Brits Beat Yanks in Google Android Space Race
Last year, NASA’s Ames Research Center announced plans to launch an Google Android-powered nano-satellite into space. A test unit has already been sent into suborbit, and a space launch is set for April 4. But a team of British researchers has quietly beat Ames to the punch.
On February 25, the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey in the UK and its commercial spin-off, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., launched a Android nano-satellite dubbed STRaND-1 — or Surrey Training, Research, and Nanosatellite Demonstrator — from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.
The nanosat — which has been in development since 2011 — isn’t entirely dependent on Android. It also includes a Linux-based high-performance computer, and that’s actually what’s driving the machine right now. It might actually be the most powerful computer flown in space. The computers used for space missions are notoriously outdated.
But the researchers hope to soon switch on the Nexus One smartphone contained in the satellite. Once it’s running, the Android phone will run several applications, some of which were created during a development contest in 2011. One app, called iTesa, will record the magnitude of the magnetic field around the phone during orbit. Another will display satellite telemetry that will be imaged by another on-board camera. The phone will also take photos using its built-in camera, and operate the satellite in orbit.
The team is also using some interesting hacks to make the Android phone work in space. Although the heat given off by processors is usually a problem to dealt with, the STRaND-1 is actually using it to keep the device from getting too cold in space. “The onboard computer will monitor the temperature of the phone battery. If it sees it is getting too cold, it will trigger a processor intensive program to run on the mobile phone, which will warm it up,” says the FAQ.
Besides being the first Android-based satellite in space, it may also be the first to use a 3D printed part. But don’t think that just because it’s built using an off-the-shelf smartphone and 3D printing that this is a low tech machine. It’s also the first nanto-satellite to use “WARP DRiVE” (Water Alcohol Resistojet Propulsion Deorbit Re-entry Velocity Experiment) and electric Pulsed Plasma Thrusters, or PPTs. The total bill for the satellite is said to be “slightly more than a high-end family car.”
Besides STRaND-1 and the Ames PhoneSat, several other projects are underway to democratize space exploration through nano-satellites, including the Kickstarter backed Nano Satisfi, which will use the open source circuit board Arduino and let home users rent time to run their own software on the machine.