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Testing Mobile Phones For Controlling Space Missions 119

Posted by Soulskill
from the droids-in-space dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Researchers in the UK are sending an Android handset into space in order to test whether mobile phone chipsets are robust enough to be be used as the basis for controlling future space missions — greatly reducing the cost and weight of spacecraft electronics. 'Once in space, the phone will be bombarded by cosmic and solar radiation, and experience temperatures that veer between extreme heat and cold. A computer on the ground will check whether the phone is able to operate normally in orbit, and if no problems are found the phone will be used to perform tasks usually carried out by the satellite's main avionics computer.'"
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Testing Mobile Phones For Controlling Space Missions

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  • I wonder how many towers they'll connect to at that altitude.
    • There's an app for that!
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Actually not:

        THE APPLE SOFTWARE IS NOT INTENDED FOR USE IN THE OPERATION OF NUCLEAR FACILITIES, AIRCRAFT NAVIGATION OR COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL SYSTEMS, LIFE SUPPORT MACHINES OR OTHER EQUIPMENT IN WHICH THE FAILURE OF THE APPLE SOFTWARE COULD LEAD TO DEATH, PERSONAL INJURY, OR SEVERE PHYSICAL OR ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE.

        Filter error: Don't use so many caps. It's like YELLING. Filter error: Don't use so many caps. It's like YELLING. Filter error: Don't use so many caps. It's like YELLING. Filte

    • by CastrTroy (595695)
      I've always thought it would be an easy fix for cell phones to detect that there are too many towers, or use the GPS functionality to determine altitude, and do some adjustments so that they didn't connect to so many towers when being used at high altitudes such as on airplanes. I'm not a cell phone network engineer, but I imagine it wouldn't take too much work to get phones to act in a sane manner when calling from a plane.
      • by heypete (60671)

        I thought the main issues weren't that the phone would try to communicate with several towers (the infrastructure already allows phones to work in multi-tower environments), but rather that (1) the antenna profiles of the towers were such that they focused most of their signal near the ground (where the customers are), rather than in the air, (2) phones used from planes need to switch towers very frequently (due to the high speed of the airplane), and (3) the transmission power of the phone is relatively lo

        • by Muad'Dave (255648)

          Don't forget that towers reuse frequencies, and a handset at any significant altitude can/will interfere with towers farther away than what would usually be within range. It used to be murder in the analog days, but is still an issue today.

    • I wonder how many towers they'll connect to at that altitude.

      Two, if it's piloted by a muslim.

  • by Renegade Lisp (315687) * on Monday January 24, 2011 @04:12PM (#34985586)
    And the logical next step can only be that in commercial aviation, they will start offloading their avionics to the combined processing power of all the cell phones that happen to be on board. Finally, they are coming to their senses!
    • by AB3A (192265)

      Sick joke (at least, I hope it is, because I really do not want to see what the reality of such an idea might look like).

    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      Imagine a beowulf cluster of planes full of iPhones!
    • After they force everyone to turn off their cell phones while taking off, the plane will mysteriously crash.

      • Unless they're running Windows Phone 7, in which case the phones will have all crashed before it's finished taxiing.

  • by mschaffer (97223) on Monday January 24, 2011 @04:13PM (#34985592)

    So, when can "us mortals" start using cell phones on airplanes?

    • by Naatach (574111)
      Never? Please?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Since when has NASA been in charge of the United Kingdom's space program?

    • Once us mortals aren't packed hundreds in a small space where we would justifiably go mad having to listen to inane cellphone conversations of our seatmates.
    • by mr1911 (1942298) on Monday January 24, 2011 @05:30PM (#34986744)
      No phones on planes, please.

      With the status quo, I look at you when we are boarding and presume you are an idiot.

      When phones are allowed on planes, after a two hour flight with you chatting away with any moron in your phone book that will listen to you I will know beyond a shadow of a doubt you are an idiot, and be able to list a few dozen reasons why.

      Let's keep the mystery going.
    • by Muad'Dave (255648)

      As soon as there's an app for subvocal recognition [wikipedia.org].

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's bad enough having people change lanes into me on the freeway while yakking on these damned things. Now I have to worry about avionics computers crashing space stations into my house while blabbing away?!

