Androids in space: Nexus One blasts into orbit this month

The project to send the first smartphone into space in order to see if it can carry out basic controls and data collection is set to blast off at the end of February after two years of planning.
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

The University of Surrey's Space Centre (SSC) will send the first smartphone into space later this month.

The phone, a Google Android-powered (and branded) Nexus One device, is set to blast into space on 25 February and will be used see if it can reduce the cost and complexity of space missions by performing in-orbit functions.

The handset will be carried on the STRaND-1 satellite. STRaND-1 will launch from Sriharikota in India, and is set to achieve another world first by taking along the first 3D-printed object to go into orbit.

"A smartphone on a satellite like this has never been launched before but our tests have been pretty thorough, subjecting the phone to oven and freezer temperatures, to a vacuum and blasting it with radiation," Dr Chris Bridges, SSC's lead engineer on the project, said in a statement on Thursday.

"It has a good chance of working as it should, but you can never make true design evolutions or foster innovation without taking a few risks: STRaND is cool because it allows us to do just that," he added.

STRaND-1 (the Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator) is a 30cm CubeSat — a small satellite used for space research — weighing a little over 4kg. The satellite is set to head into a 786km sun-synchronous orbit, meaning it passes over the same geographical area at the same time every day.

During the first phase of the project, which is also being run in conjunction with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), STRaND-1 will collect data using experimental apps. Initially, the handset will be running the university's telemetry app, which logs all the sensors, memory and computing chips to see what happens when they operate in a space environment. 

After this, the satellite will start to run apps chosen via a Facebook competition. Scream in Space will use the phone's speakers to test the theory that 'in space no one can hear you scream', popularised in the film Alien. Members of the public will be able to upload videos of themselves screaming. The most popular will then be played on the phone and recorded using the microphone.

Other apps include iTesa, which will record the magnitude of the magnetic field around the phone during orbit, and Postcards from Space/360 (joint winners), which will take photos using the camera to establish its position.

For the second stage of the flight, the STRaND-1 team in Surrey will switch some of the satellite's functions to the Nexus One handset, such as testing new propulsion systems like the 'WARP DRiVE' (Water Alcohol Resistojet Propulsion Deorbit Re-entry Velocity Experiment) and electric Pulsed Plasma Thrusters (PPTs). The satellite will also be taking along a 3D-printed part, thought to be the first to go into space.

Controlling a satellite

While phone components have been sent into space before to test the viability of operating in orbit, it is the first time that controlling a satellite with a smartphone will have been attempted. Bridges told ZDNet a Nexus One was chosen as it was "the best Android handset" available at the time of planning.

In January 2011, the team outlined the ambitious project with the expectation that it would cost around £250,000 and Bridges confirmed on Friday that it has come in right on budget.

A follow-up project, STRaND-2, will be a dual satellite mission that will use two Xbox Kinect units to attempt in-orbit docking. The Xbox Kinect units will scan the surrounding area and provide the satellites with spatial awareness on three axes.

"The reason for using the Kinect is that when approaching a target to dock, we are often either looking at the sun or looking into pitch darkness — so using the Kinect and its laser tracking technology will get around this problem," Bridges said.

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