Google in Space: NASA powers mini-satellites with Android phones

Today’s smartphone has many times the processing power of all the used computers during the Apollo moon landings. So why not use the smartphone to control a spacecraft? That’s the approach NASA is taking in latest project, which uses off-the-shelf to electronics, including a Nexus One Android(s goog) phone, in the construction of a new nanosatellite.

Called PhoneSat 1.0, the 4-inch cube is the prototype for what NASA hopes will be a fleet of miniature orbiters that can each be built for less than $3500 in materials. The smartphone is a particularly key component because it already contains much of the core technology needed in a satellite: radios, a versatile operating system, a fast processor and multiple sensors. From NASA’s website:

The Nexus One acts as the spacecraft onboard computer. Sensors determine the orientation of the spacecraft while the smartphone’s camera can be used for Earth observations. Commercial-off-the-shelf parts include a watchdog circuit that monitors the systems and reboots the phone if it stops sending radio signals.

NASA’s PhoneSat 1.0 satellite has a basic mission goal–to stay alive 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.

The next version of PhoneSat will use the newer Nexus S and will have a mission more involved than mere survival. It will carry an S-band two-way radio, which will allow NASA to control the tiny spacecraft on the ground, rather than just receive transmissions. PhoneSat 2.0 will also have solar panels to keep the phone’s battery charged, magnetorquer coils – electro-magnets that interact with Earth’s magnetic field — and reaction wheels, which will allow engineers to control the satellites orientation in space.

NASA expects to launch two PhoneSat 1.0 satellites and one Phonesat 2.0 this fall, hitching a ride on the new Antares rocket, built by Orbital Sciences Corporation(s orb). Orbital Sciences is a competitor of SpaceX (check out my feature on how satellite company Iridium and SpaceX found common cause), which designs the Falcon rocket competing with Antares for NASA contracts.