NASA launches three smartphones into orbit

Talk about roaming charges.

NASA has launched three smartphones into orbit as part of a low-budget, experimental satellite program that uses off-the-shelf components.

The three Google-HTC Nexus One smartphones are circling Earth at an altitude of about 150 miles and will burn up on re-entry within the next two weeks, NASA said. The smartphones, which are encased in 4-inch metal cubes, are running the Android operating system.

The mission of each PhoneSat is simple: Snap photos of Earth and send back periodic radio messages. The goal is to see just what the smartphones are capable of, and whether they can supply the “brains” of future satellites, according to NASA officials.

The launch occurred Sunday, when Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket lifted off from Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia. By Sunday, amateur, or ham, radio operators had already begun notifying NASA that they had picked up radio signals from the satellites, according to Ruth Marlaire, a NASA spokeswoman.

One of the goals of the program is to build a satellite that costs less than $10,000 using off-the-shelf equipment. (The PhoneSat’s UHF antenna is actually a piece of a carpenter’s tape measure.)


The smartphones aren’t entirely stock, however. There are two PhoneSat 1.0 craft that have larger, external lithium ion batteries, as well as one PhoneSat 2.0 that has solar cells.

Ironically, when engineers began planning the device, the Nexus One smartphone was perhaps the best on the market. Now it’s considered out of date and no longer sold.

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