NASA turns your mobile phone into a satellite by sending it into outer space.
When President Kennedy issued the moon mandate in 1961 and ignited the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, NASA received mounting pressure to innovate comprehensively and quickly. The research and development NASA put to use in launching a vessel at escape velocity speeds yielded some of the most pivotal technology of the 20th century — everything from microwave ovens to Velcro, as the saying goes.
A half-century later, and facing looming budget cuts, NASA now operates differently, often using readily available consumer technology to perform more with less.
NASA’s latest satellite program makes use of both the latest innovations and antiquated technology dating back to WWII.
Enter PhoneSat, a nanosatellite powered by the Android mobile operating system and the mobile phone’s native camera. That’s to say, the components of a smartphone you bought off the shelf and carry around in your pocket every day are the same as those used by an innovative new space project.
PhoneSat provides yet another proof of concept for Moore’s Law, which observed that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles roughly every two years. It’s a driving principle that has lead processors to become so powerful and small that a computer able to collect vast arrays of data in Earth’s orbit can fit in your pocket and costs only a couple hundred dollars.
PhoneSat is a project from NASA’s Ames Research Center, which began launching these satellites last year. The project comes from a lineage of CubeSat models, a satellite measuring 10 centimeters cubed and generally weighing no more than a few kilograms.
Although CubeSat concepts have floated around for over a decade, they became better known thanks to KickSat in 2011.
Conceived by aerospace engineering student Zac Manchester, the crowdfunded Kickstarter project received almost three times the original $30,000 goal. The idea? Having your own spacecraft.
“By shrinking the spacecraft, we can fit more [satellites] into a single launch slot and split the costs many ways,” writes Manchester. “I want to make it easy enough and affordable enough for anyone to explore space.”
Of course, it’s not just budgetary and efficiency concerns that got Ames interested in rethinking the satellite with PhoneSat.
“Weight is very important,” explained Matthew Reyes, a technology strategist contracted by NASA Ames Research Center’s Chief Technologist. According to Reyes, critical factors in conceiving the project were “weight reduction and leveraging the computing power available in that footprint for a satellite at the time.”
For PhoneSat, the engineers at Ames took apart Android phones and reconfigured their components to fit within a cube structure. The PhoneSat has a relatively short lifespan compared to other satellites, as its trajectory is at a lower altitude, and it’s generally no more than a few weeks before it burns up in the atmosphere.
The lower atmosphere flight path provides a few advantages for PhoneSat. Despite its small size, which does make space debris less of a concern, it remains vulnerable to errant blasts of radiation within the harsh vacuum of space. This altitude also allows the vehicle to transmit data via amateur radio.
That’s right, the PhoneSat, orbiting the Earth with cutting-edge consumer technology, communicates with the ground using HAM radio.
“Getting a satellite in orbit is easy compared to getting the paperwork to get the radio approved to communicate back to the ground,” said Reyes.
Any given organization in charge of a satellite must, as Reyes explained, secure licensing to communicate over different countries via agencies like the ITU, and all countries also have a mechanism for licensing satellites to take images of the ground. In other words, even crowdfunded nanosatellites must adhere to the same rules as larger, traditional LandSat projects.
The HAM radio band offers the best solution for PhoneSat, and it allows a crowdsourcing of ground stations. Because of its low altitude, any citizen with a 70-meter band receiver, or a snazzy new SDR setup and a license to transmit can participate by recording the signal as the satellite passes overhead and submitting the audio file. This saves a significant amount of money by avoiding both the establishment of ground stations and a difficult regulatory environment.
More significantly, inviting the public to collaborate with NASA by using readily-available technology creates an opportunity to cultivate palpable public excitement in space exploration similar to the space race of the ’60s.
Although KickSat acts as the first satellite project realized via the Internet, the first truly crowdsourced satellite launched the same year as Kennedy’s moon decision. Launched in December 1961, the OSCAR-1 was funded and assembled by private individuals, namely a group of radio amateurs from the Bay Area.
As host of the recent reboot of “Cosmos,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson, recently told NPR, “Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival. Not only does that get people interested in sciences and all the related fields, [but] it transforms the culture into one that values science and technology, and that’s the culture that innovates.”
What’s in the future for PhoneSat and its cubical brethren?
Such satellite programs look to become decreasingly reliant on traditional funding, technology and protocol, while combining the best of both new and old technology. NASA has already set the wheels in motion to send 3D printers on space missions, once again lightening the load that leaves Earth and allowing for the manufacturing of components in zero gravity.
As for KickSat, the group is currently developing the first true open-source satellite. The blueprints are already available on Github.
Welcome to the future, where everyday electronics can help us unravel the mysteries of our planet and solar system.
Images by NASA.