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Android Cellphones Handhelds Space Hardware Science

Android In Space: STRaND-1 Satellite To Activate Nexus One 103

Posted by timothy
from the roaming-charges-will-get-you dept.
An anonymous reader writes "In as little as a few days, the British-made Surrey Training, Research, and Nanosatellite Demonstrator (STRaND-1) satellite will begin transitioning its key systems over to a completely stock Android Nexus One smartphone that's been bolted to the bottom of it. The mission is designed to test the endurance of off-the-shelf consumer hardware, and to validate Android as a viable platform for controlling low-cost spacecraft. STRaND-1 managed to beat NASA's own 'PhoneSat' mission to the punch, which will see a Nexus One and Nexus S launched into space aboard the April test flight of the Orbital Sciences Antares commercial launch vehicle, the prime competitor to SpaceX's Falcon 9."
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Android In Space: STRaND-1 Satellite To Activate Nexus One

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  • by Bobfrankly1 (1043848) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @11:21AM (#43104565)

    I'd hate to pay the roaming charges on this.

    It's stuck with a 2 year contract

    At least it doesn't have to interface with iTunes

    WHO FORGOT TO ADD TETHERING TO THE PLAN!?!

    etc, etc, etc

  • Wow (Score:5, Insightful)

    by P-niiice (1703362) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @11:22AM (#43104587)
    This is so ridiculously cool. I'd never have imagined that cellphones would even be considered for such a thing.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Clearly, you have not seen Iron Sky.

    • by Jhon (241832)

      I've rarely had a cell phone last more than 2 years with modest abuse. With the cost of getting equipment IN to space, the forces exerted getting equipment in space and the combination of hot/cold OF space, is it WORTH the savings if you need to replace the equipment fairly often? Also, what about 'space junk'. Wouldn't a better idea be fewer resilient longer lasting satellites?

      That said, I agree, it is kind of cool, but I think that's just my knee-jerk geek reaction without much thought to how PRACTICAL

      • But you're missing the point...Android is a very extensible system that's not only low cost, but full featured, and you can build all sorts of new capabilities into it. Also, the guts of cell phones are extremely small and powerful, as well as cheap, and can be placed in a hardened container to protect them from environmental conditions (vacuum, thermal, radiation). Further, since they're so small, you can pack dozens of them onto a spacecraft, in multiple, independent, and redundant packages, such that i

        • by Jhon (241832)

          "But you're missing the point..."

          No... I got the point. Perhaps I failed in communicating mine.

          I understand what you are saying. What I'm NOT getting is a cost-benefit break down. My question would be how long would the RAD750 last and how much does each (android or other) cost to get in to orbit. MOST of the cost is getting the bugger in to space. Once there, the LONGER it lasts, the cheaper it is per day/month/whatever cycle you wish to measure.

          • Well, the RAD750 is a hardened VME chassis, and, having worked with them in the past, a fully loaded VME can weigh 50 - 75 pounds, and that's not including any sort of I/O channel boards or shielding. If you can get the guts of an Android phone into orbit, or more likely, a cluster of them, for less than ten pounds, including shielding, you've saved yourself quite a bit on the mass budget. Considering that many spacecraft have multiple redundant computers, that mass savings could translate to the ability

          • And by saying that a RAD750 is a hardened VME chassis, I meant to say that it runs in a hardened VME chassis.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          But you're missing the point...Android is a very extensible system that's not only low cost, but full featured, and you can build all sorts of new capabilities into it.

          So is bare Linux. The extra stuff Android adds to Linux isn't all that useful for running a satellite.

          Also, the guts of cell phones are extremely small and powerful, as well as cheap,

          So are many other things.

          and can be placed in a hardened container to protect them from environmental conditions (vacuum, thermal, radiation).

          You forgot vibration and high-G stress. Rocket launches are intense. Consumer gear isn't really designed for it.

          Further, since they're so small, you can pack dozens of them onto a spacecraft, in multiple, independent, and redundant packages, such that if one, two, or three fail, you could have ten more to back them up. My Nexus 4 weighs 139 grams with battery. Packing ten of them into a package, with interconnects, might account for 10 kilos, including a radiation shield.

