When it comes to putting smartphones in space, Strand-1 isn’t unique. Phones have already been flown on high-altitude weather balloons and even on rockets. And, last year, an attempt was made to send a phone on a suborbital flight. Unfortunately, a rocket failure resulted in it returning to Earth in pieces. As for orbital flights, Strand-1 has some serious competition from a US project: PhoneSat. Backed by Nasa, and packed with apps, PhoneSat is due for launch early next year.
What’s exciting about all these projects is that they involve highly motivated teams of skilled enthusiasts. Often volunteers, they give up their time and share their designs, code and results. However, the big issue they all face is the cost of launch. Builders of these small satellites have to beg, borrow and negotiate “piggyback” launches from the big launcher companies and space agencies. Nasa has a scheme to get US academic projects into orbit, but Strand-1 will be launched with a large commercial satellite. The team won’t yet reveal the details but the launch should be ahead of PhoneSat.
Another project hoping to hitch a ride into space soon is KickSat. This small satellite will release a fleet of tiny ‘sprite’ satellites, each around the size of a couple of postage stamps. Regular readers will know this is a project we have been following closely ever since we decided to buy one of the sprites that will be blasted onto orbit. The latest news is that the student behind the project, Zac Manchester from Cornell University New York, has secured lab space at Nasa. I hope to visit Zac at Nasa Ames in September, where I’m assured our own sprite is starting to take shape. I also plan to get a look at PhoneSat and see how it compares to the UK effort.
Meanwhile, back at the University of Surrey, work on assembling Strand-1 for the final time is about to get underway. This may be a volunteer project but, if it’s successful, the potential of mobile phone technology, and the implications for the future design and cost of commercial satellites, is enormous.
It strikes me that the only thing they’re not using the smartphone for is as an actual phone. But, says Kenyon, “the roaming charges from space are a bit high.”