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NASA's Android smartphone satellites return blurry images from space

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NASA PhoneSat Android satellite images
NASA PhoneSat Android satellite images

NASA has taken many images of the Earth from space, but none quite like this. The blurry images above were captured by "PhoneSats," a new, ultracheap, ultrasmall type of satellite powered by Android smartphones that NASA launched into orbit late last month. Although all three satellites burned up in the atmosphere as planned on April 27th, they succeeded in NASA's main goal, showing that it's possible to create spaceworthy hardware from consumer-grade devices. "During the short time the spacecraft were in orbit, we were able to demonstrate the smartphones' ability to act as satellites in the space environment," said Bruce Yost, the program manager for NASA's Small Satellite Technology Program, in a statement released yesterday.

NASA's PhoneSat project actually began as a partnership with university students in 2009, but the agency wasn't able to launch the three devices until recently. Two PhoneSats were built from HTC Nexus One smartphones, and one was built from a Samsung Nexus S. All three phones snapped images from space using their stock cameras, but the resulting fuzzy images can't be blamed entirely on the hardware: they were transmitted back to Earth in separate pieces, as packets of data over the UHF radio band. NASA then enlisted the help of ham radio operators around the globe to piece them back together. Check out the mixed results for yourself at NASA's PhoneSat website. For the relatively low cost of about $3,500 per satellite, the work isn't bad at all, and NASA is already hard at work on the next generation, due to launch later this year.