When most people send images from their smartphones, they tend to be of what the photographer is having for dinner or someone doing something very silly in the pub [or cats – Ed]. NASA has raised the bar for phone snaps out of the atmosphere by using smartphones installed in "nanosatellites" in low Earth orbit to send back images of the Earth. The three satellites, called Alexander, Graham and Bell, flew in space between April 21 and 27 as part of a mission to show how satellites could be built cheaper using off-the-shelf components.
The three cube-shaped satellites were launched on Sunday, April 21, 2013 atop Orbital Science Corporation's Antares rocket from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia. The three satellites were all built around a standard cubesat frame about four inches (10 cm) square, with a larger, external lithium-ion battery and a radio powerful enough to reach Earth. The smartphone components not only provided cameras for snapping pictures of the Earth, but also acted as the spacecrafts’ avionics for maintaining attitude control.
In keeping with the PhoneSat’s mission’s goal of getting into space on a budget, the images were transmitted back to Earth in the form of image-data packets that were received not just by NASA's Ames Research Center but also by amateur radio operators around the world, who volunteered their services to collect 200 of these packets.
"Three days into the mission we already had received more than 300 data packets," said Alberto Guillen Salas, an engineer at Ames and a member of the PhoneSat team. "About 200 of the data packets were contributed by the global community and the remaining packets were received from members of our team with the help of the Ames Amateur Radio Club station, NA6MF.”
The purpose of the mission was to show how smartphone components and other off-the-shelf parts could be used to build satellites, including the main flight avionics. "During the short time the spacecraft were in orbit, we were able to demonstrate the smartphones' ability to act as satellites in the space environment," said Bruce Yost, the program manager for NASA's Small Satellite Technology Program. "The PhoneSat project also provided an opportunity for NASA to collaborate with its space enthusiasts. Amateur radio operators from every continent but Antarctica contributed in capturing the data packets we needed to piece together the smartphones' image of Earth from space.”
On April 27, the PhoneSat mission came to an end when the orbits of all three satellites decayed and they burned up in the atmosphere.
The video below outlines the PhoneSat mission.