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Smartphone satellites snap some amazing photos

NASA Ames

This image was pieced together by PhoneSat-2 (Graham) nanosatellite and the most recently reconstructed by the Ames Phonesat Team and multiple volunteer ham radio operators around the world.

By Space.com

Three consumer smartphones that were sent into orbit around Earth last month snapped some incredible photos of our planet from space.

The images were snitched together as part of NASA's PhoneSat initiative, which aims to show how existing technology could be incorporated into powerful low-cost satellites.

Named Alexander, Graham and Bell, the trio of tiny cube-shaped PhoneSats was launched into orbit during the inaugural test flight of Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket on April 21.

Each PhoneSat had a smartphone for a brain. Alexander and Graham — both PhoneSat 1.0s — were battery-powered and carried a Nexus One smartphone running Google's Android operating system. Bell was a more advanced PhoneSat 2.0, built around a Nexus S smartphone running on Android. The nanosatellite was also outfitted with solar panels and a two-way radio that allowed engineers to control the satellite from the ground. What's perhaps most remarkable is that they were cheap. The three PhoneSats cost just $3,500 to $7,000 each; most satellites can cost upwards of $1 million. [Smartphones in Space! Photos of NASA's PhoneSats & More]

NASA officials were pleased with the brief mission, which ended on April 27, when the three satellites made a fiery re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

"During the short time the spacecraft were in orbit, we were able to demonstrate the smartphones' ability to act as satellites in the space environment," Bruce Yost, the program manager for NASA's Small Satellite Technology Program, said in a statement from the space agency.

As part of this demonstration, the smarthphones' cameras captured photos of Earth and converted them into image-data "packets" to be beamed back on the amateur radio spectrum. These packets were then decoded and put together by the PhoneSat team and amateur ham radio operators.

"The PhoneSat project also provided an opportunity for NASA to collaborate with its space enthusiasts," Yost added. "Amateur radio operators from every continent but Antarctica contributed in capturing the data packets we needed to piece together the smartphones' image of Earth from space."

Alberto Guillen Salas, an engineer at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., who is working on the PhoneSat project, said the team had received more than 300 data packets just three days into the mission.

"About 200 of the data packets were contributed by the global community and the remaining packets were received from members of our team with the help of the Ames Amateur Radio Club station, NA6MF," Salas said.

The PhoneSats aren't the first smartphones to fly in space. A British-built satellite called STRaND-1, which was put into orbit earlier this year, was powered by a Google Nexus One phone.

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