Smartphones in space

By on July 11, 2011
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In space they’re “smart” phones, on Earth they’re smart “phones”.

Whenever I think of NASA, apart from glorious space exploration, my next thought is glorious technologies. Stuff they used decades years back, that were at the ultimate bleeding edge for space-age, only come down to consumer electronics as some of the most mundane usage one could derive from them. I would like to give a whole lot of examples, but Wikipedia is one tab too far away for me to bother with it.

Space has always fascinated me, but like the majority of human beings, I’m content with watching stars and planets on the occasional night (especially through my telescope). Watching the moon rise and fall, I often wonder whether somewhere out there is the ISS with a handful of crew, performing whatever experiments they do up there. Perhaps it’s time for them to sleep and someone is looking down on Earth through a small window next to their (cramped?) bed on the ISS, right that very moment.

While movies like Apollo 13, Solaris, Moon and Armageddon gave me some idea of how it is to live in space (not outer space sci-fi), I always picture the insides of space stations to be old looking mainframe PCs with multiple lights blinking all over the place, a plethora of knobs, buttons and instrument panels displaying important information I cannot even begin to imagine. So when I hear that the latest smartphones, specifically the Apple iPhone 4 and Samsung manufactured Google Nexus S were on board the Atlantis shuttle and are being used on the ISS right now, it really makes me smile.

They laughed at my stupidity...

The Nexus S will be used to upgrade the SPHERES (Synchronised Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites). These SPHERES are used to do basic tasks on the ISS on a daily basis, including several safety checks and running various experiments. The Nexus S will provide a much needed boost in computing power, including the ability to use the built-in camera for the SPHERES to see. Back in 1999 MIT’s engineering Professor David Miller showed his students the original Star Wars and actually asked his students to build him a battle droid like the one Luke Skywalker is training with. From then on, three of those small remote controlled droids were sent on board the ISS from 2004 onwards. It was only fitting then, that an Android powered smartphone be the upgrade to these droids, the SPHERES.

“With a smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control,” said lead engineer of NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Group, DW Wheeler. Google couldn’t have gotten a better product endorsement than this. they're running for their lives!

The iPhone 4, meanwhile, will be used to run various zero-G experiments on the app SpaceLab. This $0.99 app, which is simulated for people on Earth to reflect weightlessness in space,  will allow astronauts on board the ISS to run experiments using the iPhone 4′s gyroscope and accelerometer.

So while people around me play Angry Birds on their smartphones, I’m happy knowing that right now, up in space, orbiting our beautiful blue planet is the ISS; and somewhere on board astronauts are running various experiments on the iPhone 4 and actual droids (powered by Android) are actually put to work for the betterment of humanity.


From auditing to editing, I now test and analyze the latest gadgets and games instead of the latest financial statements. Both jobs are equally intense and rewarding. When I'm not burning up hardware in the name of science, you'll find me nuking in DOTA 2 or engineering in TF2.

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