Today, in NASA Is the Best: The space agency this week took a handful of cheap but powerful smartphones, slapped them to a gigantic rocket and blasted them into low-earth orbit to see how they'd fare. The project, called PhoneSat, is one of those wacky experiments that seems at first to have nothing to do with science. But it's not a stunt.
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The phones -- ordinary Nexus Ones, the kind made by HTC and once sold by Google -- are being tested as a kind of prototype satellite, and they provide a glimpse of a possible future where ordinary commercial technology that we take for granted winds up powering and controlling larger sensing devices (or even becoming full-fledged research platforms themselves). Smartphones are already remarkably well-equipped for space: They're small. They've got powerful batteries and processors. They have gyroscopes and accelerometers, and high-quality cameras. For a budget-conscious organization like NASA that's increasingly turning away from manned space missions, PhoneSat makes a lot of sense. The three devices orbiting earth right now are cutely named Alexander, Graham and Bell, respectively, in a nod to the man commonly credited with inventing the telephone. After about 10 days from Sunday's launch, the phones will re-enter the atmosphere, burning up in the process (ouch).
Even more interesting than the hardware NASA's using is the software -- and how it was developed.
"The satellites almost came out of the box ready-made," said Bruce Yost, one of the project's lead scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. "But all the things that made it interesting are software. The intent is to be like the software community: Build, test, break, rebuild, and keep the cycle going and see if you can spiral your way to success."