Ever wanted to be in mission control? That's still out of reach for most of us, unfortunately, but you can still help track NASA's latest satellites. With the successful test launch of Orbital Science's Antares rocket, NASA boosted three tiny satellites into orbit. Called PhoneSats, they're powered not by highly specialized electronics, but by off-the-shelf smartphones. And, if you're an amateur radio operator, you can help track their orbits!
Traditional satellites cost tens of millions of dollars to build. Most are controlled by one of a small collection of radiation-hardened processors, which often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Special computer chips are required because, in space, the satellites receive substantially more harmful radiation than we do on the Earth. To protect vital systems against faults, satellites are built using the same sort of processors the military designed for use during nuclear war.
Is all that protection really necessary, though? That's what NASA is trying to find out. Instead of state-of-the-art computer systems, these orbiters are controlled by Android smartphones. Two, dubbed PhoneSat 1.0, are battery powered and controlled by a Google Nexus One. The third, PhoneSat 2.0, is controlled by a Nexus S. More powerful, this version carries solar panels and a two-way radio communication system. The combined cost of all three? Less than $20,000! That's quite a savings.
Of course, these miniature satellites lack virtually all the capabilities of their (much) more expensive brethren. The 1.0 versions do nothing but transmit a radio beacon, Sputnik-style. PhoneSat 2.0 can communicate back and forth with Earth, but do little else. All three are expected to last only a few weeks in space. But it's the next generation of these guys that we should really get excited about. Imagine launching a swarm of dozens or hundreds of nanosatellites with a single rocket. They could spread out around the Earth and report simultaneous measurements of things like solar flares from all over the planet. Focused and stripped down, they would fulfill their tasks before falling back to Earth to make way for the next wave. Rather than years to plan a new experiment, we could iterate quickly.
Interested in helping to track the PhoneSats? Visit this webpage for information about joining in. If you could launch a PhoneSat, what would you want it to do?