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)
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.
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.
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?
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.
This is a project that could have been done by a University, not a serious government program. Considering we already know how to put cameras in space, this is a waste of effort and tax dollars. I am ashamed of our government for supporting and funding such a program. And to think they try to play it off like it only cost 3500 dollars. What a joke:
1. We paid people to do this (they could have been doing something useful)
2. We paid to have a rocket send it to space.
3. We paid to have a bunch of people involved in the launch and logistics
4. Does this device even have thrusters to keep it in position, or does it just spin around and take picutures randomly?
5. What happens when the battery runs out after a few hours, or days.
6. We all wasted time reading this article and commenting on it. LOL
Naperlou, bigger is better...but not always. The Nokia phone was probably not available when the project was put together. And the more photosites you cram onto a tiny imager the lower the light sensitivity. That's a big tradeoff. The available real estate for the imager in a cellular handset is rather small. If your chassis is a full size DSLR camera or shoulder mounted video camera you have the room for a much larger imager and much large optics. The photosites can be much larger affording far more photon energy collected per pixel.
Without resorting to a strobe or a puny LED camera light a DSLR can produce excellent photos in light way too dark for a cell phone camera.
While single chip video cameras are becoming more and more popular with some even appearing in professional equipment, the workhorse cameras still utilize three chips for best color rendition and uncompromized sensitivity.
BTW, cell phone imagers are typically CMOS. The older but still very popular imager technology for professional video is the CCD. But ironically they often develope hot stuck pixels due to cosmic radiation damage. How long do you suppose a CCD imager could survive in earth orbit before the imager would be pockmarked with hot pixels?
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.
Design engineers need to prepare for a future in which their electronic products will use not just one or two, but possibly many user interfaces that involve touch, vision, gestures, and even eye movements.
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