SPHERES with Samsung Nexus SIt’s not everyday you can say your smartphone is stuff of space-bound satellites. With NASA retrofitting some of their satellites with Android phones, then, you can imagine how flexible our little devices can be. But what exactly made NASA’s Ames Research Center decide to send smartphones into space, and what made them decide to go for a Samsung Nexus S in their project?

NASA’s The Human Exploration and Telerobotics (HET) team uses satellites called¬†Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites or “SPHERES,” which are used inside the International Space Station, and are designed for investigative applications in zero-gravity. These include, among others, telerobotic cameras, measuring radiation levels and testing high-latency controls (you’re miles and miles away from Earth, after all).

NASA decided to use smartphones in their SPHERES project because of the ready availability of hardware, extensibility of the Android platform and to upgrade the decades-old processors of their satellites. It’s not as easy as buying off-the-shelf, though. NASA had some considerations:

  • The phone should be easy to modify, both hardware- and software-wise.
  • The phone’s software should easily interface with other devices, such as Thinkpads running Windows XP Service Pack 3.

This led the team to choose the then-current Samsung Nexus S, which was a perfect choice because of the “pure Google experience.” With no manufacturer bloatware, the team was free to tinker with the open source, vanilla Android release.

The project needed a few modifications, though:

  • The battery had to be converted from Lithium-based to Nickel-based ones. Long story short: lithium can ignite and burst into flames, which is not a very ideal thing to happen in space.
  • The phone had to be set to permanent “airplane” mode, which required removal of the TXRX amplifier chip from within.
  • The glass touchscreen had to be reinforced, since broken glass can be inhaled in space. Ouch!

The NASA team worked closely with Google — their next door neighbors — mostly through informal channels in tweaking the Nexus S for satellite work. What’s interesting is that the team is already working on the next generation of SPHERES, which will involve LG Nexus 4 handsets. The project has also forged partnerships with different handset manufacturers, although no details are being shared at this point.

What will they think of next? Smartphones in Mars?

J. Angelo Racoma
J. Angelo Racoma has written extensively about mobile, social media, enterprise apps and startups. Angelo develops business case studies for Microsoft enterprise platforms, and is also co-founder at WorkSmartr, a small outsourcing team that offers digital content and marketing services.