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Hi, I’m on the satellite!

27 January 2011

Researchers at the University of Surrey and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) plan to be the first to place a smartphone into orbit around the earth. The team’s ‘STRaND-1’ (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator) satellite is due for launch later this year to show how a satellite with advanced capabilities can be built quickly using commercial off-the-shelf components. But this begs the question: why a smartphone?

Lead researcher Chris Bridges says smartphones pack lots of components such as sensors, video cameras, GPS systems and Wi-Fi receivers that are technologically advanced but a fraction of the size, weight and cost of components used in existing satellite systems. And because many smartphones also run on free operating systems that lend themselves to online software developers, the creators of applications (‘apps’) for smartphones could feasibly develop apps for satellites, too.

Clearly smartphones aren’t designed to go into space, so in addition to extensive ground testing prior to launch, there will be an in-orbit test campaign to put the phone through its paces. A powerful computer designed and built by the Surrey Space Centre will test the vital statistics of the phone once in space, checking which components are operating normally and when components malfunction in orbit for recovery. Images and messages from the phone will be sent back to Earth via a radio link and when all the tests are complete, the computer will be switched off and the smartphone will effectively take over control of parts of the satellite.

Dr Bridges says that if a smartphone can be proved to work in space, it opens up lots of new technologies to a multitude of people and companies for space who usually can’t afford it. He thinks it will be a “real game-changer” for the industry.

The smartphone avionics suite is just one of several technologically advanced systems packed into the 4kg STRaND-1. The satellite’s alignment and manoeuvring capabilities in orbit also demonstrate the team’s ability to create innovative, low-weight and low-cost solutions. In this case, the system comprises miniature reaction wheels and a GPS receiver working in tandem with pulse plasma thrusters. As STRaND-1 project manager Shaun Kenyon points out: “the operation of the smartphone is really just the icing on the cake to what is already an incredibly advanced satellite.”

SSTL’s head of science Doug Liddle says that STRaND-1 will be the first of many such collaborative projects between the University and SSTL. But it certainly sets a precedent for future work. With the smartphone payload costing less than £300 and the whole satellite costing less than a family car, it’s all credit to a team that has managed to create a satellite with such potential on such an extraordinarily low budget.

Les Hunt


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