What would happen if you put a smart phone into orbit?


Consider a smartphone: it has a camera, GPS, radio transmitter/receiver and a fair bit of computer memory. What would happen if you put it into orbit? Could it serve as a satellite? In 2010, a group of engineers at the NASA Ames Research Center tried just that. Here is a portion of an article from Science, describing the launch of several smartphones

“IN THE LATE 2000s, small satellites were still a curiosity, but a buzz was in the air at NASA’s Ames Research Center near Mountain View, California. Boshuizen and another physicist, Will Marshall, recall a senior Ames engineer waving around a government-issued smart phone, declaring that it had more computing power than the average satellite. Why not just launch the smart phone? he asked. “We eventually took him seriously,” Chris Boshuizen says. “We got a smart phone, stuck it in a vacuum chamber, and it still worked.” It turned out that costly “rad-hard” parts, built to withstand the vacuum of space and its radiation environment, weren’t so important.

“Perhaps you’ve been lied to with this whole notion that things need to be space-qualified,” Boshuizen says. After all, he notes, astronauts on the barely shielded space station use iPads. (The more intense radiation of deep space, however, might pose a threat to future missions to other planets, which would venture outside Earth’s protective magnetic field.)

In 2010, Boshuizen and Marshall assembled a PhoneSat team at Ames. They took an HTC Nexus One smart phone out of its case, reprogrammed its Android operating system, and added extra batteries and a radio that would downlink pictures to Earth. Total cost: about $3,500. In 2013, the first three PhoneSats were launched. Two of them lacked solar panels, but they took and sent back pictures in the week before their batteries ran down. “We bet the farm on this idea that we could launch a phone into space and that it would work,” Boshuizen says. “And it did.”

(from Science, Volume 348, page 173, “Startup Liftoff”, by Eric Hand)


About Seelye Martin

Seelye Martin received his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics from Johns Hopkins University in 1967 then spent two years as a research associate in the Department of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1969 he took up a position in the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington where he is now an Emeritus Professor. Beginning in 1987, he taught courses on remote sensing of the oceans. Professor Martin has been involved with passive microwave, visible/infrared and radar ice research since 1979, and has served on a number of NASA and NOAA committees and panels involving remote sensing and high latitude processes. He has made many trips to the Arctic for research on sea ice properties and oceanography. From 2006-2008, he worked at NASA Headquarters as Program Manager for the Cryosphere, where he also served as program scientist for the ICESat-1 and ICESat-2 missions. After leaving Headquarters, from 2009 -2012, he worked in a variety of roles for the NASA high-latitude IceBridge remote sensing aircraft program. For this work, in 2012 he was awarded the NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal.
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