3:03am

Fri April 26, 2013
Space

Can You Hear Me Now? Cellphone Satellites Phone Home

Originally published on Fri April 26, 2013 6:59 pm

Smartphones can check e-mail, record videos and even stream NPR. Now NASA has discovered they make pretty decent satellites, too. Three smart phones launched into space this past Sunday are orbiting above us even now, transmitting data and images back to Earth. The PhoneSats, which cost just a few thousand dollars each, could usher in big changes for the satellite industry.

The PhoneSats started as a project among young engineers working at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. Jim Cockrell, the project's manager, says it began as a hallway conversation. One noted that smartphone microprocessors are cheaper than those in satellites. So why not just use a smartphone as a satellite?

"It was sort of a whimsical notion," Cockrell says. But it also made sense. Modern satellites are used for communication and navigation, and so are smartphones. And the phones have things that satellites have, too, like accelerometers, gyroscopes and cameras.

At 53 years old, Cockrell is the self-described "graybeard" of the small team of 20-somethings. With decades of experience, he had good reason to think the project might not work. The phones would have to survive the violent shaking of their launch into orbit. Once in space, they would need to withstand extreme temperatures and intense radiation that doesn't exist on the Earth's surface.

"I was really skeptical at first, because I said, 'OK, there's a reason why NASA develops these expensive satellites and tests them extensively,' " he says.

But the team's younger members were more optimistic. "The mobile phones are designed to be thrown around the room and for people to drop them in water. They're really robust bits of technology," says Jasper Wolfe, a 22-year-old engineer on the project.

Wolfe, Cockrell and the rest of the team got a couple of Nexus smartphones from Amazon. They added extras, like plus-sized batteries and a powerful transmitter. They put it all in a metal case about the size of a Kleenex box. But the phones were still ordinary smartphones; they still had games on them. "We played around with Angry Birds on the ground," Wolfe says.

The PhoneSats hitched a ride on the very first flight of a commercial rocket called Antares, which NASA hopes will soon be resupplying the International Space Station.

"Within the first orbit after being released from the launch vehicle, we started receiving signals," Cockrell says. The signals from the satellites, which are named "Alexander," "Graham" and "Bell," are actually picked up by ham radio operators all over the world, who send them to the team at NASA Ames. The team is now in the process of using the small data packets to piece together photos taken by the different PhoneSats' cameras.

The achievement could mark big changes in the satellite business. Peter Platzer, CEO of NanoSatisfi, a startup company that's about to launch a small satellite into space using money raised on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, sees a world in which satellites aren't owned solely by powerful corporations and governments.

"The same way the computer morphed into becoming a personal computer, we could see a future where the satellite morphs into becoming a personal satellite," he says.

The satellite he's working on will actually take apps. Users can program them here on Earth and beam them up into orbit. They might make the satellite take a customized photo of the Earth's surface. Or they could turn it out toward space to watch for asteroids.

"I think whenever you create this flexible platform that you let people program and decide what their own use is, it becomes really, really hard to predict where the combined genius of mankind will lead that platform," Platzer says.

The PhoneSats will eventually run out of juice and re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. But Cockrell's going to keep working with Wolfe and the young team — "the kids," he calls them. He finds it inspirational.

"They don't know what they can't do; they haven't been told it's not possible," he says. "That really opens up a lot of creative thinking that somehow tends to go away with time."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

OK, let's hear about launching a smartphone into orbit.

On Sunday, NASA sent up three smartphones - just like the one you might be using right now to listen to MORNING EDITION.

As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, the little PhoneSats, as they're called, could bring big changes to the satellite business.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Meet Jasper Wolfe.

JASPER WOLFE: I'm 22 years old.

BRUMFIEL: And Jim Cockrell.

JIM COCKRELL: I'm one of what you might call one of those graybeards, you know.

BRUMFIEL: He's only 53. Jasper and Jim are both engineers working at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. Around a year and a half ago, they came together as part of a project to turn ordinary Android smartphones, bought off Amazon, into orbiting satellites: PhoneSats. Jasper heard about NASA's PhoneSat project from a friend, and he was so excited about it he left his native Australia the minute he finished college.

WOLFE: I graduated on Thursday and flew over here on Friday and started work on Friday afternoon.

BRUMFIEL: Now Jim, on the other hand, he just got his first iPhone last month. So when he heard about PhoneSat...

COCKRELL: Well, I guess my initial reaction is: What sat? Sure, I'll be glad to work on it, but I'll have to figure out what it is.

BRUMFIEL: The idea of PhoneSat is simple. Satellites are big machines custom-built for things like communication and navigation. They use expensive electronics designed to work in space. Modern smartphones are a lot cheaper and can do a lot of the same things. So why not just turn one into a satellite? Jim had his doubts.

COCKRELL: I was really skeptical at first because I said, OK, there's a reason why NASA develops these expensive satellites and tests them extensively.

BRUMFIEL: Jim knew the PhoneSats needed to survive extreme temperatures and radiation. Could a smartphone really operate in such a harsh environment? Jasper thought so.

COCKRELL: The mobile phones are designed to be thrown around the room and for people to drop them in water and, you know, they're really robust bits of technology.

BRUMFIEL: Jasper Wolfe, Jim Cockrell and the rest of the team got the PhoneSats ready for launch. They added extras like plus-sized batteries and a powerful transmitter. They put it all in a metal case the size of a Kleenex box. But the phones were still ordinary smartphones. They still had games on them.

WOLFE: We played around with "Angry Birds" on the grounds.

BRUMFIEL: Did anyone bother to delete "Angry Birds" before you launched it?

(LAUGHTER)

WOLFE: Actually that's a good question.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...four, three. Go Antares. One, Ignition start. Liftoff of the Antares A1 test mission.

BRUMFIEL: The PhoneSats hitched a ride on the very first flight of a commercial rocket called Antares, which NASA hopes will soon be resupplying the International Space Station.

COCKRELL: Within the first orbit after being released from the launch vehicle we started receiving signals.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

BRUMFIEL: That signal could mark big changes in the satellite business.

Peter Platzer is CEO of NanoSatisfi, a startup company that's about to launch a small satellite into space using money raised on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. He sees a world in which satellites aren't just owned by powerful corporations and governments.

PETER PLATZER: The same way the computer morphed into becoming a personal computer, we could see a future where the satellite morphs into becoming a personal satellite.

BRUMFIEL: The satellite he's working on will actually take apps. Users can program them here on Earth and beam them up into orbit.

PLATZER: I think whenever you create this flexible platform that you let people program and decide what their own use is, it becomes really, really hard to predict where the combined creative genius of mankind will lead that platform.

BRUMFIEL: The PhoneSats will eventually run out of juice. But Jim's going to keep working with Jasper and the young team. He finds it inspirational.

COCKRELL: They don't know what they can't do. You know, they haven't been told what's not possible, and that really opens up a lot of creative thinking that somehow tends to go away with time.

BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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