Android in orbit: Google phone headed for space

British researchers plan to send a cellphone into orbit to discover if it will still work. If it does, it could mean major changes to the way satellites are used.

The project, run by the University of Surrey and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited will involve sending a satellite named STRaND-1 into orbit. The 30cm-long satellite will have a mass of just 4kg and include the components pictured above plus an as-yet undetermined handset, though the BBC reports it will run Google’s Android system.

The phone will be a standard “off-the-shelf” model that costs less than £300 (approx US$500) and will be used without any physical modification. To protect the handset, it will be placed inside the casing of the satellite, which will have a small hole to allow access to the camera lens.

Once in orbit, the phone will be remotely tested to discover which of its features is still operational. If the results prove favorable, control of the satellite will then be switched over so it can be operated via the phone, using a custom-made application.

Lead researcher Chris Bridges noted that many existing smartphone capabilities such as video camera, GPS and Wi-Fi are both smaller and considerably cheaper on a phone handset than existing satellite designs: “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. It’s a real game-changer for the industry,”

The ongoing collaboration between the commercial company and the university is said to be designed to make it possible for researchers and students to work on real-world (or rather real-solar system) projects.

While this is the first time an unaccompanied smartphone will have been sent into orbit, an iPhone has been sent 100,000 feet high attached to a weather balloon, alongside an operational camcorder. The Brooklyn Space Program, a hobby affair of a father and son, didn’t actually use the phone in space: instead they used its GPS locator to find the craft when it returned to earth.

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