Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Android In Space

When NASA’s space shuttle took off for the last time before rolling away to museums around the United States, another piece of hi-tech machinery was pulling on its space suit and getting ready to head for the final frontier. Two Android-powered Nexus S smartphones were on board the Atlantis. They weren’t there to help the astronauts phone home or to give them a bunch of useful apps to play with as they waited for the flight back but more fittingly to provide a way for humans and robots to work together.

The phones were attached to SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites), small, soccer ball-sized satellites that can complete basic functions such as recording video and capturing sensor data. The satellites have their own propulsion and power systems but use the Android devices to connect to the space station’s wifi network and from there to NASA’s ground station from where they can receive their commands.

Astronauts will then be free to do more demanding science work, leaving the ground-controlled robots to chat on their Nexus phones to ground control. The devices were also given their own expansion ports that allowed NASA to add special sensors and other scientific equipment.

Developers said that they chose the Nexus phones because they were easy to customize while Android’s open source software made the operating system easy to build on. Google helped by creating a sensor logging app. NASA used it on the mission (and amateur satellite builders can help themselves to it from the Android Market.)

The experiments that took place during the space shuttle’s mission were intended primarily to assess how well the smartphone’s electronics can function in space’s low temperatures and zero gravity. Future missions will use the IOIO board and Android Open Accessory Development Kit to navigate and control the mini-satellites.

It’s not the first time that smartphones have been sent to the stars. A couple of Nexus Ones were packed into a rocket last year and launched 30,000 feet up. One managed to record a couple of minutes of footage as it spun through the air. The other smashed into the ground when its parachute failed to deploy. Even an iPhone has managed to make it to the edge of space when it was attached to a weather balloon which reached as high as 100,000 feet.

If NASA has its way though, space could soon be filled with satellites chatting on their Android phones.

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