Smartphones Journey to Space in New, Leaner Spacecraft Era

An article I wrote for Electronic Products.

Created with affordable, everyday technology, small spacecraft are paving the way for future ideas

If there’s anyone who knows about spacecraft technology, it’s the Chief of Mission Design Division (MDD) at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Chad Frost. Being at the forefront of the aerospace¬†industry for more than 25 years, Frost has designed and analyzed many flight control systems for aircraft. Now leading the MDD, he and his staff develop new spacecraft, technologies, tools, and mission concepts to accomplish revolutionary science on strict budgets.

Each year, millions of dollars go into spacecraft hardware, avionics, electronics, and software, even for small satellites. But as the world’s technology constantly advances, new and unexpected ideas are born.

“A few years ago, we had the intriguing idea that you might actually be able to build a spacecraft around a smartphone,” Frost said. “As a society, we’ve driven consumer electronics really hard to the point where they are just amazingly capable little devices, and ridiculously affordable for what they can do.”

With that in mind, NASA began brainstorming ways to build systems around familiar everyday technology. Intrigued by building a much smaller spacecraft based entirely on consumer devices and other low-cost systems, NASA got to work on combining a consumer-grade smartphone in conjunction with other commercial off-the-shelf components. The result was the¬†PhoneSat project, the joint effort of three smartphones in orbit, as part of NASA’s nanosatellite mission.

PhoneSat Image

Image taken by the PhoneSat 2.0 (Graham) nanosatellite. Reconstructed by the Ames PhoneSat Team. Credit: NASA Ames

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