1st Smartphone Satellite Dials Earth from Space

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NEW YORK — A tiny satellite powered by a Google Nexus One smartphone has become the world’s first “phonesat” to orbit Earth, its builders say.

The United Kingdom Space Agency’s miniature Surrey Training Research and Nanosatellite Demonstration (STRAND)-1 satellite launched into space Feb. 25 is one of seven spacecraft riding into orbit aboard an Indian rocket. It will test several new space technologies, including its Water Alcohol Resistojet Propulsion De-orbit Re-entry Velocity Experiment, or WARP Drive — a novel space propulsion technology that will test a water-alcohol based thruster system.

“We’d hate to pick up the bill on those roaming charges,” U.K. Space Agency officials wrote via Twitter after the successful launch of the rocket, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.

STRAND-1 is a small, box-shaped cubesat. It weighs just 4.3 kilograms and is about 30 centimeters long and 10 centimeters wide. It was built by the British Surrey Space Center and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. to serve as a spaceflight training and technology demonstration mission, officials said.

“This is a great example of the innovative approach that you can take with cubesats to develop and prove low cost commercial technologies for space while at the same time proving an exciting way of training and developing engineering skills,” U.K. Space Agency’s Chris Castelli, acting director of science, technology and exploration, said in a statement. “We wish the STRaND-1 team every success and look forward to seeing how the mission performs.”

STRAND-1 combines its Google Nexus One Android-powered smartphone core with a Linux-based high-speed processor in order to control itself.

The nanosatellite is equipped with two new space propulsion systems. Its WARP Drive will test a new way to intentionally destroy a satellite at the end of a mission by performing maneuvers that force the satellite to fall out of orbit. The second system is a set of eight electric “pulsed plasma thrusters” that will be tested during the mission, Surrey officials said in a statement.

The STRAND-1 nanosatellite is also carrying several apps in its smartphone brain that serve crucial roles in the mission, Surrey officials said. They were selected during a Surrey-run Facebook contest in 2012 and include:

  • The app iTesla will record the strength of the magnetic field around STRAND-1 while in orbit.
  • STRAND Data App will display the smartphone’s satellite telemetry on the phone itself so it can be photographed by an on-board camera.
  • 360 App will use the built-in camera of STRAND-1’s smartphone to take photos of Earth from space. The public can request images from the STRAND-1 satellite through the 360 App website.
  • Scream in Space App is designed to use the speakers in STRAND-1’s smartphone to test the theory popularized by the tagline for the 1979 science fiction film “Alien” — “In space no one can hear you scream.” Surrey officials explained that “the app will play videos of the best screams while in orbit and screams will be recorded using the smartphone’s own microphone.”

In the United States, NASA is also developing its own version of the smartphone satellite. The U.S. space agency’s aptly named PhoneSat project is expected to launch on a demonstration mission later this year.