NASA’s PhoneSat project has won Popular Science’s 2012 Best of What’s New Award for innovation in aerospace. PhoneSat will demonstrate the ability to launch one of the lowest-cost, easiest-to-build satellites ever flown in space — capabilities enabled by using off-the-shelf consumer smartphones.
Each year, Popular Science reviews thousands of new products and innovations, and chooses the top 100 winners across 12 categories for its annual Best of What’s New issue. To win, a product or technology must represent a significant step forward in its category. All of the winners will be featured in the December special issue of the magazine.
“NASA’s PhoneSat mission will demonstrate use of small satellites for space commerce, educational activities and citizen-exploration are well within the reach of ordinary Americans because of lower cost, commercially available components,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Thanks to America’s continuing investment in space technology to enable NASA missions, we’ve seen space tech brought down and into our lives here on Earth. With PhoneSat, we’re doubling up, and taking those same great technologies back to space.”
NASA’s PhoneSat 1.0 satellite has a basic mission goal — to function in space for a short period of time, sending back digital imagery of Earth and space via its camera, while also sending back information about the satellite’s health.
NASA engineers kept the total cost of the components to build each of the three prototype satellites in the PhoneSat project to $3,500 by using only commercial-off-the-shelf hardware and establishing minimum design and mission objectives for the first flight.
Each NASA PhoneSat ‘nanosatellite’ is a 4-inch cube and weighs three pounds. NASA’s PhoneSat design makes extensive use of an unmodified, consumer-grade smartphone. Out-of-the-box smartphones offer capabilities needed for satellites, including fast processors, versatile operating systems, multiple miniature sensors, high-resolution cameras, GPS receivers, and several radios.
“NASA PhoneSat engineers are changing the way missions are designed by rapidly prototyping and incorporating existing commercial technologies and hardware,” said S. Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., where a small team of engineers developed and built PhoneSat. “This approach allows engineers to see what capabilities commercial technologies can provide, rather than trying to custom-design technology solutions to meet set requirements.”
NASA’s prototype smartphone satellite, known as PhoneSat 1.0, is built around the Nexus One smartphone made by HTC Corp., which runs Google’s Android operating system. The Nexus One acts as the spacecraft’s onboard computer. Commercial-off-the-shelf parts include an open-source, micro controller adapted as a watchdog circuit that monitors the systems and reboots the phone if it stops sending radio signals.
NASA’s PhoneSat 2.0 will lay the foundation for new capabilities for small-sized satellites, while advancing breakthrough technologies and decreasing costs of future small spacecraft. PhoneSat 2.0 will be equipped with an updated Nexus S smartphone made by Samsung Electronics which runs Google’s Android operating system to provide a faster core processor, avionics and gyroscopes.
PhoneSat 2.0 will supplement the capabilities of PhoneSat 1.0 by adding solar panels to enable longer-duration missions and a GPS receiver. In addition, PhoneSat 2.0 also will add magnetorquer coils — electro-magnets that interact with Earth’s magnetic field — as well as reaction wheels to actively control the satellite’s orientation in space.
A beta version of PhoneSat 2.0 will accompany two PhoneSat 1.0 spacecraft aboard the maiden flight of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Va., in the coming months.
The PhoneSat project is a technology demonstration mission funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program, which is managed by NASA’s Space Technology Program. NASA’s Space Technology Program is innovating, developing, testing, and flying technology for use in NASA’s future missions and by the greater aerospace community.