NASA to launch comms 'nanosats'

January 02, 2013 // By Nicolas Mokhoff
An Orbital Sciences Antares rocket will launch three PhoneSat spacecraft into low Earth orbit in 2013 from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Virginia The 4-inch "nanosatellites" weigh three pounds each and are dubbed Alexander, Graham, and Bell.

Two PhoneSat 1.0 spacecraft use of Nexus One smartphone technology from HTC and Google's Android operating system. The third spacecraft is a beta version of PhoneSat 2.0 built around an updated Samsung Nexus S smartphone running Android OS.

PhoneSat 2.0 includes solar panels to enable long-duration missions and a GPS receiver. It also has magnetorquer coils, electromagnets that interact with Earth's magnetic field, along with reaction wheels used to control satellite orientation in space.

The three satellites will be "inserted into a spring-loaded dispenser attached to the launch vehicle. They're stacked in there like a toaster," said Jim Cockrell, NASA's PhoneSat 1.0 project manager.

The project is designed to make use of commercial electronics technologies as a way to reduce cost. PhoneSat 2.0 uses "Triangular Advanced Solar Cells from Spectrolab (Sylmar, Calif) left over from the manufacturing process for larger solar cells. They cost $250 for a quantity of 100, have a 27 percent conversion efficiency and are small enough to cover the PhoneSat's surface area.

"The PhoneSat project is kind of a technology demonstration effort," said Jasper Wolfe of NASA's Ames Research Center. During the PhoneSat mission, amateur radio operators will be able to download and upload data packets. "One of the other benefits from PhoneSat is inspirational, demonstrating cool, cheap technologies that can inspire a lot of people to get involved in space," Wolfe said. "We want to keep up with all the technologies that are coming out and continually find new applications for technologies from other industries, particularly low-cost industries."

NASA's low-cost PhoneSat (Source: NASA).

NASA's Andrew Petro added that PhoneSat seeks to leverage commercial tecnologies with “a mix of attributes akin to what spacecraft require. Those are already built into a smart phone, and that's what we're taking advantage of in the PhoneSat Project, which could ultimately lead to very low-cost satellite designs."

The PhoneSat project is funded by NASA's Space Technology Program .