The first smartphone into space will be an Android

24 Jan 2011

Space researchers in the UK are planning to see if today’s smartphones will function in space and are planning to send a stg£300 smartphone into orbit inside a satellite costing less than a family car.

STRaND-1 (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator) is being developed by the Surrey team to demonstrate the advanced capabilities of a satellite built quickly using advanced commercial off-the-shelf components.

STRaND-1’s lead researcher Dr Chris Bridges explained why a smartphone made an ideal satellite payload. “Smartphones pack lots of components – such as sensors, video cameras, GPS systems and Wi-Fi radios – that are technologically advanced but a fraction of the size, weight and cost of components used in existing satellite systems.

Apps for satellites

“Because many smartphones also run on free operating systems that lend themselves to online software developers, the creators of apps smartphones could feasibly develop apps for satellites,” he said.

Smartphones aren’t designed to go into space, so in addition to extensive ground testing prior to launch there will be an in-orbit test campaign to put the phone through its paces. A powerful computer built at the SSC will test the vital statistics of the phone once in space.

The computer will check which components of the phone are operating normally and when components malfunction in orbit for recovery. Images and messages from the phone will be sent back to Earth via a radio system. Once all the tests are complete, the micro computer will be switched off and the smartphone will be used to operate parts of the satellite.

“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. It’s a real game-changer for the industry,” Bridges added.

A smartphone avionics suite is one of many technological advances packed into this 4kg nano-satellite. To precisely point and manoeuvre, the satellite also incorporates advanced guidance, navigation and control systems, including miniature reaction wheels and a GPS receiver, as well as innovative pulse plasma thrusters to propel it through space.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years