Small PhoneSats the next big thing?

Yesterday, I told you about the 1st ever crowd sourced satellite, the Skycube.  I turns out however, that Sunday NASA also launched three low-cost smartphone satellites aboard the maiden flight of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket.

The PhoneSats are transmitting data packets on the amateur radio spectrum.  You can see what data is being transmitted by the Phonesats here. If you are an amateur radio operator and you can help the project by submitting them to NASA (go citizen scientists!). The dashboard page will give you all the information you need to track the satellites in real time.


The two PhoneSat 1.0 satellites, Graham and Bell, transmit signal every 28 and 30 seconds respectively.  A new PhoneSat 2.0 test satellite, Alexander, transmits every 25 seconds.  You need to hurry, the satellites are only expected to remain in orbit for about two weeks before de-orbiting to a fiery death.

The goal of the PhoneSat missions are to determine if off the shelf smartphones, or smartphone components, can be used as the main flight avionics of a capable, yet very inexpensive, satellite.  Much like the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars (who both exceeded their original missions by a long time).

The PhoneSats already have many of the systems needed for a satellite, including fast processors, versatile operating systems, multiple miniature sensors, high-resolution cameras, GPS receivers and several radios.

“Smartphones offer a wealth of potential capabilities for flying small, low-cost, powerful satellites for atmospheric or Earth science, communications, or other space-born applications. They also may open space to a whole new generation of commercial, academic and citizen-space users.”

Images taken with the Phonesats will be transmitted back to Earth in smaller packets.  These packets will, hopefully, be received by amateur radio operators around the world.

NASA engineers kept the total cost of the components for the three prototype satellites in the PhoneSat project under $7,000 using mostly commercial hardware. The hardware used for this mission is the Google-HTC Nexus One smartphone running the Android operating system.  I wonder if there is now going to be a bidding war by other manufactures to make their claim to space capable smartphones.  The engineers did have to modify the phones for use in space by adding a larger, external lithium-ion battery bank (no recharging in orbit, also it seems that it would be trivial to add a solar battery charger) and a more powerful radio (no cell towers for miles, literally) to send messages and data from space back to Earth.

I wonder if I can send my own phone into space? I do know people with rockets capable of sub-orbital flight. Hmmm…more importantly, I wonder if my insurance will cover the replacement cost of the phone.

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California. As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +


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