation of explorers who can take advantage of these sorts of small satellites to do science and technology development at a fraction of the cost of larger, more complex spacecraft," said Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology in Washington.

PhoneSat 2.4 is expected to last about a year and give NASA a more complete picture of how robust commercially developed phones are in space. The agency deployed 11 of the devices from the payload of a Minotaur 1 rocket launched Nov. 19 from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Modern hand-held cellphones easily surpass the power of the computer that guided the Apollo 11 mission that put the first men on the moon. So, at least on paper, they ought to have enough memory and computation capacity to operate a satellite that's smaller than a soccer ball.

NASA hopes lessons learned from these missions will help its Edison Demonstration of Smallsat Networks, eight identical cubesats with scientific instrument payloads to be launched from Hawaii next year. The agency hopes to be able to use them in a linked cluster, sharing data and transmitting the information back to Earth. The next PhoneSat, version 2.5, is scheduled to launch in February on a commercial SpaceX rocket.

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