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NASA launches smartphone satellites -- downloading images may be an issue

NASA on Monday launched three 2010-vintage Nexus One smartphones into orbit via an Antares rocket, saying that the Android devices would be among the cheapest satellites ever devised.

The devices are part of the administrations PhoneSat program, which is designed to ascertain the suitability of consumer smartphone processors as cheaper satellite brains.

[MORE NEXUS ONES IN SPACE: Android phone blasts into space aboard satellite]

Michael Gazarik, NASA associate administrator for space technology, said in a statement that theres no shortage of possible applications for the space-going Android phones.

Smartphones offer a wealth of potential capabilities for flying small, low-cost, powerful satellites for atmospheric or Earth science, communications, or other space-born applications. They also may open space to a whole new generation of commercial, academic and citizen-space users, he said.

The devices contain much of the hardware needed for basic satellite functionality, including reasonably modern processors, cameras, GPS receivers, radios and a host of other small sensors.

The phones are housed in four-inch cubesat structures, and will attempt to take photos of the Earth via their onboard cameras.

The PhoneSats are also part of an elaborate game, as they transmit packets of data back to Earth, where they can be received by amateur radio operators. While some packets are simple status reports, others are tiny fragments of the Earth pictures being captured from orbit, which can be reassembled into complete photographs.

Interestingly, however, NASA is not the first to undertake this type of project a privately-held British company called Surrey Satellite Technology Limited launched a Nexus One into space aboard the Indian Space Research Organizations PSLV-C20 mission in late February. However, the STRaND-1s price tag about as much as a high-end family car, according to SSTL is likely significantly higher than NASAs PhoneSat, which cost less than $7,000.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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