Cool Stuff: NASA launches smartphone satellites

June 1, 2013

NASAYou can make calls on a smartphone, send and receive emails, edit Office documents, or add seemingly endless apps.

But now you can add one more thing to the list of what smartphones can do. On April 21, three smartphones became low-cost satellites after they rode to space aboard the maiden flight of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares. They remained in orbit until April 27 when they burned up in Earth’s atmosphere as predicted.

The trio of "PhoneSats"—appropriately named Alexander, Graham and Bell—operated in orbit in hopes of becoming the lowest-cost satellites ever flown in space. While most satellites can cost more than $1 million, the three PhoneSats cost $3,500 to $7,000 each.

Alexander and Graham—both PhoneSat 1.0s—were battery-powered and carried a Nexus One smartphone running Goggle's Android operating system on board.

Bell was a more advanced kind of cubesat. The PhoneSat 2.0—built around a Nexus S smartphone running on Android—came equipped with solar panels and a two-way radio that allowed engineers to control the satellite from the ground. Its solar panels could make longer missions using the satellite possible in the future, according to a statement from NASA.

"This is really a test of the hardware, and to show that you can take a phone off the shelf, put it in a satellite and fly it in space," Andrew Petro, program executive for NASA's Small Spacecraft Technology Program told SPACE.com.

NASA said its next version of smartphone satellites would launch later this year.