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Published: 07 October 2013

Surrey smartphone in space

World Space Week is upon us (October 4 – 10), offering an opportunity to discover how scientists are exploring new frontiers. At Surrey, academics are busy monitoring the long distance journey of a smartphone in space.

As part of a mission launched by Surrey Space Centre (SSC), the Google Nexus One has gone where no smartphone has gone before, in partnership with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL). It follows on from the UK’s first nanosatellite mission, SNAP-1, also built by SSC and SSTL, 13 years ago, and is the first 'phonesat' to go into orbit, as well as the first UK CubeSat to be launched.

STRaND-1, a project developed by Surrey space engineers, launched from Sriharikota, India earlier this year, and is currently testing the smartphone’s ability to control the satellite’s in-orbit operations.

The unique and innovative satellite, STRaND-1 (the Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator), is a 30 cm CubeSat weighing 3.5 kg. It launched into low Earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 785 km on ISRO’s rocket called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

At the heart of STRaND-1 is a Google Nexus One smartphone with a modified Android operating system. Smartphones contain highly advanced and integrated technologies and incorporate several key features that are integral to a satellite – such as cameras, radio links, accelerometers and high performance computer processors – almost everything except the solar panels and propulsion.

The satellite has been operating from the Surrey Space Centre’s ground station at the University of Surrey for over six months collecting valuable data on the satellite’s health (called telemetry) which is being run by researchers and staff in their own time – an opportunity not typically found in European universities.

Being the first smartphone satellite in orbit is just one of many ‘firsts’ that STRaND-1 has achieved. It also flies innovative new technologies such as a ‘WARP DRiVE’ (Water Alcohol Resistojet Propulsion Deorbit Re-entry Velocity Experiment) and electric Pulsed Plasma Thrusters (PPTs); both ‘firsts’ to fly on any nanosatellite. It is also flying 3D printed parts – believed to be the first to fly in space. These new technologies will eventually form into future capabilities in UK space missions.

Dr Chris Bridges, Lecturer at SSC and STRaND-1 Lead Engineer on the project, says: “A smartphone on a satellite like this has never been launched before. The training and findings learnt during this mission will provide a wider knowledge about electronics for spacecraft and make this complex area more accessible to everyone from school pupils to business leaders.”

SSTL’s Head of Science, Doug Liddle said: “We’ve deliberately asked this enthusiastic and talented young team to do something very non-standard in terms of the timescales, processes and the technologies used to put the satellite together because we want to maximise what we learn from this research programme.”

In the coming months, STRaND-1 will use a number of experimental ‘Apps’ to collect data whilst a new high-speed Linux-based CubeSat computer developed by SSC took care of the satellite. The STRaND-1 team plan to switch the satellite’s in-orbit operations to the smartphone, thereby testing the capabilities of a number of standard smartphone components for a space environment.