NASA’s PhoneSats Turn Heads Toward Space
Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012
by Jason Taetsch
The contributions from NASA to the private sector have been numerous over the years for companies both in the aerospace field and out. Anyone who has spent a night on a memory foam mattress, used a GPS on a road-trip, or sent a text message has benefited from one of NASA’s many technological breakthroughs — whether they’ve realized it or not. It seems the time has finally come for the private industry to repay the favor.
Enter, the PhoneSat
Last month, NASA announced plans for a new line of nanosatellites, cleverly dubbed PhoneSats, that will use “off-the-shelf” Android smartphones for the onboard hardware. We all knew that the smartphones we carry around in our purses and pockets have a lot more computing power compared to desktop computers from just a few years ago, but the out-of-this-world application of these phones certainly beats out any app currently available on the Android market.
NASA’s Got the Wares
The partnership between the modern smartphone and satellite hardware is a match made for the heavens. According to reports on NASA.GOV, “Out of the box smartphones already offer a wealth of capabilities needed for satellite systems, including fast processors, versatile operating systems, multiple miniature sensors, high-resolution cameras, GPS receivers, and several radios.”
Each of the prototypes takes advantage of the compact and extensive hardware capabilities of modern smartphone technology. The first prototype uses the Nexus One by HTC and the second prototype relies on the Nexus S from Samsung Electronics. Sadly, iPhone enthusiasts will have to wait to boast that their phone is powerful enough to function as a satellite.
Money, Money, Money
Thanks to the commercial-based components of the design, it cost only $3,500 to build each of the first three prototypes — a pretty small investment, considering that other satellites can cost millions.
The design is a new approach by NASA engineers to reign-in production costs by designing a mission’s objectives around available commercial technology rather than custom designing hardware around mission objectives. For example, the sensors already built into the smartphone, which are used to detect if the phone is next to a person’s ear, have been modified to relay information about the orientation of the satellite and its health. The phone’s camera is set with the task of capturing and sending back digital imagery of Earth.
The first PhoneSat prototypes have limited mission objectives, namely, to stay functioning long enough to collect data and send back images of the planet. But they are an exciting step in a new direction for NASA.
Can’t wait to see what NASA can do with a toaster.
Jason Taetsch is a freelance content writer with experience in tech writing, blogs, travel writing, pop culture and a range of promotional materials. Jason blogs via Contently.com.