  • by Ancantus (1926920) on Monday January 24, 2011 @04:15PM (#34985620) Homepage Journal
    Their App was rejected from the App store.
    • Actually the Japanese robots going to the moon are techno-bigots and want phones called Android. No self respecting robot would use an iPhone, unless it was called I_Robot_Phone.
    • Their App was rejected from the App store.

      No kernel source, no space rides.

    • by Haedrian (1676506)

      Also saves the cost of launching a pentalobular screwdriver into space

    • by LodCrappo (705968)

      In all seriousness, I'd be interested to know why they chose an Android device over the iPhone.

      • by Ancantus (1926920)
        I was looking around trying to figure it out myself. I couldn't find anything concrete, but I would assume its for these 2 reasons: 1. NASA has a lot of geeks, and geeks tend to like Linux and Android rather than the Iphone. 2. I would assume its much easier to make and load custom apps on an Android device than a Iphone, which they will need if the astronauts are going to use these phones.
      • I'd be interested to know why they chose an Android device over the iPhone.

        Because when you're wearing spacesuit gloves, you're almost certain to hold it wrong.

  • by xMrFishx (1956084) on Monday January 24, 2011 @04:17PM (#34985650)
    are smaller and cheaper. That's basically what it says. "We want to use mass produced stuff because it's dirt cheap and made on smaller scales than this expensive rubbish we keep losing by taking a wrong turn at mars. We don't know if it'll work, so we'll send some into space and see what happens, and it will keep that marketeer who keeps asking us what we're really doing busy. He thinks we're working on the iSat. We're just seeing if space-tronics is snake oil or not."
    • Of course, larger, higher power transistors are less likely to be disrupted (or outright DESTROYED) by the random cosmic ray than are the tiny low-power transistors that are used in hand-held consumer electronics. There's a REASON that NASA is still using 386s.
      • by jgtg32a (1173373)
        I thought they recently upgraded to Pentium 4's and can now program in C, or was that the Air-Force?
        • In other news, NASA is testing using banks of old P4's calculating PI to generate enough heat to thrust this test craft into space. Engineers have been quoted saying "They're very hot" and "we're almost at six digits now".
      • by confused one (671304) on Monday January 24, 2011 @05:29PM (#34986716)
        True. But one could (theoretically) send 10's or even 100's of cheap systems into space for the cost of 1 high reliability space rated system. When you need the high-rel system, by all means use it; but, don't let it limit you in such a way as to prevent launching clusters of small cheap satellites or robots when that's an acceptable option. There are bound to be cases where that's of benefit.
      • Actually radiation hardened designs are only done for older architecture processors in many cases.

        The path of a highly energized ion leaves a path thru a semiconductor that remains conductive briefly. Can mess up memory, and logic stuff in a big ugly way.

      • by Gordonjcp (186804)

        That far out there aren't really any cosmic rays to worry about. Quite a lot of the cubesats currently flying are using ARM7 processors, and commercial off-the-shelf UHF transceivers for their comms.

    • by Locke2005 (849178) on Monday January 24, 2011 @05:04PM (#34986312)
      Also, if reliability is an issue, a voting cluster of hundreds of small, cheap CPUs may be both cheaper and more reliable than a few expensive mil-spec CPUs... especially since MIL-spec are generally 10 years behind state-of-the-art by the time they are approved.
      • by hitmark (640295)

        This would be somewhat similar to a nuclear plant setup, where multiple computers do the same calculations and the majority result is what gets considered the right one?

        • by Locke2005 (849178)
          Fault-tolerant computers have been around since 1951, and are already used in the Space Shuttle and many other applications. All I'm suggesting is scaling them to use a higher number of smaller, less reliable components to achieve the same level of reliability.
      • Also, if reliability is an issue, a voting cluster of hundreds of small, cheap CPUs may be both cheaper and more reliable than a few expensive mil-spec CPUs...

        Cheaper and more reliable maybe... but what about power consumption, heat dissipation, and volume? There's a lot of dimensions to that trade space.

        especially since MIL-spec are generally 10 years behind state-of-the-art by the time they are approved.

        So what? I haven't seen a shred of evidence that this has held back space exploration even a

        • by Morty (32057)

          Also, if reliability is an issue, a voting cluster of hundreds of small, cheap CPUs may be both cheaper and more reliable than a few expensive mil-spec CPUs...

          Cheaper and more reliable maybe... but what about power consumption, heat dissipation, and volume? There's a lot of dimensions to that trade space.

