April 22, 2013 11:38 pm

Smartphones enter low-cost space race

Smartphones, which are set to conquer the earth this year, are now part of a space race, with America’s Nasa agency putting three handset-powered mini-satellites into orbit.

Alexander, Graham and Bell, named after the inventor of the telephone, are currently beaming data back to earth that are expected to include pictures of the planet taken by their camera phones.

Alexander is a modified Samsung Nexus S using Google’s Android operating system, while Graham and Bell are based on an HTC Nexus One Android phone.

They outnumber a British-led effort, which beat them into orbit in February. Strand-1, created by the University of Surrey’s Space Centre and Surrey Satellite Technology, was the world’s first “PhoneSat” placed in orbit and is also based on a Nexus One.

The latest deployment is a far cry from the billions spent by Nasa on Apollo moon missions and its space shuttle programme. The space agency is experimenting with building low-cost nano-satellites using off-the-shelf components, with the three smartphone satellites costing as little as $3,500 each.

“Smartphones offer a wealth of potential capabilities for flying small, low-cost, powerful satellites for atmospheric or Earth science, communications, or other space-born applications,” said Michael Gazarik, Nasa’s associate administrator for space technology, in a statement.

“They also may open space to a whole new generation of commercial, academic and citizen-space users.”

Nasa used a commercial partner to put the smartphones into orbit – Orbital Sciences Corporation carried them on its Antares rocket, which lifted off in Virginia on Sunday.

Smartphones are expected to overtake sales of regular “feature” phones for the first time this year with 919m shipped, according to forecasts from the IDC research company.

They were chosen by engineers at Nasa’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley for their PhoneSat project as they contain fast processors, versatile operating systems, radios, GPS receivers and cameras, as well as multiple sensors that can help position the satellites correctly.

“Smartphones’ ability to tolerate vigorous use makes them able to withstand the launch and space environment, and their compact, modern electronics components make them work in the vacuum of space more easily,” said Jim Cockrell, PhoneSat project manager at Ames.

Each smartphone is contained in a small cube-shaped structure. A larger, external lithium-ion battery bank and a more powerful radio have been added to send data back from space over an extended period – although the satellites are not expected to remain in orbit beyond two weeks.

The ability to send and receive voice calls and text messages has been disabled, but amateur radio hams are being urged to pick up the data being “phoned” home in order to piece together the large files expected of photos of the earth.

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