NASA’s Android Smartphones Act As Satellites, Send Blurry Pictures From Space

By Gopi Chandra Kharel on May 4, 2013 2:02 AM EDT

Smartphones In Orbit
Above photo was taken by the PhoneSat-1 (Bell) nanosatellite and reconstructed by the Ames Phonesat Team and multiple amateur radio operators around the world. (Photo: NASA Ames)

Three Android smartphones sent by NASA in orbit last month to experiment if they could be used for a satellite in space transmitted "image-data packets" to multiple ground stations which were reconstructed into blurry pictures of the Earth.

The goal of what they call the "PhoneSat mission" that was launched April 21 aboard the Antares rocket from NASA's Wallops Island Flights Facility in Virginia was to see if a consumer-grade smartphones could be used as the main flight avionics for a satellite in space, NASA says.

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The three "miniature satellites" named Alexander, Graham and Bell transmitted the image-date packets using their smartphone cameras after taking pictures of the Earth. When those data became available, the PhoneSat Team and numerous other ham radio operators, who call themselves "hams," reconstructed a high-resolution photograph from the tiny data packets.

Although the NASA project began as a partnership with university students in 2009, the agency was able to launch the three devices only last month. Two of the PhoneSat used HTC Nexus One smartphones while the third one used Samsung Nexus S.

"During the Short time the spacecraft were in orbit, we were able to demonstrate the smartphones ability to act as satellites in the space environment," said Bruce Yost, the program manager for NASA's Small Satellite Technology Program, in a release.

"The PhoneSat project also provided an opportunity for NASA to collaborate with its space enthusiasts. Amateur Radio operators from every continent but Antarctica contributed in capturing the data packets were needed to piece together the Smarphones' image of Earth from space."

The smartphones were connected to a low-powered transmitter that worked using amateur radio band. The cameras of those smartphones sent image information to multiple ground locations that were received by hams and the Ames engineers. They stitched together the image data to construct a complete Earth view.

"Three days into the mission we already had received more than 300 data packets," Alberto Guillen Salas, an engineer at Ames and a member of the PhoneSat team said on the same release. "About 200 of the data packets were contributed by the global community and the remaining packets were received from members of our team with the help of the Ames Amateur Radio Club station, NA6MF."

The mission ended Saturday, April 27, when the PhoneSats were dragged back to the Earth and the atmospheric pressure burnt them on the way. 

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