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Slideshow: Smartphone Images From Space

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In April, NASA deployed three smartphone-based satellites (named Alexander, Graham, and Bell) that took pictures of the Earth from space and transmitted the data packets back to Earth, where they were received by a NASA team and by amateur radio operators around the world. This photo was taken by PhoneSat 1 (Bell).(Source: NASA Ames)
In April, NASA deployed three smartphone-based satellites (named Alexander, Graham, and Bell) that took pictures of the Earth from space and transmitted the data packets back to Earth, where they were received by a NASA team and by amateur radio operators around the world. This photo was taken by PhoneSat 1 (Bell).
(Source: NASA Ames)

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Smart phones, cheap space
naperlou   8/28/2013 9:26:03 AM
Chuck, this is an interesting approach.  I remember when the military was looking at small, cheap communication satellites.  These could be launched cheaply and in large numbers.  One launch concept called for using a super gun rather than a rocket to launch them.

One of the STEM program teams at our local high school put a couple of cheap digital cameras into an enclosure attached to a weather ballon.  The pictures were sent back via a smart phone.  They got up pretty high, so were out of contact for a while.  The phone just stored the photos until they were in range. 

The fact that the team was impressed with themselves with putting something together like this on the cheap is an interesting statement.  I was just talking to my high school age son about the space program.  When I worked in this area everything we did was new.  Every project involved something that had never been done before.  Even my son could see that this has changed with the space program.  Perhaps this is why funding has not been what it should be.  I wonder.

Anyway, why didn't they use one of the new Nokia phones with the 41MP camera?  Nokia probably would have given them the cameras just for the publicity.

Ann R. Thryft
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The more space photos the better
Ann R. Thryft   8/28/2013 1:30:00 PM
What fun--thanks, Chuck. I'll take my photos of, and from, space anywhere I can get them from any source. The more the better.

Charles Murray
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Re: Smart phones, cheap space
Charles Murray   8/28/2013 3:47:56 PM
I agree, naperlou, it's an interesting approach. As I listened to the NASA engineers, though, I wondered about people who have put cameras on weather balloons (there's even a commercial in which people do that). I don't know whether those people get photos that show the curvature of the earth, or whether they can get to anywhere near the same altitude, but in their case they don't need to launch a rocket to get it done.

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Re: Smart phones, cheap space
NadineJ   8/28/2013 5:41:08 PM
The team being impressed with themselves may be a generational thing.  Most people under 30 know that you make do with what's on-hand.  We tend to loose that belief over the years.

I find it really interesting to see the reversal of the old paradigm.  Government investment used to lead to commercial success.  For this, it's the other way around.  Or, maybe it's a full circle.

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Re: Smart phones, cheap space
a.saji   8/29/2013 12:25:08 AM
Nice work. Was this taken by NASA or is it a real image taken through a satellite ?

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Common Sense
ervin0072002   8/29/2013 8:37:54 AM
Finally it is proven that common sense is not so common. thankfully some people still ask the right questions.... Good plan nice idea.

Jim S
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Smart phones, cheap space
Jim S   8/29/2013 9:02:15 AM
I worked for a contractor developing a water quality monitoring system for the space station and we were always amazed at the requirements that came from nasa. It seemed as everything had been done by a committee of junior engineers and required things that weren't necessary to really get the job done. By requiring so much no one took any risks, but made the product horribly expensive. These guys were willing to minimize the project and take the risk that it wouldn't work out. We were worried about rad hardness and seu counts when passing through the south atlantic anomoly ( high proton flux) several times a day. The smart phones had no such hardness and seemed to get by. I admire the initiative.

User Rank
smart(er) phones, nice trick
RogueMoon   8/29/2013 9:31:28 AM
I, too, echo the congratulations on the team from NASA sending a set of smart phones above the atmosphere.  Yes, the phones seemed to work just fine for the short while they were in space on the sub-orbital hop.  NASA loves to impress the public and why not?  This kind of innovation does need to be fostered.  It's the quirky things that sometimes shake things up to get something better on its way.  Cheap space?   Perhaps cheap...er

It's a very different story if you need to loiter on orbit for years at a time like most satellites do.  Radiation harm is cumulative.  You just can't simplisticly think "Oh, it worked this time. Why don't we just orbit our smart phones instead of paying big contractors (who know a lot about what works and what doesn't) to build something unnecessarily expensive."  Radiation hardening is VERY necessary if you want months instead of hours of operation.  Play the odds, sure, but the expensive ride up to orbit alone (or even just the human cannonball ride from Wallops) is justification enough to invest in making sure all systems work.  One failure can turn profit and good science into another object for the space junk database.  There's no one floating around on orbit to reboot the smart phone when Android decides to have one of its many "bad days" even while sitting on my desk at sea level.  True, this story's smart phone(s) lasted just long enough.

Sounds like someone ought to research how to make radiation hardening cheaper?  Not many commercial applications for radiation hardened chips today, but if as an old man I take that famed "Pan Am" Kubrick flight to orbit (2001: A Space Odyssey), I'd like to keep my cell phone apps going without interruption.  :)

I wonder if they recovered the payload and how well the phones worked when they came back?

User Rank
Re: smart(er) phones, nice trick
etmax   8/29/2013 10:30:54 AM
I suspect that because the phones were manufactured such that they could be sold in the EU that they would be lead free. Lead free and vacuum don't mix. My guess is that tin whiskers would bring them down within a month. This is in addition to the radiation hardening needed.

User Rank
Re: Smart phones, cheap space
araasch   8/29/2013 10:58:15 AM
Yes, several DIY balloon projects have shown curvature of the Earth photos, and are significantly less expensive than any NASA launch, sub-orbital or not.

This is not to say that this is not a worthwhile effort on their part.

A better effort for NASA is to focus on developing a realistic goal for the future of human spaceflight that can be used to get the attention of today's youth, their parents, and Congress.

Lacking this, NASA will continue to suffer from shifting priorities and dwindling budgets to the point that missions more complex than this one will be rare.



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