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Smartphone satellite prepares for launch

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Feb 8, 2013, 0:00 UTC

Sen—A small but mighty United Kingdom-built satellite is about to take flight.

STRaND-1, billed as the world's first "smartphone satellite", will be a demonstration of the power of even the smallest orbiting machines. Although it is only controlled by a Google smartphone running an Android operating system, it includes capabilities common to satellites including taking pictures, doing computer calculations at high speed and staying in constant communications.

The smartphone test will take place in the second phase of the mission. During the first part, the satellite - which has been built with 3 Cubesats joined together - will be controlled by a linux-based computer. This is all dependent, of course, on STRaND-1 making it safely to its planned polar orbit when it launches on the Indian Space Research Organisation's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The planned launch date is February 25.

Built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, the satellite will be controlled at the University of Surrey, at the Surrey Space Centre's (SSC) ground station.

The collaborators acknowledge that the project does carry a certain amount of risk, but maintain that they have laid the necessary groundwork to have a successful mission.

"Our tests have been pretty thorough, subjecting the phone to oven and freezer temperatures, to a vacuum and blasting it with radiation," stated Chris Bridges, SSC's lead engineer on the project. 

"It has a good chance of working as it should, but you can never make true design evolutions or foster innovation without taking a few risks: STRaND is cool because it allows us to do just that.”

CubeSats are satellites that launch at low cost due to their diminiutive size. The base size is 10cmx10cmx10cm, and they have standardised components, making them cheap to build and replicate. They can also be joined together, in the case of STRaND-1 it is a 3 U model - 3 Cubesats joined together. "Off the shelf" components can be used instead of specialized hardware, putting the satellites within financial reach of university departments and small companies.

There is one United Kingdom firm, Clyde Space, whose specialty is in CubeSat parts. The Glasgow-based firm says that forty per cent of all CubeSat missions leaving Earth contains at least one component from the company. Clyde Space is also putting together Scotland's first CubeSat, dubbed UKube-1.

SSTL and SSC also have ambitious plans for STRaND-1. They plan to fly an electric pulsed plasma thruster experiment on board to test alternate propulsion systems in space - a first for a small satellite. Also, the mini machine will fly a 3D manufactured part, which is also believed to be a space first.

“We’ve deliberately asked this enthusiastic and talented young team to do something very non-standard in terms of the timescales, processes and the technologies used to put the satellite together," stated Doug Liddle, SSTL's head of science.

No less ambitious will be the next phase of the program, STRaND-2. SSTL previously announced that it plans to perform a nanosatellite docking in orbit using Kinect technology, which is a motion-sensing device used in the popular Xbox gaming console for applications that include exercise programs.

"We want to maximise what we learn from this research programme," Liddle added. "I can’t wait to see what happens next."