NASA Launches Android Smartphones Into Space

The agency's PhoneSat project is testing these devices as prototype satellites.

by / April 25, 2013
NASA released a new, high resolution “Blue Marble” image of the Earth taken from NASA's most recently launched Earth-observing satellite. NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring

On Sunday April 21, NASA attached three Android smartphones -- named Alexander, Graham and Bell -- to a rocket and sent them into low-earth orbit. Though it might initially sound outrageous, the reason is rather solid. It's for a project called PhoneSat that is testing the devices as prototype satellites, NationalJournal reported.

Believe it or not, smartphones are a perfect fit for space travel. They're small, and they have many features NASA needs packed into one device -- powerful batteries and processors, gyroscopes and accelerometers, and high-quality cameras. As NationalJournal notes, PhoneSat makes a lot of sense for the budget-conscious organization, which is increasingly turning away from manned space missions.

As for the phone satellites themselves, Bruce Yost, one of the project's lead scientists, said they came out of the box nearly ready-made -- each one includes a special app that allows the phones to transmit information back to Earth from orbit, such as their health and status, and the best photos of their surroundings (the shots with the Earth's horizon in them).

And Jim Cockrell, another project lead, said that around 200 packets of data have been recorded so far. After about 10 days, the phones -- having sent back all their data while in space -- will re-enter the earth's atmosphere, burning up in the process.

Photo courtesy of NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring