09:15 29th Aug, 2012
Android-Powered Google Nexus S Will Be Brains Of NASA Nanosatellite
Space agency adopts off-the-shelf smartphone as a cost-saving measure to make the $3500 PhoneSat orbiter.
NASA, currently on a high after the resounding success of its Curiosity Mars rover mission, plans to use the Google Nexus S Android smartphone made by Samsung in its next tiny PhoneSat 2.0 orbiter, after successfully designing and testing the previous PhoneSat 1.0 with HTC's Google Nexus One. The aim of the PhoneSat project is to build low-cost satellites that are easy to make, by using commercially available handsets instead of expensive, custom-made proprietary parts. According to NASA, Android smartphones offer a wealth of features and capabilities such as fast CPUs, a flexible OS, multiple tiny and accurate sensors, high-resolution cameras, and GPS receivers, all of which are required for making a satellite. Moreover, because of the simple design, new features can be rapidly added to successive iterations of the satellite. By using this approach, NASA engineers have been able to drastically cut the manufacturing cost to as low as $3500 (~Rs 200,000) per satellite, which is a huge savings when you consider that it traditionally costs a few hundred million dollars to build even a relatively inexpensive full-fledged orbiter.
The PhoneSat 1.0 measures a mere 64 cubic inches (~1 litre) in volume, and at 4", is only slightly taller than a coffee mug. It's powered by the HTC Nexus One, which has a 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU. The satellite will use the phone's gyroscope to determine its orientation (but will be unable to change it), while the camera will be used for taking pictures of the world and space. A "watchdog" circuit (also commonly available) can reboot the phone if it hangs or stops sending radio signals (cue Apple fanboys laughing maniacally). While the images will not have much use by themselves, the idea here is to show that a fully-functional satellite can be launched into space and send information pack to our planet. After having cleared various ground and high-altitude tests, the orbiter is ready to be launched in the next few months. Incidentally, the Android version running on the gadget has not been specified.
Having successfully demonstrated that a low-cost satellite can indeed be built, NASA has moved on to making the next-generation PhoneSat 2.0, which is expected to bring in more processing power and capabilities. It will make use of the Nexus S with its faster Exynos CPU from Samsung running at 1.2 GHz, but here again, the Android OS version is unknown. Among the new features to be included in this orbiter are a two-way radio that will allow engineers to command it from Earth, solar panels to ensure a longer mission life, and a GPS receiver. Through this and other equipment, NASA will be able to actively control the satellite's orientation in space. The PhoneSat 2.0's mission is to demonstrate advanced satellite features, thus paving the way for future low-cost commercial satellites to use this technology.
NASA intends to make two PhoneSat 1.0 and one PhoneSat 2.0 satellite, then launch all three later this year aboard the maiden flight of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket. Using these small and low-cost satellites, NASA hopes to lay the foundation for future projects, such as the upcoming Edison Demonstration of Small Satellite Networks, which will use multiple nanosatellites to take scientific heliophysics measurements (pertaining to the characteristics of the sun).
There is no doubt that the Android platform's superior hardware, combined with its open ecosystem, have made it the smartphone of choice for rocket scientists. With further development in this field, it's exciting to imagine what a superphone like LG's Optimus G will be able to accomplish — control an entire small spacecraft, perhaps? Now that the US has shown the way, hopefully our very own ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) will also begin to explore the use of smartphones in making low-cost satellites, thus significantly saving the taxpayer's money.
On the lighter side, Android fanboys finally have an argument that iPhone fanatics will be utterly unable to match. In my opinion, this project demonstrates the superiority of Google's platform over its rivals. Do you agree with this assessment? Let us know in the comments.
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