Earlier this week, NASA sent a trio of smartphones in space to check if they can become low-cost satellites. They were sent aboard the maiden flight of Orbital Science Corp's Antares rocket from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia, and the project is named PhoneSat. The phones used were the cheaper, older Nexus One built by HTC. The trio is likely to be the lowest-cost satellites ever flown in space.

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NASA's testing low-cost smartphone satellites

Smartphones are believed to be well equipped for space as they are small and come armed with features such as powerful batteries, processors, gyroscopes, accelerometers and high-quality cameras. The goal of NASA's PhoneSat mission is to check whether a consumer-grade smartphone is capable of becoming an inexpensive satellite. The trio of Nexus One devices are named Alexander, Graham and Bell.

Multiple ground stations on Earth are receiving transmissions from all three PhoneSats. This indicates that the Phonesats are operating normally. NASA has added certain items that smartphones do not possess but satellites need, like a larger, external battery and a more powerful radio. The smartphone’s call/text ability has been disabled and each smartphone is housed in a standard cubesat structure. The smartphone serves as the satellite's onboard computer, and its sensors are used for attitude determination and its camera for Earth observation. The team in-charge of the project at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California will continue to monitor the satellites in the coming days. These low-cost satellites will be kept in the orbit for another two weeks.

“It's always great to see a space technology mission make it to orbit — the high frontier is the ultimate testing ground for new and innovative space technologies of the future. Smartphones offer a wealth of potential capabilities for flying small, low-cost, powerful satellites for atmospheric or Earth science, communications, or other space-born applications. They also may open space to a whole new generation of commercial, academic and citizen-space users.” said Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology in Washington.

Satellites made up of mainly smartphones will be sending information about their health via radio to Earth. This is done with an effort to demonstrate that smartphones can work as satellites in space. The spacecraft will also attempt to take pictures of Earth using their cameras. NASA is allowing amateur radio operators across the world to participate in the mission by monitoring transmissions and retrieving image data from the three satellites. The cost of the components for the three prototype satellites in the PhoneSat project is kept between $3,500 and $7,000. To achieve this, the satellites are build using primarily commercial hardware and the design and mission objectives are kept to the minimum.

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