Android Smartphone To Go Into Orbit

on January 25 2011 1:46 PM

Launching a science satellite need not be a million-dollar project, if a group of British researchers has their way.

A group at the University of Surrey and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) has developed 'STRaND-1', a satellite containing a smartphone that will be launched into orbit by the end of the year.

STRaND-1 stands for Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator. The idea is to demonstrate that one can build a satellite with cheaper, off-the-shelf parts - including those in a smartphone.

Chris Bridges, who is leading the effort, noted that smartphones have a lot of advanced components in them, and many are similar to those used in satellites. As they are mass-produced the cost is much less. The operating systems, in this case Android, are flexible and can be adapted to many purposes. A smartphone could be used to control many satellite functions, and even use apps. That's much easier than using custom designed software and hardware. 

The big test is whether the smartphone can go into space and survive. Bridges said there are three areas the team wants to test. The first is the thermal tolerance the phone has. In low Earth orbit you go into eclipse or in sunlight about every one and a half hours, he said.

That creates temperature extremes that it isn't clear a typical phone could handle. Unlike air or water, vacuum (as in space) is a very efficient insulator. The second issue is vibration and g-forces during launch. A phone would be subject to a lot of jostling and a lot of g-forces on its way to orbit. Last is the radiation, which may fry electronics without shielding.

The phone itself won't transmit any data while it is in orbit, except to the satellite carrying it. The data will tell the research team how it is doing and how well it works exposed to the vacuum of space.

Unfortunately, Bridges said, he can't say what kind of phone they plan to launch.

SSTL spokesman Robin Wolstenholme noted that there is already an active community of cube sat launchers, who send up satellites that are all quite small -- under 100 pounds -- and as the name implies, shaped like cubes. Such satellites can be launched as secondary payloads - sort of like riding standby on a plane. Many are for academic research. Adapting smartphones to such systems is not a large step.

Wolstenholme adds that the Surrey group is seeking funding now to launch the smartphone. Even though a smaller, lighter satellite is cheaper, a launch can still be hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's another reason to develop smartphones as the basis for satellites - they are lighter and thus less expensive.