Surrey Satellite Technology Limited plan to send an Android phone into space

A group of British space enthusiasts are planning to use an Android phone to control a miniature satellite – and take some pretty photos of the Earth while it’s up and about.

The staff of SSTL haven’t said which particular brand of phone will be used, but here’s a snippet of the general thinking behind the project:

“Smartphones pack lots of components – such as sensors, video cameras, GPS systems and Wi-Fi radios – that are technologically advanced but a fraction of the size, weight and cost of components used in existing satellite systems. And because many smartphones also run on free operating systems that lend themselves to online software developers, the creators of applications (‘apps’) for smartphones could feasibly develop apps for satellites”

Here’s an unrelated photo of some SSTL staff. We do enjoy seeing photos of men in hairnets. The need to wear a hairnet takes much of the glamour off the idea of working in the space tech business.

sstl staff

According to the BBC, the phone used will be an unmodified “sub £300″ high street Android model. Here’s the full press release. Thanks to reader Matt for the tip.

‘Smartphone satellite’ developed by Surrey space researchers

Space researchers at the University of Surrey and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) have developed ‘STRaND-1’, a satellite containing a smartphone payload that will be launched into orbit around the Earth later this year. STRaND-1 (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator) is being developed by the Surrey team to demonstrate the advanced capabilities of a satellite built quickly using advanced commercial off-the-shelf components.


STRaND-1’s lead researcher Dr Chris Bridges explained why a smartphone made an ideal satellite payload “Smartphones pack lots of components – such as sensors, video cameras, GPS systems and Wi-Fi radios – that are technologically advanced but a fraction of the size, weight and cost of components used in existing satellite systems. And because many smartphones also run on free operating systems that lend themselves to online software developers, the creators of applications (‘apps’) for smartphones could feasibly develop apps for satellites,” he said.

Smartphones aren’t designed to go into space, so in addition to extensive ground testing prior to launch there will be an in-orbit test campaign to put the phone through its paces. A powerful computer built at the SSC will test the vital statistics of the phone once in space. The computer will check which components of the phone are operating normally and when components malfunction in orbit for recovery. Images and messages from the phone will be sent back to Earth via a radio system. Once all the tests are complete, the micro computer will be switched off and the smartphone will be used to operate parts of the satellite.

“If a smartphone can be proved to work in space, it opens up lots of new technologies to a multitude of people and companies for space who usually can’t afford it. It’s a real game-changer for the industry,” Dr Bridges added.

A smartphone avionics suite is one of many technological advances packed into this 4 kg nano-satellite. To precisely point and manoeuvre, the satellite also incorporates advanced guidance, navigation and control systems including miniature reaction wheels, and a

GPS receiver, as well as innovative pulse plasma thrusters to propel it through space.

The long-established collaboration between Surrey Space Centre and SSTL means that the company benefits from the University of Surrey’s advanced space engineering research, while the University’s researchers and students get the chance to design, build and fly real space hardware alongside engineers from a world-leading small satellite provider. “The STRaND-1 programme is part of a proud history of close collaboration between the University and SSTL; from the UoSAT missions of the 1990’s, through SNAP-1 in 2000,” explained Dr Craig Underwood, Deputy Director of Surrey Space Centre and Principal Investigator of STRaND.

SSTL’s Shaun Kenyon, Project Manager for STRaND-1, said he was delighted with how the programme was going: “When we came to the Surrey Space Centre with the idea of flying a smartphone they had the expertise and innovative satellite subsystems to complete our design. The operation of the smartphone is really just the icing on the cake to what is already an incredibly advanced satellite.”

SSTL’s Head of Science Doug Liddle added: “It’s planned that STRaND-1 will be the first of many collaborative STRaND satellites between the University and SSTL. This provides a tangible means for the two groups to share capabilities, develop key skills and work with advanced commercial technology in space. With the smartphone payload costing less than £300 and the whole satellite costing less than a family car it’s exciting to see how the team have managed to create a satellite with such incredible performance.”

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