Could mobile phones soon be making their way into space? A team of researchers from the University of Surrey hope so. They will shortly be sendinga smart phone using the Android operating system into space aboard a 4 kg satellite to test its resilience in the harsh conditions outside the atmosphere.
The experiment is designed to help researchers decide whether off-the-shelf smartphone technology can stand up to the violent solar radiation and extreme temperatures in space, while still operating reliably. If it succeeds, it could create a new generation of satellite technology that is much cheaper than its predecessors.
Satellite technology is traditionally a proprietary affair. Organizations engineer the components in satellites using designs developed in-house, carefully honed to meet the exacting requirements of space travel. Because they are so carefully engineered in such low volumes, they are expensive to produce. If off-the-shelf mobile phone technology could be used instead, the economy of scale could drastically lower the cost of on-board electronics for satellites.
The other advantage of this technology is that researchers might be better able to develop applications and software experiments for an open source platform like Android, although it does raise some interesting questions. A recent report by software security company Coverity found that 25% of the bugs discovered in Android code were critical ones that could lead to system crashes. Mobile phones are difficult to reboot in space.
The mobile phone experiment nevertheless points to a significant effort on the part of technologists to modernize space infrastructure. Traditionally, satellites have communicated using proprietary protocols, but Cisco is now putting IP-based routers into test satellites, which would enable satellite owners to build an extension of the Internet in space. Instead of relying purely on direct earth-to-satellite communication, satellites could communicate with each other, relaying data between themselves.
As these innovations begin to roll out, we can expect cheaper, more functional space-based communications. That will be beneficial both for commercial entities, and for academic research. Fifty-four years after the first artificial satellite made its way into space, the fun is only just beginning.
After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.