Faced with a shrinking budget, NASA will in many ways need to reinvent itself if the agency hopes to continue leading the charge in space exploration. There's perhaps no better example of that "do more with less" mantra than the PhoneSat project, the goal of which is to build the lowest-cost and easiest to assemble satellites ever placed into orbit. To create such a thing, engineers have turned to off-the-shelf consumer gadgets for parts, harnessing the internals of Google's Nexus hardware as the brains of the operation.
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They're starting small, however: the mission of PhoneSat 1.0 — powered by a Nexus One — is merely to stay alive for a short period of time and beam pictures of space back to ground control. All the while, the nanosatellite will be monitoring its own health and keeping NASA scientists informed of any mal-effects space has on its hardware.
It takes $3,500 to build a PhoneSat
PhoneSat 2.0 expands on those capabilities thanks to faster hardware. A Nexus S will serve as its core, with other upgrades including a two-way S-band radio (allowing engineers to control the satellite from Earth), solar panels to enable longer flights, and a GPS transponder. Building on PhoneSat's foundation will permit mission designers to more affordably launch satellites for a variety of purposes, according to NASA. Examples include testing new technologies / components for space flight and conducting inexpensive observations of Earth
Further, by embracing consumer technology and sticking to fundamental mission goals, NASA has kept the total cost of each satellite at $3,500. That low price tag is a crucial element of the agency's plan to continue evolving satellite tech at a rapid clip — NASA likens their approach to the "release early, release often" Silicon Valley doctrine. Three NASA PhoneSats systems (two 1.0 and a lone 2.0 unit) are scheduled to launch aboard a rocket later this year, so we should have a better understanding of how viable smartphone-powered satellites are then.