Team aims to use Android smartphone in orbit to control satellite

January 25, 2011 by Lin Edwards report

( -- A British team of engineers is planning to send a mobile smartphone into orbit on a satellite for the first time to test its ability to control the satellite and take photographs in the hostile environment of space.

The mission is called STRaND-1 (for Surrey Training Research and Nanosatellite Demonstration number 1) and is run jointly by engineers from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) and the University of Surrey’s Centre (SSC) in the UK.

The mobile phone will be running the Google Android operating system, but the exact model of phone is not yet known. What is known is that it will be a standard available commercially, and with no physical modifications. Also on board the 4 kg nano-satellite will be a camera to take pictures of the screen.

SSTL’s project manager, Shaun Kenyon, said smartphones are “pretty amazing” but they have not yet been tested in an several hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface. The team wants to find out first if a smartphone will work in orbit, and if it does they want to find out if it can be used to control a satellite, and to test as much of the phone’s capability as possible.

The phone will be afforded some protection from the radiation and the large temperature variations by being mounted within the satellite casing, with a hole cut in the side for the camera lens. All pictures and messages from the phone will be transmitted back to Earth via the satellite’s radio.

In the initial stages of the mission, the satellite’s micro-computer will be in charge of operations, with the smartphone acting as a backup, but at some stage in the mission these roles will be reversed. Operations overseen by the computer and then the smartphone include the GPS, navigation systems, miniature reaction wheels, and the pulse plasma thrusters that propel it.

Google’s was chosen because it is open-source, which means the engineers could modify the software as required for their mission. In the future, if the phone works in orbit, relevant apps could be developed for the phone’s use in space.

A smartphone has never before been sent into space, but Google has used high-altitude balloons to successfully test smartphones at 18 kilometers, and a father and son team sent an iPhone up on a weather balloon last year.

If the STRaND-1 mission works, using a smartphone in space could make operations in orbit far less expensive than using custom-designed equipment. In fact, the cost of the entire STRaND-1 and its payload was less than a family car.

Surrey Space Centre lead researcher Dr Chris Bridges said if the smartphone works in space it could be “a real game-changer” for the industry.

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1 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2011
Sounds stupid.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2011
I love it. Why reinvent all of the hardware for our space projects when there are well-tested and reliable computer systems already available? I'm in the military, and I'm always amazed at how unreliable a lot of our vehicles are compared to a commercially purchased automobile, due to our use of unproven technologies.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2011
Sounds genius.

The smart phones have so many of the gadgets build into them which spacecraft normally needs.

It would save companies so much money if all they had to do was buy a smart phone and program it, instead of building a custom "one-of" computer specifically for each mission. Writing software is so much easier than designing a new computer from scratch for every new application.

I said this should be done a while back, and that smrt phones should be used as the "brain" and camera of a rover, etc, and people laughed.

I'm glad to see someone in the industry had the same idea and is taking the idea seriously in performing this test.
1 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2011
No, the OP was right. This is stupid for a number of reasons. Many of the components of the phone are of no use whatsoever. Clearly the speaker(s) and mic are not useful in a vacuum, the touchscreen (if any), buttons (if any), and the screen itself (if you discount they have a camera pointed at it for some inefficient reason. These and other phone systems drain precious power for no gain in a device that is not appropriate for the purpose.

An embedded Linux device would be much more appropriate (easier to command, better control system connectivity, no unnecessary power consumption, better pricing, etc) but wouldn't grab headlines. But since headlines are king, we're going to send a phone into space.

Let's send a food processor into space next. That should be cool.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 25, 2011
Canux, are you one of those people who think that any problem can be solved if we just 'put linux on it', it being whichever device is the talk of the day? You know, the kind of person who will force Linux onto any electrical device he can, and when asked "why do that?" can't really name any new functionality.

I find myself thinking that since you refer only to a Linux device, and don't bother to make any mention of its actual functions. The word Linux doesn't carry as much information as you seem to think it does.
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2011
Canux, are you one of those people who think that any problem can be solved if we just 'put linux on it'

No. I don't actually use Linux day-to-day. I've just always been impressed by the variety of small footprint devices available. I feel it is better to start with a simple generic device and evaluate it based on it's abilities to deliver the features you need and what it would take to support the features you need that it does not support. In the case of the smartphone in space I can't help but feel that the point is more about headlines since it contains a lot of unnecessary cruft that either needs to be turned off or ignored.

In retrospect, however, I should have not suggested "Linux". I should have suggested any open-source platform that was supported on small or embedded devices. You are quite correct on that point.
not rated yet Jan 25, 2011
Clearly the speaker(s) and mic are not useful in a vacuum, the touchscreen (if any), buttons (if any), and the screen itself

You realize input and output devices can be removed and the drivers for those ports reprogrammed to power useful sensors and other devices in the spacecraft?

It would be very efficient to control the spacecrafts main cameras through the smart phones circuitry and programming.

Then the USB port alone can operate something like 256 devices, such as the controls for servomotors, electic engines, etc.

(if you discount they have a camera pointed at it for some inefficient reason. These and other phone systems drain precious power for no gain in a device that is not appropriate for the purpose.

The second camera is watching the smartphone for external experimental documentation, since the smartphone is part of an experiment to find out whether it's worth it to send it to space. You wouldn't do that obviously for all future spacecrafts.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2011
@Canux, none of these devices you mentioned (mic, speaker, camera) drain any power whatsoever unless you use them to talk, listen or record.

Testing some Linux box for space-worthiness requires someone to pay a group of engineers in excess of $100/hr to tinker with it. That's a whole lot of smartphones that you could buy instead.
not rated yet Jan 26, 2011
I must make this comment, as it relates to Android vs. iPhone...

How d'ya like them apples, Apple!? Open Source FTW!
not rated yet Jan 28, 2011
Hm, what would future astronauts use on the space stations ? Maybe smartphone like devices. Even in space there could be some sort of ipads, used for spacewalks. Instant access to diagrams and the like.

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