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Android smartphone set for space launch with STRaND-1

August 6, 2012

Android is going to space. Smartphones have previously been part of NASA shuttle missions as productivity tools and for experimentation. This time, however, an Android smartphone will, itself, be the core of the satellite.

With the STRaND-1 project, British company Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. hopes to launch a smartphone satellite into orbit. Given smartphones’ computing and data capabilities, engineers say they can easily be turned into space-bound data-gathering tools. “Apart from solar panels, this thing pretty much is a satellite,” says engineer Chris Bridges, who says smartphones have almost everything needed, including cameras,  magnetometers and communications equipment.

It helps that these pocketable devices have “the same computing capability as a supercomputer did in the 1970s,” says Shaun Kenyon, another engineer developing the smartphone satellite. As an added benefit, mobile phones are known to withstand extreme conditions, including being left on a car dashboard under the hot sun, or still being operational despite the cold of winter. Developers said they have tried subjecting an Android phone to a vacuum chamber, oven and freezer with no adverse effects.

Beyond global roaming

STRaND stands for “Surrey Training Research and Nanosatellite Demonstration,” which is apt for how project engineers want to utilize smartphones to prove their capability in space orbit. While STRaND-1 is itself still in pieces, the team is continually building upon the project. The satellite itself measures 11 inches and will have a hole cut out to accommodate the smartphone’s camera. Once launched into orbit, STRaND-1 will take “postcards from space” with the various onboard apps.

STRaND-1 components (Credit: Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.)

STRaND-1 will also test the smartphone’s other systems in space, including its Wi-Fi, magnetometer and microphone. In particular, the developers want to help reduce the weight of satellites by using wireless communication instead of wires. Strand-1 will help test this hypothesis.

Unlike government projects, though, STRaND-1 is a private undertaking, and will be bankrolled by contributions from developers and other financing sources. Surrey is mum about details, however.

Smartphones in space

Surrey is not alone, though, as a U.S.-based project, called PhoneSat, is also part of the race to launch a smartphone into orbit as satellites. Another project is KickSat, which plans to release “sprite” satellites into space. These are tiny postage-size satellites designed to get data-gathering tools into space at the fraction of the cost of million-dollar satellites.

These projects are mostly independent efforts. Volunteers contribute their time, skills and efforts to STRaND-1. KickSat is run by Zac Manchester, a student from Cornell University New York. PhoneSat, however, is sponsored by NASA. Still, Surrey plans to launch ahead of PhoneSat’s early 2013 foray into space.

Smartphones have likewise been launched high up in the atmosphere with balloons before. Phones have also piggybacked on space-bound rockets. The STRaND-1 effort is quite ambitious, though, as it plans to actually use the smartphone to run a satellite. This just illustrates how far mobile phone technology has come. Perhaps one day we will be able to use the same cellular technology to communicate with people in orbit, the moon or even some other planet.

Of course the issue will be the cost. “[R]oaming charges from space are a bit high,” Surrey’s Kenyon says in jest.