          Yes. And don't forget weight. Typical launch costs are well over $5000/pound. If a design with 100 "cheap" CPUs adds a few pounds of weight for the CPUs, boards, and electronics, the cheap CPUs aren't so cheap.

          And power is a huge issue as well. Batteries and solar cells don't provide much power. That power is also needed by the spacecraft's instrument payloads. You can make the batteries and solar cells bigger, but then you have more weight, which again, increases launch costs.

  • Except it'd be stupid to use a phone per se... What they, of course, mean is to use small, hand-held tablet-style touch-interface computers. And that is nothing spectacular or notable.

    But putting any tool that controls a space mission on a major public network (er... like a phone is), would be ludicrous for safety and security.

    • by Fwipp (1473271)

      You couldn't even finish reading the summary? They're putting chipsets designed for smartphones into space, not using mobile devices to remotely control spacecraft.

      • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

        You couldn't even finish reading the summary? They're putting chipsets designed for smartphones into space, not using mobile devices to remotely control spacecraft.

        You just had to spoil everyone's fun, didn't you?

        You were the guy at the premiere of Finding Nemo exclaiming "You realize, of course, that real clown fish could never exist at that depth, nor could they socialize with all those other species. These filmmakers have it all wrong!"

      • by eepok (545733)

        The summary? I read the article. That's why I made the post pointing out that the summary title is a bit misleading.

      • by TheCarp (96830)

        Um... as a test, to see if it is feasible to use for spacecraft controls.

        Now, whats so ludicrous? Anything being broadcast over radio waves is "on a major public network". Building a powerful radio, and hooking it up to a parabolic dish and/or whatever else may be involved is a bit beyond me, and possibly you, right this moment, however, it is hardly an intractable problem. It is, essentially a "public medium".

        That said... what would be ludicrous is designing it without any sort of message authentication co

  • Pretty soon the standard disclaimer will read: Not for use in the operation of nuclear facilities or spacecraft...
  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Monday January 24, 2011 @04:24PM (#34985744)
    ...they sign up for the unlimited roaming, text, data and minutes plan.
  • Abort planetary armageddon you stupid satellite, this is an order! Oh no, no cellular provider, we're doomed

  • by itof500 (239202)

    And it is not going to be an iPhone.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The great swings in temperature and the harsh radiation found in space require the phone be placed inside the satellite casing to give it some protection. A hole will have to be cut in the side of the casing therefore to allow the phone's camera lens to see out.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12253228 [bbc.co.uk]

    • by Alex Belits (437) *

      A contest: spot a huge fucking problem with the above mentioned design.

      (first prize -- not a complete idiot who should never be allowed in anywhere close to a spacecraft).

  • They aren't stable enough to rely on here on earth, and are no where near 'hard' enough to be out of our atmosphere's protection.

    • by Microlith (54737)

      They aren't stable enough to rely on here on earth

      Entirely the fault of sloppy vendors and low quality, poorly tested drivers that aren't in the Kernel. You could dodge all of those issues if you simply didn't use Android and all of Google's custom stuff and instead used a minimalist distribution that used the heavily-hammered-on libraries you see used in production Linux systems.

      no where near 'hard' enough to be out of our atmosphere's protection.

      This is the first thing that came to my mind. Ultrafine lith

    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      If they are small enough and cheap enough, you can use massive redundancy to get around the reliability problem. Just stop doing what the Space Shuttle currently does: "One out of the seven computers got a different answer, so we scrubbed the mission."
      • If they are small enough and cheap enough, you can use massive redundancy to get around the reliability problem. Just stop doing what the Space Shuttle currently does: "One out of the seven computers got a different answer, so we scrubbed the mission."

        Talking on seven cellphones at once would be somewhat impractical, I imagine.

        • by Locke2005 (849178)
          They are talking about using cellphone CPUs, e.g. ARM, which have much better performance/power characteristics than X86. Not about using the cellphones themselves.
          • I see. I wonder though whether they could all have the same failure mode, given that they are being operated outside specs. It's different when you have 3 (or 7) CPUs that are specified to run in space, where them all failing would be very unlikely, since it would be due to unexpected behavior rather than them all being operated outside specs.
      • That's perfectly reasonable for pre-launch. If you get a disagreement before launch, when there should be 100% agreement, that's the perfect time to scrub.
      • by anyGould (1295481)

        If they are small enough and cheap enough, you can use massive redundancy to get around the reliability problem. Just stop doing what the Space Shuttle currently does: "One out of the seven computers got a different answer, so we scrubbed the mission."