          You're just guessing. You have no idea how much robust packaging sufficient to correct for all the deficiencies of a cellphone for this application might actually cost or weigh.

          My guess is that you'd be able to implement all associated infrastructure of many mission packages for far less mass budget than you would with a traditional spaceflight certified computer package, like the RAD750, which costs $200,000, and runs at 200 MHz.

          Here is a hint: $200K is peanuts. I know it's Wikipedia, and the cost data is a bit sparse,

          • Putting a Google Nexus in control of a satellite in space is pretty cool marketing though. Unless it fails in some catastrophic way and the whole thing falls back to Earth and kills some poor orphan in a 3rd world country on his way to his first day at school after being sponsored by a single mother-of-three.

    • Cellphones have not yet been engineered for space. They're not built to survive the radiation. They won't work up there for very long.

  • Sort of pointless (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @11:26AM (#43104629)

    Even in a "low-cost spacecraft" the cost of a consumer OS would be a trivial part of the budget - the difference between Android costing nothing versus the cost of stock Windows, iOS/OS X or Blackberry isn't particularly meaningful.

    Off-the-shelf hardware, though - that would be a bigger deal. It's doomed to failure, but if somehow it could work that would be huge.

    • Yeah, but at least they can move Android to another satellite without having to call MS.
    • Off-the-shelf hardware, though - that would be a bigger deal.

      One might argue that a reasonably robust microcontroller that you can buy in your electronic parts shop would be cheaper and more reliable anyway.

    • Running Android gets you a full-fledged OS that is also designed for low power consumption--but it's also open-source allowing for customization.

      • by BitZtream (692029)

        Yes, but its power saving is still absolutely horrible compared to anything you'd actually use in space. Android is a 'desktop' OS for phones. Its only mildly concerned with power saving, in reality power on Earth is 0 cost free energy compared to power in space. It in no way compares to what software running on real sats does to conserve power. The whole scheduler is horribly horribly inefficient for those purposes.

    • Re:Sort of pointless (Score:5, Informative)

      by AikonMGB (1013995) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @11:39AM (#43104785) Homepage

      Off-the-shelf hardware, though - that would be a bigger deal. It's doomed to failure, but if somehow it could work that would be huge.

      Why do you say that? We use COTS hardware pretty much everywhere in our missions. It turns out that the radiation environment isn't really that terrible if you are below the Van Allen belts. Why pay through the nose, both in terms of dollars and in terms of horrendous lead times, for space-qualified parts when commercial, industrial, and automotive parts work just fine?

    • I'm tempted to agree. I don't really understand the point of this shoehorning - apart from to inspire.

      If the article is to be believed, and the phone is completely unmodified, I straight away see a number of issues :
      • * The battery will be way outside it's operating norms - likely to alternately produce very little power, and explode due to overheating.
      • * The electronics is specifically designed to be small, and consequently more vulnerable to radiation.
      • * Half of the mass of the device is unnecessary. For
      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        Why would it need its battery? It can be removed to save mass and powered by the satellite. If not it can sit there and do nothing.

        Radiation below the van allen belts is not that bad. Works fine.

        If you are worried about the mass of the display remove it. Not exactly hard to do.

        Modifying android is simple, just download the sources and make your changes. Hell you can have the thing just boot linux without the android layers if you want.

        • But if it doesn't need a battery what's the advantage of this anyway? I mean, the Nexus seems to have a lot of crap (screen, speakers, cameras - well, I guess they may be useful, GSM/UMTS radio, bluetooth radio, Wi-fi radio, GPS, and probably a crapload more I can't think of at the moment) that seems completely useless for a device intended to control a satellite, while being missing almost everything needed aside from the CPU, memory, and storage.

          You know, if only there was some kind of cheap computing

          • by h4rr4r (612664)

            Which has a CPU so many times slower.

