Android 'smartphone satellite' aims for space

With smartphones gaining power while shedding size, British researchers say it's time to use them as primary computers for satellites.

Matt Hickey
With more than 15 years experience testing hardware (and being obsessed with it), Crave freelance writer Matt Hickey can tell the good gadgets from the great. He also has a keen eye for future technology trends. Matt has blogged for publications including TechCrunch, CrunchGear, and most recently, Gizmodo. Matt is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CBS Interactive. E-mail Matt.
Matt Hickey
3 min read

Androids in orbit, man. Matt Hickey/CNET

British researchers plan to launch an android into orbit--not the C-3PO and R2-D2 kind, but an Android smartphone. It's not the first attempt to launch an Android phone into space, but it's the first that's aiming to make a smartphone the brain for an orbital satellite.

The STRaND-1 (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator) is being made from advanced and off-the-shelf components by Surrey Satellite Technology, a spinoff of the University of Surrey, and the university's Surrey Space Centre. The project has a few stated goals.

The first is to see if a smartphone can function in the hostile environment that is space. It will live in a protective case, and a computer on the satellite will put the phone through a number of tests to determine which components (sensors, video cameras, GPS systems, Wi-Fi radios, and so on) do and don't work in orbit.

If enough parts of the handset pass muster, the custom software will be tested next. If that works as planned, the smartphone will be used to operate parts of the satellite. The phone's cellular radio won't be used, as there are no cell towers in space (yet). Instead, the team will communicate with the phone using the satellite radio technology already in place. That said, some of the phone's other systems--processor, RAM, storage, and camera, just to name a few--will be used.

A camera will likely be outfitted so the controllers on the ground can see the screen. This will allow the scienticians to control the phone with their own custom software packages. The ability to load custom software payloads and its open-source nature is the reason why Android was chosen as the first phone OS for the stars.

The satellite will rely on its own GPS, guidance, and thrusters, but will use the phone as a backup to the main computer. Then, if all goes well, it will take over as the main "brain" and control the satellite's functions.

"If a smartphone can be proved to work in space, it opens up lots of new technologies to a multitude of people and companies for space who usually can't afford it. It's a real game-changer for the industry," said Chris Bridges, STRaND-1's lead researcher.

If all works out, the research could lead to reduced costs and sizes of future satellites, which to some is backward thinking. While in the past, technology for the space program has lead to innovations in consumer technology, this is just the opposite. And that is why it's cool.

Smartphone makers, of course, have been in a race for years trying to cram more and more advanced technology into smaller and smaller handsets. Smartphones are essentially pocket-sized computers, though fairly advanced. The latest batches have gigahertz-and-faster processors, which make them more powerful than some laptops people were buying just a few years ago.

Couple that with the massive amounts of flash storage, cameras, GPS receivers, radios, and USB ports, in addition to the ability to run advanced software, and suddenly they become attractive alternatives to the custom computers most satellites use as a brain.