*** UPDATE ***
A Minotaur I rocket carrying the DOD's Operationally Responsive Space-3 mission successfully launched at 8:15 p.m. EST, November 19. The PhoneSat 2.4 payload also successfully deployed and sent its first transmissions. The satellite is performing as expected.
For the second time this year, NASA is preparing to send a smartphone-controlled small spacecraft into orbit. The PhoneSat 2.4 mission is demonstrating innovative new approaches for small spacecraft technologies of the future.
The NASA PhoneSat 2.4 is hitch-hiking a ride onboard an Orbital Minotaur I rocket slated for a November 19 liftoff from the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The primary payload on the booster is the U.S. Air Force Office of Responsive Space ORS-3 mission, which will validate launch and range improvements for NASA and the military.
PhoneSat 2.4 builds upon the successful flights of a trio of NASA smartphone satellites that were orbited together last April. That pioneering mission gauged use of consumer-grade smartphone technology as the main control electronics of a capable, yet very low-cost, satellite, reports Andrew Petro, program executive for small spacecraft technology at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Each smartphone is housed in a standard cubesat structure, measuring roughly four inches square.
The soon-to-be lofted PhoneSat 2.4 has two-way radio communications capability, along with reaction wheels to provide attitude control, Petro says, and will be placed into a much higher orbit than its PhoneSat predecessors. Those were short-lived, operating for about a week in orbit.
“We’re taking PhoneSat to another step in terms of capability, along with seeing if the satellite continues to function for an extended period of time,” Petro explains.
The PhoneSat mission is a technology demonstration project developed through the agency’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program, part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
NASA PhoneSats take advantage of “off-the-shelf” consumer devices that already have many of the systems needed for a spacecraft, but are ultra-small, such as fast processors, multipurpose operating systems, sensors, GPS receivers, and high-resolution cameras.
“It’s tabletop technology,” Petro says. “The size of a PhoneSat makes a big difference. You don’t need a building, just a room. Everything you need to do becomes easier and more portable. The scale of things just makes everything, in many ways, easier. It really unleashes a lot of opportunity for innovation,” he says.
Consumer electronics market
There’s another interesting aspect to using the smartphone as a basic electronic package for PhoneSats.
“The technology of the consumer electronics market is going to continue to advance,” Petro notes. “NASA can pick up on those advances that are driven by the needs of the consumer.”
What’s the big deal about small satellites?
NASA is eyeing use of small, low-cost, powerful satellites for atmospheric or Earth science, communications, or other space-born applications.
For example, work is already underway on the Edison Demonstration of Smallsat Networks (EDSN) mission, says Petro. The EDSN effort consists of a loose formation of eight identical cubesats in orbit, each able to cross-link communicate with each other to perform space weather monitoring duties.
The three PhoneSats that were orbited earlier this year signaled “the first baby step,” says Bruce Yost, the program manager for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
“The PhoneSat 2.4 will be at a higher altitude and stay in space for a couple of years before reentering,” Yost adds. “So we’ll be able to start collecting data on the radiation effects on the satellite and see if we run into anything that causes problems.”
Yost says where the real “magic dust” of PhoneSats comes into play is how you program them. “That is, what applications can you run on them to make them useful. We’re adding more and more complexity into the PhoneSats.”
To that end, PhoneSats and the applications they are imbued with can lead to new ways to interact with and explore space, Yost observes. “You can approach problems in a more distributed fashion. So it’s an architectural shift, the concept of inexpensive but lots of small probes.”
NASA’s Petro sees another value in pushing forward on small satellites.
“It used to be that kids growing up wanted to be an astronaut. I think we might be seeing kids saying, what they want to do is build a spacecraft. The idea here is that they really can do that,” Petro says. “They can get together with a few other people to build and fly a spacecraft. Some students coming out of college as new hires have already built and flown a satellite…that’s a whole new notion, one that was not possible even 10 years ago,” he concludes.