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NASA satellites based on smartphones

By David Delony / June 25, 2013

The future of satellite technology may already be sitting in the palm of your hand. As part of the Phonesat project, NASA recently launched three satellites into orbit that are essentially modified Nexus One smartphones. These economical satellites, made primarily from commercial hardware, cost between $3,500 and $7,000 — a significant savings on the millions of dollars traditional NASA satellites can cost.

Why smartphones?

Standard communication satellites are great for everything from lengthy missions to deep space exploration, but some objectives don’t require the time, technology or price tag of our current fleet of spacecrafts. Smartphones are ideal candidates for simpler tasks because of their small size, widespread availability, powerful processors and relative durability. To be safe though, the NASA satellites were launched in cages to protect them from the harsh conditions of outer space. All told, the whole assembly is about the size of a coffee cup.

Experimental technology

Although you can’t run a 24-hour cable news station with these experimental satellites, they do a pretty good job of taking pictures and gathering other useful information about our planet. Because smartphone satellites are comparatively cheap, more companies have an opportunity to experiment with zero-gravity business initiatives — especially with upstarts like Virgin Galactic and Space X delivering payloads. This could generate new interest in space exploration and create multiple new sources of information.

Although smartphones make the construction of satellites a lot easier and cheaper, it’s still relatively difficult to launch them due to security restrictions and technical complications. But that hasn’t stopped the amateur radio community from experimenting with satellites for quite some time.

Potential pitfalls

The proliferation of private satellites come with some obvious problems. For one thing, what’s to come of all these devices once they’ve reached the end of their lifespan? When one of NASA’s satellites become inactive, they’re either guided into an orbit where they’ll stay forever, or they’re allowed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

If amateur astrophysicists start sending up satellites without a proper exit strategy, our outer atmosphere will become a giant trash receptacle. “Space junk” is already a major headache for NASA, since debris from inactive equipment can damage other satellites and even harm people and property on Earth if a vessel doesn’t incinerate on re-entry.

Space pollution aside, inexpensive satellites hold a lot of potential for the future of tech. And although spacebound smartphones are still in their infancy, there’s great interest in research and development by NASA, universities and start-ups alike. All of which means the final frontier is getting a lot more accessible.