January 24, 2011

Smartphone To Be Sent Into Space

Engineers in the UK are planning to send a smartphone into orbit in order to determine whether or not the device's components can survive space travel and perhaps even be used to operate satellites.

The project, which has been dubbed 'STRaND-1 (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator)', is being headed up by researchers at the University of Surrey and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) and is scheduled to be launched into the Earth's orbit later this year.

The goal is to determine whether or not the internal components of the phone will be able to continue functioning in outer space, the researchers said in a January 24 press release.

"Smartphones pack lots of components--such as sensors, video cameras, GPS systems and Wi-Fi radios--that are technologically advanced but a fraction of the size, weight and cost of components used in existing satellite systems," Dr. Chris Bridges, lead researcher of STRaND-1, said in a statement Monday.

Also, notes Dr. Bridges, "because many smartphones also run on free operating systems that lend themselves to online software developers, the creators of applications ('apps') for smartphones could feasibly develop apps for satellites."

Before the cellphone is sent into space, however, members of the STRaND-1 team plan to put the device through a series of tests on the ground. Once the launch does occur, the STRaND-1 team will use a computer at the Surrey Space Center to monitor which components will function normally in orbit and which ones will likely malfunction.

And at the completion of the testing, "the micro computer will be switched off and the smartphone will be used to operate parts of the satellite," Monday's media release said. The device will also attempt to take pictures of the Earth during its mission, according to BBC News Science Correspondent Jonathan Amos.

"If a smartphone can be proved to work in space, it opens up lots of new technologies to a multitude of people and companies for space who usually can't afford it. It's a real game-changer for the industry," said Dr. Bridges.

The phone being used in the test is a "standard" smartphone that costs less than $450, Amos said, and according to SSTL project manager Shaun Kenyon, the phone will be unaltered.

"We're not taking it apart; we're not gutting it; we're not taking out the printed circuit boards and re-soldering them into our satellite--we're flying it as is," Kenyon told Amos on Sunday. "In fact, we're going to have another camera on the satellite so we can take a picture of the phone because we want to operate the screen and have some good images of that as well."


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