Mobile phones blast into space

Heading to the cosmos? There's an app for that...
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

Heading to the cosmos? There's an app for that...

Few corners of the globe are free from mobile phones, and now handsets are heading into space - where they could dramatically cut the cost of future space missions.

A team of researchers from the UK plan to send an Android smartphone into orbit on board a 4kg nano-satellite later this year.

The research team from the University of Surrey and Surrey Satellite Technology will use the mission to determine whether off-the-shelf mobile phone technology can operate in the harsh environment of space. Once in space, the phone will be bombarded by cosmic and solar radiation, and experience temperatures that veer between extreme heat and cold.

A computer on the ground will check whether the phone is able to operate normally in orbit, and if no problems are found the phone will be used to perform tasks usually carried out by the satellite's main avionics computer.

Are mobile phones about to cross the final frontier?

Are mobile phones about to cross the final frontier?
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

If mobile phone technology is able to function in space it would open the door to phone chipsets being used to control future satellite missions, providing a cheaper alternative to the customised spacecraft electronics that are used today.

Typically, spacecraft electronics are off-the-shelf components that have been hardened against cosmic radiation - a process that involves modifying chips so they can fail multiple times and still carry out the task demanded of them.

Dr Vaios Lappas of the University of Surrey, who is working on the design of the satellite, said: "Smartphones are using electronics that are being built by the millions and are much, much cheaper.

"They are becoming more resilient and robust, so if one were to use the same chipsets as those phones we could reduce the cost of spacecraft and of a space mission.

"It would be a tremendous success if we are able to switch it on and it works even for hours."

He said tests on a smartphone on the ground have...

...proved the handset was capable of working in a vacuum and with the same radiation levels and vibrations experienced in space travel.

The precise make and model of smartphone that will be used in the test mission has yet to be decided, he said.

As well as smartphone electronics being cheaper to produce than those typically used in space, they also pack more functionality into a smaller area - offering everything from wireless communications to cameras.

"Each kilo of spacecraft costs us about £20,000 to £30,000 to launch; if you are able to minimise that then you could make significant savings," said Lappas.

Using smartphones in space missions would also make it cheaper and easier to design software for satellites - in the case of Android, it would enable smartphone apps to be developed for satellites using the open-source platform that is home to a strong developer community.

"You are exposing software design to a whole heap of new groups that we never could before," Lappas said.

"Imagine, just with the educational element of it, students sitting at home could program apps not just for their phones or iPads but also for satellites."

To learn more about the computers used to control spacecraft, check out silicon.com's interview with Nasa and ESA engineers in Space exploration: The computers that power man's conquest of the stars.

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