Android smartphone to rocket into space

A team of Surrey-based space researchers has developed a satellite that will carry a smartphone payload into orbit at the end of this year

A UK-based team of researchers plans to launch a smartphone-bearing satellite to see if the phone will work in space.

Android smartphone in space

Researchers plan to launch a satellite carrying a Google Android handset into orbit. Photo credit: Google

The Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator (Strand-1) is scheduled to go into orbit around the Earth with a £300 smartphone payload, Guildford-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) announced on Monday. The project is designed to show off the capabilities of a satellite built using commercial, off-the-shelf components.

"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," Strand-1 lead researcher Chris Bridges said in a statement.

According to Bridges, smartphones contain components — such as sensors, GPS systems and Wi-Fi radios — that are technologically advanced but smaller, lighter and cheaper than those typically used in satellite systems.

The Strand-1 project, expected to cost around £250,000 including launch costs, has been funded equally by the University of Surrey and SSTL, Bridges told ZDNet UK. So far, the partners have spent about £30,000-£40,000 on the satellite hardware itself, with an additional £20,000 on labour and environmental testing costs, he said.

If a smartphone can be proved to work in space, it opens up lots of new technologies to a multitude of people and companies.

– Chris Bridges, Strand-1 researcher

The satellite is expected to launch by the end of the year, either in November or December, according to Bridges.

The smartphone used in the satellite will run version 2.3 of Android, Google's mobile operating system. The Strand-1 team chose a specific phone after doing a trade-off study, Bridges said, but noted that the vendor would like to keep the identity of the chosen phone "under wraps".

Few phones with Android 2.3 installed are available on the UK market. Google's Nexus One handset is due to have Android 2.3 installed, and the LG Optimus Black and 2X, along with the Samsung Galaxy S, may get it in the future.

In December, Google demonstrated a Nexus S phone operating at 20 miles above sea level.

The Strand-1 satellite will use a 'smartphone avionics suite' to gather additional information about the satellite's orbit and 'attitude' from the phone's sensors. "Orbit is where [the satellite] is as [it goes] around the Earth, and attitude is the actual satellite pose and orientation," Bridges said.

Wi-Fi connectivity

When the satellite is in space and after tests have been carried out, the researchers plan to cut the direct phone connection with ground control and then communicate with the mobile phone via Wi-Fi, Bridges said.

"Our experiment is to cut the phone off and get it to power itself up, then use Wi-Fi to communicate with it," Bridges said. The phone will interface with the researchers via the satellite's Wi-Fi systems, he added.

The "ultimate experiment" within the project will be to have the phone control certain subsystems of the satellite, such as the attitude, orbit and selected payload subsystems, Bridges said. "If we can interface the phone to run as a master on the [satellite's] bus, then we can trick the satellite into thinking one OBC [onboard computer] is in fact another OBC."

Paired with the smartphone will be an on-the-ground computer that will run tests upon the phone's hardware once it is in space. The computer is a combination of ARM 9 architecture-based processors with a separate field programmable gate array (FPGA).

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