            I like the RaspberryPi as much as many others, but where can I get faster version of it? As cheap as an old used smartphone. Which would be $100 tops.

            Plus by using a Nexus One you can likely get more publicity and quite possibly sponsorship.

            • I was actually talking about the Strawberry e, but WHATEVER.

              More seriously, I'm inclined to think that the processing power needed for this application means that both the Raspberry Pi and the Nexus One are more than capable of doing it. Indeed, I suspect an old Nokia N800 would have enough power. Or an iPod.

              I can't help but feel that in a context where you need very little processing power, but a lot of reliability, a smartphone is a terribly bad idea.

          • by DrYak (748999)

            GPS doesn't work [wikipedia.org] (by design) at this altitude.

            If you're high than a set altitude and (18km) move faster than a threshold speed (515m/s) (which a satellite qualifies for both) the GPS chips refuses to give accurate readings (by design, so it can't be used to build cruise missiles and similar).

            (although at this altitude in theory you should be able to get signal from much more GPS satellites with less atmospheric distortions, and thus get a better reading. Also, a satellite move in a much more regular fashion

        • But that's the point - they're making a point out of the fact that it's unmodified.

          If they're willing to modify it, then ok - lets throw out the screen, the battery, and the speakers. And since we're doing that, why don't we modify/remove the chassis - as it's primary design consideration is the parts we're stripping out.

          And yes, we can replace the O/S with a modified, stripped down, or completely alternate one....

          Every step they take in adapting a phone to better suit the operating environment is a s
        • by Bill_the_Engineer (772575) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @12:25PM (#43105317)
          The article mentions that the battery is still installed in the phone. Keep in mind that this is a cubesat and things like temperature control, single event upsets, and outgassing are usually not considered mission critical since these are designed to be short lived amateur satellites in LEO (these sometimes live longer than planned, just no extra expense was made to insure longevity). This is to keep costs low while maintaining the programs original intent of education.
    • Off-the-shelf hardware, though - that would be a bigger deal. It's doomed to failure, but if somehow it could work that would be huge.

      This is not the first satellite that used much cheaper off-the-shelf hardware. They have already proven successful in their LEO missions.

    • by alen (225700)

      you can customize android for your environment. download it from AOSP and add any drivers you need, etc

      iOS, Win Phone and others are products you buy as is and use as is. most you can do with iOS is buy the enterprise software license to load your own apps outside the app store

    • Exactly! The OS of a smart thermostat (5-10 years ago) might be good enough to control a "lowcost space craft". Can this OS context switch? Yes. Can it handle IO to different channels? Yes. Will it stay up and running assuming no one does something stupid and crashes it? Yes! Woo hoo we have a winner for an OS.

      The hardware is the key. If the hardware can survive space and operate as expected then you've got something. Even if it doesn't operate as expected, but it does operate consistently you MIGHT be a
    • Costs aren't only the license fees paid (and this is operating outside any copyright territory so licences fees would be extremely prohibitive to enforce anyway).

      The biggest cost of Windows/OS:X is that can't make changes. A satellite may well have hard real-time requirements or require other kernel changes that exist for Linux but not for closed source general purpose OSs.

      • by BitZtream (692029)

        Microsoft will sell you what ever you want for the right price. Plenty of people have the source code to Windows's kernel already.

    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      The cost is not the issue.

      With android modifying the OS is possible and since it runs linux very well known by the community at large. You can build your own custom version of android and boot that. This is not so with the other options you mention. Using a smartphone is likely cheaper than other off the shelf options since they are sold in such high numbers.

      The real cost they are controlling for is mass. Getting that mass to orbit is the most expensive part of this whole thing.

      • With android modifying the OS is possible and since it runs linux very well known by the community at large.

        If you're going to modify the OS, Android is superfluous - just go with straight Linux or one of the BSDs.

  • ... and now?

    Now?
  • If Surrey was actually trying to promote UK technology, they'd have used a Raspberry Pi :P

    • by joh (27088) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @11:56AM (#43104965)

      This mission was fixed years ago, there was no Raspberry Pi back then.

