NASA's next satellite: An everyday Android smart phone

The PhoneSat marks the beginning of what the agency says is a new model for quickly developing and deploying satellites.

Building NASA’s newest satellites isn’t exactly rocket science, but that’s the whole idea.

The space agency says it wants to change the way satellites are made, using rapid prototyping, off-the-shelf hardware and new architectures to bring an IT-style “release early, release often” approach to space.

NASA PhoneSat

Its first example: the PhoneSat, a Android OS-controlled nanosatellite that NASA says is the most inexpensive and easiest to build satellite in the history of space exploration.

A small team of engineers at Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., is developing three PhoneSats, each of which will be 4 inches square -- a standard CubeSat, which is a miniature satellite -- and will weigh less than 4 pounds, NASA said on its website.

The Ames team is using a lot of off-the-shelf components in making the PhoneSat, including an everyday smart phone, and kept the cost of each satellite to $3,500.

NASA PhoneSat during test flight

The first model, PhoneSat 1.0, uses an unmodified HTC Nexus One running Android, NASA said. Future satellites likely will take advantage of smart-phone features such as its sensors, radios and GPS receivers, but the PhoneSat 1.0’s job will be simple: survive the trip into space and use its camera send back pictures of the Earth. Ames has made two PhoneSat 1.0 models.

PhoneSat 2.0 will use a Samsung Nexus S, which has a faster processor, avionics and gyroscope, as well as a two-way S-Band radio engineers can use to control it, NASA said. It also will have solar panels to allow for longer missions and electro-magnets that interact with the Earth’s magnetic field.

With their basic design, commercial components and rapid development, NASA expects the PhoneSat program to pave the way for future missions such as deploying sensors for heliophysics projects, finding inexpensive ways to make Earth observations and even exploring the moon.

NASA plans to send the first three PhoneSats aboard Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket, due to launch later this year.

This isn’t NASA’s first experience with nanosatellites, nor is it Android’s first foray into space. In 2010, for instance, the agency announced it “Nano-Satellite Challenge” for CubeSat-sized payloads.

NASA also has used Nexus S smart phones running Android as the “brains” of some prototype robots aboard the International Space Station. And in 2011, the British space program used Android as the operating systems for an 11.8-inch satellite.

The idea of smaller satellites has been catching on, for reasons of both cost and longevity. In April, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency launched an effort to build clusters of satellites in which each piece could communicate with the others and function as a full-sized satellite.

DAPRA officials said at the time that such clusters would cost less, be more adaptable than a traditional satellite and be easier to repair --  only the piece of a cluster that fails would have to be replaced, rather than the whole satellite.

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