What happens when NASA geeks hangout with Google employees? Well, they duct tape their Android-based phones to a space rocket and blast it 28,000 feet into the air. Duh!
It's the quintessential Maker Faire project! Coined the NexusOne PhoneSat project, its goal is to determine if low-cost mobile phone components can withstand space travel. Not only must they reach orbit without shaking apart but they have to function within a vacuum and operate at both extremely high and low temperatures. And, of course, they'll have to travel a lot higher than 28,000 feet. The group is comprised of NASA Ames students, Google employees and two NASA contractors.
"The purpose of flying the Nexus One is to find a low-cost satellite solution," says Thomas Atchison, chairman of the Mavericks Foundation. "The radio, processing power, sensors and cameras in smartphones potentially have the same capability as those in satellites."
Interestingly enough, smart phones have 120-times the computing power of your average satellite, which are closer to 1984-era computers.
"You can go to Walmart and buy toys that work better than satellites did 20 years ago," said NASA physicist Chris Boshuizen. "And your cellphone is really a $500 robot in your pocket that can't get around. A lot of the real innovation now happens in entertainment and cellphone technology, and NASA should be going forward with their stuff."
The two Nexus One devices were housed in an Intimidator-5 rocket and launched into orbit but only one survived the experience. The first phone was damaged due to a malfunction with its parachute. Even then, each phone still captured the rocket's speed using its standard built-in accelerometers. Both rockets hit Mach 2.4 (1,800 miles per hour).
Here is video from the undamaged phone. If the movie Blair Witch made you nauseous, you might want to skip it.
"Today's satellites are the size of Greyhound buses," Atchison told Wired. "But I believe they are going to get smaller and more frequently deployed. This is a first-step effort."
It is worth noting that 90-percent of the Nexus One's weight is due to its screen and battery. If mobile phone components are used for satellite technology, these would obviously not be included. The weight comparison alone would be a huge fuel savings. And it's no secret that NASA is coupon-clipping these days.
Mobile phone-sized satellites would also produce a lot less space junk compared to current models. But this means any hobbyists with a few thousand bucks could deploy a satellite. However, if NASA is successful with converting mobile phones into satellites, it will be an interesting spin on "there's an app for that."
I welcome the iSatellite! Just don't hold it wrong.