    • Ah, but it's not an "Android phone", hence not cool enough.
      Also, one would have to admit that the Pi has had a few issues...maybe not ready for space yet.
      Otherwise, I completely agree with you; it's got about the same processing capacity, plenty of distro choices, good dev support, nice inbuilt video...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Eggbloke (1698408)
      I was at a talk from one of these guys once and from what I remember he said that the amount of things you get with a phone make it attractive. They have a camera, temperature sensor and compass straight off as well as probably more stuff. A Raspberry Pi probably would be better with some more work though.
  • I like the idea of simply taking a smartphone and sticking in the box. OK, sending up the case and display is maybe a waste...but on the other hand, a bit less systems integration work to do.

    Shame 'the artist formally known as RIM' took QNX back to closed source; that's a really great RTOS.
    C'mon guys, publicity like this would help you get some 'buzz' back.

  • by QilessQi (2044624) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @11:57AM (#43104967)

    "The onboard computer will monitor the temperature of the phone battery. If it sees it is getting too cold, it will trigger a processor intensive program to run on the mobile phone, which will warm it up."

    Next time I'm out on a winter day, I'll just turn on my Live Wallpaper with Conway's Life running on an infinite grid. Instant pocket hard-warmer!

    • Be careful! Some phones have been documented to burn a hole through the pocket. Literally. Though if I had to guess, the owners of those phones were probably using an aftermarket pirated battery of dubious quality.

  • Pretty sure a normal Android phone don't resist outer-space temperatures.
  • Phones have heavy touch screen LCDs (and other bits and pieces, like the case!) that are pointless in orbit. Did they really waste that much of their mass budget on an LCD touch screen? Or is the "stock nexus" on this thing really not so stock?

    • by ThePeices (635180)

      Phones have heavy touch screen LCDs (and other bits and pieces, like the case!) that are pointless in orbit. Did they really waste that much of their mass budget on an LCD touch screen? Or is the "stock nexus" on this thing really not so stock?

      I think that the rocket launching this into orbit has enough fuel and thrust to handle an additional 50 grams of mass.

  • I thought spacecraft used absurdly expensive radiation hardened 20 year old processors because providing enough shielding to prevent radiation from disrupting a conventional processor is weight prohibitive. Does this only apply to deep space probes?

  • by Graydyn Young (2835695) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @12:33PM (#43105435)
    Allow me to be the first Android fanboy to say, "Suck it, IOS fanboys!"
    • by BitZtream (692029)

      Seriously? Thats all you got?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtXquYhY7wo [youtube.com]

      Define space, argue over that for a few days amongst yourselves, then get back to me.

      Not that either one are particularly impressive feats as can be seen by the fact that anyone with the money can Google how to do it with either device, then pay a little bit of cash and well ... do it.

      Its not like either one is doing anything that NASA didn't figure out how to do 60 years ago now.

  • Why Android, wouldn't a slim straight embedded GNU/Linux OS be a better choice from a reliability standpoint? Is there a robot finger for poking the screen? If not, Android in this situation was a solution in search of a problem.

    Linux, QNX, FreeBSD or NetBSD would have all been adequate choices, likely more reliable and will all run on just about anything.

    • well android is linux under the hood, the point here is the common consumer hardware/software can do this unmodafied without much work

      • by ogdenk (712300)

        After you dig through a bastardized Java VM. Why not just use the kernel and slap an embedded linux userland on it and call it a day? Would be much more suited to the task and make troubleshooting easier.

  • Can you imagine the roaming charges!
    Thank you! I'll be here all week!

    and for that, I'm truly sorry.
  • I just hope they did proper thermal cycle testing before deployment. My Nexus One had a thermal related fault from the date of purchase that rendered it useless over time and HTC didn't want support it. Now it's just a pretty brick.

    If their's fails too it could make for a funny support call:
    Support: "Ok so you need to send it to our service center"
    Owner: "Sure, just give us your Lat/Lon and we will de-orbit it over you, can you have someone go outside to catch it?"

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