NASA Ames Research Center continues work on its PhoneSat project, which is demonstrating the ability to build very-low-cost satellites using Android smartphones as processors.
Ames has built two versions of the PhoneSat – PhoneSat 1, which costs about $3500, and PhoneSat 2, which costs just under $8,000. Both versions are based on HTC Nexus One smartphones. The first PhoneSats are scheduled to be launched aboard an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares launch vehicle. The launch, funded under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, is scheduled for the third quarter of 2012. It will carry two PhoneSat 1 satellites and one PhoneSat 2. A second PhoneSat launch is expected to occur in 2013.
PhoneSat isn’t just about cost-cutting, though. Engineers are not sacrificing power for the sake of economy. Quite the contrary. Thanks to the rapid advance of consumer electronics, cell phones have become powerful supercomputers. The Nexus One processor will be 10-100x more powerful than any other processor that’s flown in space.
After the tech demo flights, the PhoneSat bus will serve as the basis for future low-cost satellite missions, beginning with the Ethersat mission that’s scheduled for launch in mid-2013. Sponsored by the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist, Ethersat will be a constellation of fourteen CubeSats, with an option for six additional satellites. EtherSat will demonstrate advanced cross-link and down-link communications, attitude control, and other emerging technologies. Such constellations are expected to have applicability to future earth-science and military missions. Ethersat is funded under the Edison Small Satellite Demonstration Program.
In addition to the Nexus One, the PhoneSat contains an Arduino board. Low-cost satellites generally avoid using radiation-hardened (“rad hard”) electronics, due to the expensive. A single rad-hard processor can cost $400,000. Instead, they have watchdog systems (in this case, the open-source Arduino board) to reboot the main processor if it crashes due to a radiation event.