When Orbital Science Corporation's Antares rocket lofted a simulated spacecraft mass into orbit on its maiden flight from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia on Sunday, it also carried a piggyback cargo of three NASA nanosatellites. These “PhoneSats,” which were built using smartphone and off-the-shelf consumer components in a standard cubesat frame, may be the cheapest satellites ever launched.

These aren’t the first smartphone satellites to be sent into orbit, but they’re part of a growing trend in finding ways to exploit consumer components and the advantages of nanosatellite architecture. Smartphones are particularly attractive because they are compact, are built to be relatively rugged, and already contain radio transmitters, processors, operating systems, sensors, cameras and GPS receivers.

"Smartphones offer a wealth of potential capabilities for flying small, low-cost, powerful satellites for atmospheric or Earth science, communications, or other space-borne applications,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology in Washington. “They also may open space to a whole new generation of commercial, academic and citizen-space users."

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. A smartphone serves as the “brain” of the satellite, while its sensors are used to maintain the craft’s attitude.

However, the three PhoneSats are not identical. Two are what NASA calls “PhoneSat 1.0” and are based on the Google-HTC developed Nexus One smartphone running Google’s Android operating system. The PhoneSat 1.0’s mission is simply to function for a short time and send back images.

The third satellite is “PhoneSat 2.0.” Unlike the other two, PhoneSat 2.0 is based on the Google-Samsung developed Nexus S smartphone and is solar powered using panels made from scraps left over from building larger panels. The Nexus S has a faster processor and PhoneSat 2.0 is equipped with a GPS receiver, an S-band radio, gyroscopes for attitude control and magnetorquer coils, which are designed to interact with the Earth’s magnetic field.

According to NASA, these may be the lowest-cost satellites ever sent into space at a cost of cost between US$3,500 and US$7,000 per satellite. All three satellites are working and their transmissions are being received both by mission control at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and amateur ground stations. The latter is an important element of the mission with a website set up where amateur radio operators can track the satellites' path and share reports on received transmissions.

The transmission includes updates on the satellites’ status and images sent back from the smartphone cameras. It’s hoped that amateurs will not only help collect these status reports, but also the images, the larger ones of which are sent back in sections.

NASA anticipates that the three PhoneSats will remain in orbit for about two weeks.

The NASA Ames video below details the PhoneSat mission.

Source: NASA