Space

Smartphones in space

NASA logo

NASA is sending Google smartphones to the International Space Station as the next step in pursuing the agency's goal of having robots assist astronauts in space.

The two phones, equipped with 3D sensing technology, are scheduled to be launched July 12 and will be attached to Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) on the ISS.

NASA has been using the SPHERES since 2006 for relatively minor activities such as docking maneuvers and free-flying algorithm tests. But the agency has bigger plans for the bowling ball-sized spherical satellites, which can be guided around the space station's interior at about an inch per second. Officials want the satellites to be able to perform tasks and sense their surroundings. And all the capabilities NASA wanted could be found in a smartphone.

In July 2011, NASA sent up Google Nexus S phones, which were the state-of-the-art Android phones at the time, and used them to establish remote control of the SPHERES so the crew on the ISS and back at the Johnson Space Center in Houston could control them.

The SPHERES with the Nexus phones have only been operating in a two-square-meter area on the ISS. That's where the latest Google smartphone comes in.

The Project Tango smartphone -- not yet available to the public and no word on when it will be -- has 3D sensing capabilities and a wide-angle camera that can detect surrounding features.

Chris Provencher, NASA's Smart SPHERES project manager, described it as a phone that knows exactly how much it is moving when it moves -- "a GPS without the GPS."

"It didn't make any sense to reinvent the wheel," he added. "Instead of trying to do it ourselves, we decided to leverage the existing smartphone capabilities."

NASA will run two tests with the Google phones. First, someone on the ISS will take a phone through the entire space station to build a 3D map. Once that is done, a second test will use the phones to tell the SPHERES where to fly.

The first mapping activity is tentatively scheduled for early August, and the demo will happen about one month later, Provencher said.

In preparation, the team has been adapting the phone for use in space. Even seemingly simple tasks, such as the screen rotation tilt controlled by the phone's orientation, are affected by zero gravity.

To tackle those challenges, Google and NASA signed a Space Act agreement, which gives companies a way to partner with the agency and for NASA to get its hands on new technology.

"We talked to them about the progress of our work," Provencher said. "Sometimes things could be fixed in the software that Google has provided, and sometimes we have to go off and fix it ourselves."

Eventually, NASA officials hope the SPHERES will reduce the amount of housekeeping tasks astronauts have to perform, such as measuring air and sound quality in the ISS, and allow them to spend more time on mission-focused tasks, Provencher said.

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

Featured

  • Defense
    Ryan D. McCarthy being sworn in as Army Secretary Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Sgt. Dana Clarke/U.S. Army)

    Army wants to spend nearly $1B on cloud, data by 2025

    Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said lack of funding or a potential delay in the JEDI cloud bid "strikes to the heart of our concern."

  • Congress
    Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) at the Hack the Capitol conference Sept. 20, 2018

    Jim Langevin's view from the Hill

    As chairman of of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committe and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin is one of the most influential voices on cybersecurity in Congress.

Stay Connected

FCW INSIDER

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.