Smartphone-powered Cubesats To Fly on Antares Maiden Launch

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WASHINGTON — Three experimental satellites powered by consumer smartphones will hitch a ride to space on Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares medium-lift rocket when that vehicle makes its maiden flight from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia later this year.

“The PhoneSat mission being put forth by Ames [Research Center] … is the use of a commercial mobile telephone as an avionics system in one of these small cubesats,” Bill Wrobel, director of NASA Wallops Flight Facility, said during a Jan. 24 teleconference with reporters. “We’re looking to see if we can’t get some kind of a big cost reduction in the future.”

In November, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. announced it had signed contracts with two customers — one government and one commercial — to integrate a total of four cubesats with Antares for the rocket’s first flight, which NASA spokesman David Seitz said is tentatively scheduled for this summer. Three of the satellites are standard-sized cubesats measuring 10 centimeters a side. The fourth is a triple cubesat — essentially three cubesats joined end to end. The cubesats will be stowed inside the rocket’s Cygnus mass simulator, a dummy payload standing in for the unmanned cargo tug Orbital is building to ferry supplies to the international space station.

Spaceflight Inc. President Jason Andrews said Jan. 27 that he was not at liberty to identify the commercial customer flying the triple cubesat.

But Bruce Yost, manager of the Edison Small Satellite Demonstration Missions program at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., said the three standard-sized cubesats booked aboard Antares belong to NASA and are part of the Ames-led PhoneSat mission.

The PhoneSat project is looking to demonstrate that cubesats can be put together for less than $10,000 using only commercial off-the-shelf parts. Project engineers succeeded in this, and each PhoneSat 1.0 cube cost about $3,500 to build, said Will Marshall, co-principal investigator for the PhoneSat mission.

Each of the three identical PhoneSat 1.0 cubesats is built around an HTC Corp. Nexus One, a $300 smartphone that runs Google’s Linux-based Android operating system.

The PhoneSat 1.0 spacecraft have no propulsion systems, Marshall said. For launch, the cubes will be integrated into an Isipod cubesat deployer built by Holland’s Innovative Solutions in Space. Once the pod is released from Antares, it will deploy the cubesats individually. The small craft will drift in low Earth orbit for about two weeks before re-entering the atmosphere. If the cubesats can survive several orbits and keep in contact with controllers on the ground, the demonstration will be considered a success, Marshall said.

“You can think of the objectives primarily as showing that this very low-cost hardware works in space,” Marshall said. “It’s really a tech demo of a phone as an avionics system for space. It blurts out little packets of data over its radio which will tell us, ‘Oh, the phone is alive, the batteries are doing OK, these sensors are doing OK.’ That’s about it.”

Chris Boshuizen, Marshall’s co-principal investigator, said PhoneSats are not designed to communicate with one another; three were built purely for the sake of redundancy.

And while it is not a primary objective of the mission, Boshuizen and Marshall do expect the PhoneSats to use the smartphones’ built-in cameras to take pictures that will be gradually transmitted down to Earth. “After taking the [picture] the phone will let us know, then attempt to send it to us,” Boshuizen said.

Meanwhile, NASA officials said the PhoneSat mission flying aboard Antares offers a taste of what is to come for Wallops, which traditionally has focused on launching small technology and science payloads aboard suborbital sounding rockets and balloons.

“There are many exciting aspects to the Antares/PhoneSat project,” said Mason Peck, who took over as NASA’s chief technologist Jan. 3. Peck joined Wrobel for the Jan. 24 press briefing from Wallops Island. “It’s the system that is bringing together these commercial parts and putting them on a commercial launch vehicle. That’s very exciting.

“In the future, if things go the way that they are, we’re going to be seeing a lot more small satellite work out of Wallops,” Peck added.

Wallops engineers are working on what Peck called a “Pez dispenser for satellites,” which would be capable of holding and deploying a spacecraft the size of six cubesats.

“One of the projects that the folks here are working on is a 6U deployer,” Peck said. “If you stack six [cubesats] together, you end up with a 10 centimeter by 20 centimeter by 30 centimeter rectangle. That’s called a 6U. Right now, there’s not a way to launch those things so … that represents a great opportunity for some new science.”

Peck, who oversees NASA’s $575 million space technology budget, is on loan to the agency from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He took over that role from Robert Braun, who left the post in October to return to academia.

Orbital Sciences spokesman Barron Beneski said that the company would be “very interested” in providing rides for more small secondary payloads, “as long as whatever the opportunity is fits up with our mission, and where Cygnus is going.”