Mobile phones have touched and changed almost every part of our lives. Now they are heading into space.
The satellite lies in pieces, strewn across the table. It doesn’t remotely look like a spacecraft.
“We keep building it, and taking it apart, and tweaking it a little bit…and building it up again, finding an interesting feature, then taking it apart,” says Shaun Kenyon an engineer at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, a satellite manufacturer based in the southern English town of Guildford.
“We have all the bits,” he laughs, his voice bordering on mild hysteria. “Excitement is a good word to use about how the team’s feeling at the moment. Sheer panic might be another phrase.”
Kenyon is the joint leader of the Strand-1 satellite team, a group of volunteers hoping to fly the first smartphone satellite in orbit. Strand, incidentally, stands for Surrey Training Research and Nanosatellite Demonstration – joining a long list of torturous space acronyms. After many months of development, the group is close to finalising a launch for later this year.
At first the idea of putting a phone in space sounds like a stunt. But when you think about it, a smartphone is a remarkable piece of technology.
“You’ve got this thing in your pocket which has the same computing capability as a supercomputer did in the 1970s,” says Kenyon. “All of that electronics has got billions and billions of dollars of R and D in it, so we’re just trying to make use of all that research and see if those electronics will work in space.”
“It’s got sensors on it we all use for gaming, it’s got the comms, it’s got the camera,” Kenyon’s colleague, Chris Bridges, adds. “Apart from solar panels, this thing pretty much is a satellite.”
And it’s not only the computing capabilities of mobile phones that make them good candidates for spaceflight. Mobiles are remarkably robust, capable of surviving everything – from the extreme heat of a car dashboard in Africa to the cold of an Alaskan winter. They can be dropped on concrete, left in the rain and even survive the washing machine (although not, as I discovered, the tumble drier). In comparison, space should be a doddle.
“We’ve stuck it in a vacuum chamber and we’ve stuck it in an oven – literally, my oven at home,” says Kenyon. “We’ve also stuck it in my freezer, it was absolutely fine.”
Engaged for launch
The phone will sit at the heart of the 30cm- (11in-) long Strand-1 satellite, which will have a hole cut in the side for the camera. Apps include one designed to capture “postcards from space”, another will hope to prove conclusively whether it’s true that in space no-one can hear you scream. To do this, the phone will play screams and attempt to record them on its inbuilt microphone. Other apps will exploit the phone’s inbuilt magnetometer – used for its compass – to measure the magnetic field around the satellite. It will even use the wi-fi capability.
“We’ve got another bit of electronics inside the satellite that will pick up the wi-fi signal. So it’ll be a wireless intra-satellite link,” explains Kenyon. “That’ll be quite an interesting experiment in terms of much larger satellites where the weight of all the cables is not insignificant. So if you could use wi-fi in big satellites, then you’re saving a lot of mass.”
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.”