Androids in space: Phone to be launched as nanosatellite

British team looking to use mobile technology for lightweight, inexpensive satellites

Researchers are going to send a smart phone into space.

An Android operating system-powered phone is being used for the components of a lightweight, inexpensive satellite to be launched into low Earth orbit by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited at the Surrey Space Centre in England later this year.

The satellite will be 11.8 inches long and the smart-phone components could cost less than $500.

Cost is the primary motivation for the experiment. Smart-phone components such as Global Positioning System navigation, cameras, accelerometers and Wi-Fi access are native to smart phones and much more cost-efficient than the larger versions made for satellite components.

“The economic implications of this are really exciting,” mission concepts engineer Shaun Kenyon told Wired.com “If these phones stand up to the extreme environments we see in space, it’s amazing to think we could eventually leverage low-cost mobile technology to use in satellite production.”

The satellite will be known as Strand – 1, or Surrey Training Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator, and is designated a 4 kg nanosatellite.


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The idea is for the phone to control the satellite’s functions, but initially it will be launched with an on-board computer to monitor the functions and vitality of the smart phone.

“Smart phones 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 SSTL press release states. “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.”

The SSTL works in conjunction with the Surrey Space Centre, a part of the University of Surrey. SSTL is owned by EADS Atrium NV and has launched 34 satellites since 1981 and provides training and other services to NASA and the European Space Agency.

“It's planned that Strand-1 will be the first of many collaborative Strand satellites between the university and SSTL,” Doud Liddle, SSTL’s Head of Science said in the release. “This provides a tangible means for the two groups to share capabilities, develop key skills and work with advanced commercial technology in space. With the smart-phone payload costing less than [$500] and the whole satellite costing less than a family car, it’s exciting to see how the team have managed to create a satellite with such incredible performance.”

The team at SSTL sounds hopeful that the ability to use cheaper components from smart phones will be a boon to the satellite industry and could create great margins for companies employing the technology in the future.

“If a smart phone 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," said Dr. Chris Bridges, Strand’s lead researcher.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.

Reader Comments

Sun, Jan 30, 2011 Don Colorado

The Iphone would have been nice to test but the android program is basically the Linux operating system. Linux is open source. Iphone uses the Windows CE operating system which Microsoft tightly controls

Fri, Jan 28, 2011 Dan

I can't speak for the SSTL, but I know that NASA likes Android because of the open-source nature of it makes it very customizable and flexible which gives it the advantage over an iPhone is this particular area.

Thu, Jan 27, 2011 KingMel

They could have used an iPhone! It can't be about cost, because Apple would have probably donated five or ten iPhone 4's if they had asked. Apple has always been a strong supporter of education. It would also make sense to put several types of smartphones through the environmental testing in parallel. The cost delta would be insignificant when compared to the possibility of encountering issues with a single phone that require rework and retesting. Regardless, I wish them well. This is a worthy endeavor.

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