PhoneSat is a NASA project designed to lower the cost of maintaining a presence in space by utilising modern semiconductor technologies. A team of engineers at the Ames Research Centre, Moffett Field, California, based its specification around Google smartphones and the open source Android software technology. Modern smartphones have all the features that any conventional satellite would have. They usually have a high-resolution camera, microwave transmitter, and a powerful processor. Such a phone can operate for many days in space on a single charged battery.
PhoneSat 1.0 was the first project to determine if modern electronic technology could survive in the harsh environment of space. The question everyone had in mind was, do Smartphones work in space. In space, there is solar radiation that can damage electronic circuits. Consequently, electronic equipment is required to be radiation hardened. This hardening is one of the reasons why conventional satellites are so expensive.
Expected to last for just one Earth orbit, it consisted of a single use battery pack, a beacon, and a watchdog timer based on an Arduino platform. The timer allowed the phone to reboot itself in the event of a malfunction. This satellite measured 10 cm × 10 cm × 10 cm in dimension and weighed less than four pounds. The main processing core was the Nexus One Smartphone sold by Google, which uses the Android 2.1 operating system. It has the Snapdragon™ 3G QSD8250 processor, delivering speeds of up to 1 GHz. This was one of the most powerful system-on-chip (SoC) packages developed by Qualcomm. The parts for the PhoneSat 1.0 cost $3500 and the Taurus II rocket launched it in 2012.
The second project was PhoneSat 2.0, which had a fully functional bus allowing two-way communications with ground control. It remained in space for a longer duration and was equipped with solar panels. Its processor core was the Nexus S smartphone, which had the Samsung Hummingbird 1 GHz ARM Cortex A8 core with a PowerVR SGX 540 GPU.
The success of these projects led to cheaper science and exploration missions. The GPS tracking capability of the phone provides a vast number of exciting low-cost projects such as lunar exploration missions, and dispersed sensor arrays. The major part of the cost is in the launching of these satellites. However, sending multiple satellites into orbit, can obtain the full cost benefit.
Since many organisations may launch these ‘disposable’ satellites into orbit, the likelihood will be that the rate at which they launch into orbit will be faster than gravity could bring them down again. The “CleanSpace” programme intends to clean the space of any ‘dead’ satellites.
“Lieutenant, I want that satellite gone, out my sky!” He pressed a button and it vaporised. That is what I would like to see, however, there would not be any blasting involved, except a small nudge to push it into the Earth’s gravity well.
Private Space Funding
Given the new economic realities there will many private organisations interested in this sector of the industry. I am always telling Larry Page on Google+ to get into this sector of the industry. There are some great spacecraft designs worth considering today. One great design is the SBiDir that won the NASA design competition. It has a huge potential to be the space transport of the future.
Today's space programmes rely more on private funding and organisations. SpaceX is the new NASA that currently brings supplies to the International Space Station. There is also the SpaceShipTwo project funded by the Virgin Galactic business tycoon Sir Richard Branson.
Whilst the breakup of NASA, and the retirement of the RIP - Space Shuttle was sad, the opportunities for new organisations and innovation mark a new beginning. The future is actually very exciting. The old design philosophy of satellites weighing tonnes and providing low-resolution monochrome images, are probably on their way out. Why use technology that is decades old and expensive to use?
With modern semiconductor technology, satellites can weigh almost nothing, and can provide high-definition colour images. These small satellites are ideal for robot missions that will allow humankind to see space in a way never seen before.
British Space Programme
The possibilities are exciting, and I would love to build a sensor array using these satellites. They could continuously monitor the Earth’s climate and provide early warning of tornadoes, and Tsunamis, as well as for spying and tracking movements. It is all very exciting and I wish I were involved with these space projects; unfortunately, I am just a Brit. The last project we Brits did was the Mars Beagle and that crashed! Nowadays, the only rockets we get to see are on November the 5th. :-)
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