android SPHERECalling a smartphone OS ‘Android’ has always had a bit of a futuristic, outer-space type of tone to it; but in reality Android smartphones have actually been in space for a few years now. The Human Exploration and Tele-robotics Project or HET being lead by NASA’s Ames Research Center that uses SPHERES, which stands for ‘Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites’ has been using Nexus S smartphones running on Android Gingerbread as the brain for these little satellites on the International Space Station for almost three years now.

The SPHERES aren’t really your normal satellite floating in orbit around the planet however; instead they are used inside the ISS to test tele-robotic cameras, sound, and radiation levels. The idea of using an Android OS brain for the SPHERES is to allow human researchers on earth to be able to control the SPHERES remotely in order to perform tests on the ISS. Up until now everything had to be done by an astronaut actually on the ISS.

By connecting a smartphone to the SPHERES it allowed researchers to use the built-in camera to take pictures and video, perform difficult calculations, help conduct inspections, and to use the Wi-Fi to send information in real-time back to the Space Station and Mission Control.

The Nexus S smartphone model was used because it was the easiest to disassemble and modify for the needs of the SPHERES. Of course some modifications had to be done to the Android OS and the phone before it was space worthy; the first thing that had to be done was to permanently enable the smartphone’s airplane mode to prevent interference with any of the ISS’s aviation equipment. The next task was to find a way to power the phone using alkaline batteries instead of the normal lithium-ion batteries, because alkaline batteries degrade ‘more nicely’. The Nexus S phones are now powered by six AA batteries.

The next generation of Android brained SPHERES will be powered by the Nexus 4 smartphone; and Android looks like it will be a mainstay on the ISS for the foreseeable future because of Android’s flexibility, how easily it is modify whatever is needed, and how well it works with the Windows XP SP3 computers that are in use on the ISS.

It would seem that Android has become the unofficial smartphone for users outside of this world.

Source – Arstechnica

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