Latest PhoneSats will test cross-satellite data sharing, space weather monitoring

NASA’s latest cube satellites, the PhoneSat 2.4, are slated for a Nov. 19 liftoff and will be equipped with two-way radio communications capability and reaction wheels to provide attitude control. The miniature satellites, which will be placed in a much higher orbit than their PhoneSat predecessors, will stay in space for a couple of years before re-entering, according to a NASA statement.

The pioneering mission will test the use of consumer-grade smartphone technology as the main control electronics of a capable, yet very low-cost, satellite,  Andrew Petro, program executive for small spacecraft technology at NASA said in an agency announcement.

PhoneSat 2.4 builds upon the successful flights of a trio of NASA smartphone satellites that were orbited together last April. For the week they were in orbit, they transmitted health data (battery levels, temperatures, magnetometer sensors, accelerometer sensors) and used their cameras to take pictures of Earth. The PhoneSats then used a UHF radio beacon to transmit data and images via bit-encoded packets to multiple ground stations.

NASA PhoneSats take advantage of off-the-shelf ultra-small consumer devices that already have many of the systems needed for a spacecraft, such as fast processors, multipurpose operating systems, sensors, GPS receivers, and high-resolution cameras. 

But the real “magic dust” of PhoneSats comes into play in how you program them, said Bruce Yost, the program manager for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program at the Ames Research Center. “That is, what applications can you run on them to make them useful. We’re adding more and more complexity into the PhoneSats,.”

To that end, PhoneSats and the applications they deploy can lead to new ways to interact with and explore space, Yost said. “You can approach problems in a more distributed fashion,” he said.  “So it’s an architectural shift, the concept of inexpensive but lots of small probes.”

For example, work is already under way on the Edison Demonstration of Smallsat Networks (EDSN) mission, Petro said. The EDSN effort consists of a loose formation of eight identical cubesats in orbit, each able to cross-link communicate with each other to perform space weather monitoring duties. 

The program will demonstrate a communications concept in which the individual satellites will share their collected data, and any one of the satellites will transmit the data to a ground station.  This technology has the potential to provide extremely flexible data correlation and distribution and to simplify spacecraft and mission operations for satellite swarms and constellations, according to a NASA statement

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at [email protected] or @sjaymiller.


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