Enter PhoneSat, a nanosatellite powered by the Android mobile operating system and the mobile phone’s native camera. That’s to say, the components of a smartphone you bought off the shelf and carry around in your pocket every day are the same as those used by an innovative new space project.
The emergence of PhoneSat
PhoneSat provides yet another proof of concept for Moore’s Law, which observed that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles roughly every two years. It’s a driving principle that has lead processors to become so powerful and small that a computer able to collect vast arrays of data in Earth’s orbit can fit in your pocket and costs only a couple hundred dollars.
PhoneSat is a project from NASA’s Ames Research Center, which began launching these satellites last year. The project comes from a lineage of CubeSat models, a satellite measuring 10 centimeters cubed and generally weighing no more than a few kilograms.
Although CubeSat concepts have floated around for over a decade, they became better known thanks to KickSat in 2011.
How it came about
“By shrinking the spacecraft, we can fit more [satellites] into a single launch slot and split the costs many ways,” writes Manchester. “I want to make it easy enough and affordable enough for anyone to explore space.”
Of course, it’s not just budgetary and efficiency concerns that got Ames interested in rethinking the satellite with PhoneSat.
For PhoneSat, the engineers at Ames took apart Android phones and reconfigured their components to fit within a cube structure. The PhoneSat has a relatively short lifespan compared to other satellites, as its trajectory is at a lower altitude, and it’s generally no more than a few weeks before it burns up in the atmosphere.
The lower atmosphere flight path provides a few advantages for PhoneSat. Despite its small size, which does make space debris less of a concern, it remains vulnerable to errant blasts of radiation within the harsh vacuum of space. This altitude also allows the vehicle to transmit data via amateur radio.
More than just cost saving
That’s right, the PhoneSat, orbiting the Earth with cutting-edge consumer technology, communicates with the ground using HAM radio.
The HAM radio band offers the best solution for PhoneSat, and it allows a crowdsourcing of ground stations. Because of its low altitude, any citizen with a 70-meter band receiver, or a snazzy new SDR setup and a license to transmit can participate by recording the signal as the satellite passes overhead and submitting the audio file. This saves a significant amount of money by avoiding both the establishment of ground stations and a difficult regulatory environment.
More significantly, inviting the public to collaborate with NASA by using readily-available technology creates an opportunity to cultivate palpable public excitement in space exploration similar to the space race of the ’60s. Although KickSat acts as the first satellite project realized via the Internet, the first truly crowdsourced satellite launched the same year as Kennedy’s moon decision. Launched in December 1961, the OSCAR-1 was funded and assembled by private individuals, namely a group of radio amateurs from the Bay Area.
What’s in the future for PhoneSat and its cubical brethren?
Such satellite programs look to become decreasingly reliant on traditional funding, technology and protocol, while combining the best of both new and old technology. NASA has already set the wheels in motion to send 3D printers on space missions, once again lightening the load that leaves Earth and allowing for the manufacturing of components in zero gravity.
As for KickSat, the group is currently developing the first true open-source satellite. The blueprints are already available on Github.
Welcome to the future, where everyday electronics can help us unravel the mysteries of our planet and solar system.