NASA Working On Prototype Smartphone-Powered Nanosatellites

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

NASA engineers have developed three prototype nanosatellites powered by HTC-brand smartphones, the US space agency has announced.

The PhoneSat program, as it has been dubbed, is currently ongoing at the Ames Research Center in California and is focused on using straight out of the box smartphones to make inexpensive, easy-to-build satellites, NASA officials explained in a statement.

The engineers, they say, are attempting to “rapidly evolve satellite architecture and incorporate the Silicon Valley approach of ‘release early, release often’ to small spacecraft. To achieve this, NASA’s PhoneSat design makes extensive use of commercial-off-the-shelf components, including an unmodified, consumer-grade smartphone.”

“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,” they added. “NASA engineers kept the total cost of the components to build each of the three prototype satellites in the PhoneSat project to $3,500 by using only commercial-off-the-shelf hardware and keeping the design and mission objectives to a minimum for the first flight.”

Each of the three prototype nanosatellites is approximately four inches in size and weighs less than four pounds, the space agency said. Two of them are PhoneSat 1.0 models created using a Nexus One. A Nexus S smartphone was used to create the third, a PhoneSat 2.0 model.

There is currently no concrete date for the launch of the phone-powered probes, but they are expected to be sent into space later on this year, PCWorld’s Leah Yamshon reported Thursday.

According to Kevin Parrish of Tom’s Hardware, the smartphones on the first-generation nanosatellites will act as the onboard computers, while sensors will determine its orientation and cameras will be used to capture and send back images of Earth. Once PhoneSat 1.0 proves that it can survive the vacuum of space long enough to send back those photographs, the agency will move on to a test of the second-generation craft.

“This device will add a two-way S-band radio to the core PhoneSat design to allow engineers to command the satellite from Earth,” Parrish said. “Solar panels will also be added to enable longer missions as well as a GPS receiver. The team will also throw in magnetorquer coils — electro-magnets that interact with Earth’s magnetic field — and reaction wheels to actively control the satellite’s orientation in space.”

“Not only do these low-cost units show off how run-of-the-mill consumer devices can be used in larger space exploration experiments, they also will decrease development costs for future NASA small-spacecraft projects,” Yamshon added. “The team plans to use the PhoneSats in future missions involving moon exploration, low-cost Earth observations, and testing of new technologies and components for space flight. Another mission scheduled for 2013 plans to use the PhoneSat 2.0 to conduct heliophysics measurements.”