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Why NASA Is Firing Cell Phones Into Space

The Nexus One is the model that will go into orbit.

The Nexus One is the model that will go into orbit. // Flickr user closari

Today, in NASA Is the Best: The space agency this week took a handful of cheap but powerful smartphones, slapped them to a gigantic rocket and blasted them into low-earth orbit to see how they'd fare. The project, called PhoneSat, is one of those wacky experiments that seems at first to have nothing to do with science. But it's not a stunt.

The phones — ordinary Nexus Ones, the kind made by HTC and once sold by Google — are being tested as a kind of prototype satellite, and they provide a glimpse of a possible future where ordinary commercial technology that we take for granted winds up powering and controlling larger sensing devices (or even becoming full-fledged research platforms themselves). Smartphones are already remarkably well-equipped for space: They're small. They've got powerful batteries and processors. They have gyroscopes and accelerometers, and high-quality cameras. For a budget-conscious organization like NASA that's increasingly turning away from manned space missions, PhoneSat makes a lot of sense. The three devices orbiting earth right now are cutely named Alexander, Graham and Bell, respectively, in a nod to the man commonly credited with inventing the telephone. After about 10 days from Sunday's launch, the phones will re-enter the atmosphere, burning up in the process (ouch).

Even more interesting than the hardware NASA's using is the software -- and how it was developed.

"The satellites almost came out of the box ready-made," said Bruce Yost, one of the project's lead scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. "But all the things that made it interesting are software. The intent is to be like the software community: Build, test, break, rebuild, and keep the cycle going and see if you can spiral your way to success."

Thanks to Google's open-source Android OS, each PhoneSat includes a specially developed app that helps the phones transmit information back to earth from orbit. At regular intervals, the devices beam down data about their health and status, and take up to 100 photos of their surroundings at a time, Yost said. The app then automatically selects the best shots (ones with the earth's horizon in them) and broadcasts them wirelessly to the ground, where any amateur radio operator can pick up the signal. 

Because each hobbyist receives a different piece of the same photo, it takes a group effort to recompile the whole thing -- a bit like building a jigsaw puzzle. The hobbyists upload what they've got back to NASA, where all the data that's coming in is built into a composite. So far, some 200 packets of data have been recorded, said Jim Cockrell, another project lead.

Researchers are still a long way from totally replacing big pieces of orbital machinery with tiny iPhones or Android handsets, although one of the three phones that went up Sunday is equipped with a working solar panel array, just like their bigger cousins. It's a promising sign of how much we can accomplish just by taking advantage of the tools we've already got to hand. Watch the phones' positions change in real-time here.

(Image via Flickr user closari)

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