Mobile phone to blast into orbit

STRaND nanosat (SSTL)

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British engineers are planning to put a mobile phone in space.

The team at SSTL and the Surrey Space Centre in Guildford want to see if the sophisticated capabilities in today's phones will function in the most challenging environment known.

The mobile will run on Google's Android operating system but the exact model has not yet been disclosed.

It will be used to control a 30cm-long satellite and take pictures of the Earth in the mission later this year.

Although mobile phones have been flown on high altitude balloons before, this is likely to be the first time such a device has gone into orbit several hundred kilometres above the planet.

"Modern smartphones are pretty amazing," said Shaun Kenyon, the project manager at SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Limited).

"They come now with processors that can go up to 1GHz, and they have loads of flash memory. First of all, we want to see if the phone works up there, and if it does, we want to see if the phone can control a satellite."

High Street product

The venture is part of the company's quest to find more inexpensive, off-the-shelf electronics that can be used to lower the cost of its spacecraft designs.

The mission is known as STRaND-1 (Surrey Training Research and Nanosatellite Demonstration).

Start Quote

We're trying to use as much of the capability of the phone as possible”

End Quote Doug Liddle Head of science, SSTL.

It involves both the company and researchers from the University of Surrey's space centre (SSC).

Much of the development work has been done in team-members' spare time.

The mobile model being used will be a standard, sub-£300 ($450), smartphone available in High Street stores.

"We're not taking it apart; we're not gutting it; we're not taking out the printed circuit boards and re-soldering them into our satellite - we're flying it as is," Mr Kenyon explained.

"And, in fact, we're going to have another camera on the satellite so we can take a picture of the phone because we want to operate the screen and have some good images of that as well."

Eye on Earth

Critical to the whole endeavour is the phone's operating system.

Android is open source software which means the engineers can modify it to adapt the phone's functions.

Picture of Android logo toy (Google) Google sent Nexus S smartphones to an altitude of 18km (60,000ft) on balloons last year

The great swings in temperature and the harsh radiation found in space require the phone be placed inside the satellite casing to give it some protection.

A hole will have to be cut in the side of the casing therefore to allow the phone's camera lens to see out.

The phone itself will not "call home"; messages and pictures will come back via the satellite's radio link.

For the first part of the mission, the mobile will act as the back-up to the main computer on the spacecraft.

After a period of time, however, the phone will be put in charge.

"We're trying to use as much of the capability of the phone as possible," said Doug Liddle, head of science at SSTL.

"Ideally, the phone can take control and do the thinking."

Busy months

To precisely point and manoeuvre, the satellite will be incorporating advanced guidance, navigation and control systems including miniature reaction wheels, and a GPS receiver, as well as innovative pulse plasma thrusters to propel it through space.

Nexus S The latest smartphones pack enormous capability into a very small space

The intention is that the phone be given the chance to oversee all these subsystems.

"The open source nature of the software is very exciting because you can see how further down the line, once we've got the phone working in orbit, we could get people to develop apps for it," Mr Liddle added.

Chris Bridges from the Surrey Space Centre commented: "If a smartphone can be proved to work in space, it opens up lots of new technologies to a multitude of people and companies for space who usually can't afford it. It's a real game-changer for the industry."

SSTL has earned a worldwide reputation for its small satellites. The company has managed to reduce the cost of its systems by incorporating components that were originally developed for consumer products such as laptops.

The coming months will see the company launch Earth observation spacecraft for Nigerian, Russian and Canadian customers.

It is also about to start building the spacecraft that will form the initial constellation of Galileo, Europe's multi-billion-euro answer to America's GPS network.

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