        The reason they do that is so they still *have* that massive redundancy once the shuttle is orbiting and you don't have the luxury of just stopping the countdown and letting everyone out for a stretch. Once they're up, this stuff needs to Just Work.

  • .. At least not too many people will be competing with you for mayor of the moon
  • asking why my phone sent her the txt an hour ago saying "Shields at 5% and falling"
  • Excuse me, but when the astronauts sleep, they see flashes in their eyes caused by energetic particles colliding with the fluid in their eyes and emitting Cerenkov light cones. Forgive me, but that's pretty damn extreme. Are you suggesting that similar impacts with the electronics of a smart phone aren't going to have serious implications both on the calculations the smart phone is making, and the physical hardware of the smart phone itself? I for one would not want to wager my life that a non-rad-hard proc

    • They're not talking about something that requires high-reliability space hardened computers (like avionics). They're talking about cheap nano satellite sensor platforms.
    • "Excuse me, but when the astronauts sleep, they see flashes in their eyes caused by energetic particles colliding with the fluid in their eyes and emitting Cerenkov light cones. Forgive me, but that's pretty damn extreme."

      Citation needed. Actually I've heard this myself, but the version I heard said it occured only in the van allen belts. I don't know if either claim is remotely true, though.
  • To test the phone, they could do more controlled experimentation here on earth... Also, most of the components were derived from those tested for the space programs and the work that NASA has already done, so it would seem that they don't need to reinvent the wheel. See (http://radhome.gsfc.nasa.gov/)
  • Soon..... Phones will control the launch of Satellites. These Satellites will actually be Phones with large antenna and thrusters. These Phones will serve as comm satellites for Phones on the ground. It's Phones all the way down.
  • Like they didn't seem to want to try an Arduino? Pretty cheap, prety light, lots of I/O options, simple IDE, reasonable power consumption I think... There is some discussion that some Arduinos are comparable to phones in power usage.

    Anyways, they are thinking of using phone chipsets, so some of the micro boards could also work. And lets also assume they won't be using phone radios, there's some savings there, but lots of other alternatives seem to be at least as good.

    Besides, Arduino in space sounds a lo

    • No need to single out a specific board like the Arduino series, which is little more than an off-the-shelf AVR microcontroller, voltage regulator, LED, and perhaps a USB interface.
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Arduino is about as useful for these jobs as an unmodified ARM will turn out to be, which is to say, not very. The Arduino is too slow; they're looking for faster solutions that are also cheaper than the exotic-substrate 386s through Pentiums they're using now.

  • the article would have been titled "iPhones blast into space". It is an Android and suddenly we remember to use the term "mobile device".
    • by Haedrian (1676506)

      That's because the iPhone isn't a mobile device - its an Ipod, a phone, and an Internet Communications device.

      Or at least that's what a guy in a turtleneck told me.

  • by DCFusor (1763438) on Monday January 24, 2011 @05:03PM (#34986300) Homepage
    Let a bunch of ignorant college kids try and use COTS stuff in their smaller, faster, cheaper, better plans. Almost to a man, they didn't understand certain really important issues, as in -- things that work fine fanless in air burn up in a heartbeat in a good vacuum from their own power when the only way to lose heat is by radiation -- which doesn't remove much till things get very hot indeed. Even micropower opamp chips die in vacuum. After all, there are such things as one watt incandescent bulbs....that get white hot with one watt input, and some of them aren't even in a vacuum! Ok, spread that heat around a 1 watt cpu, which is bigger -- and it's still above the destruction temperature of a chip -- well above.

    So, unless they customize the boards for conductive heat removal and some temp control extras, it ain't going to fly. It's been done and evidently the UK guys don't know about it (all too common these days) or don't have a clue what that problem is.

    But if they couldn't just buy the parts and make/program their own, they're not smart enough to succeed anyway -- those other problems like bit-glitches caused by radiation and so on will kill them if they don't do a very robust software design with various safeguards and redundancies. Why be stuck with a cel phone circuit board when you could just buy the same parts and add the stuff you really need on the mission all on the same board?

    Back in the day, I worked on some stuff that was going into birds. They made us take this class on "What works and doesn't work in space". It was killer enlightening about what the issues are. Some of it has been obviated by new tech -- for example "no electrolytic caps" -- we have ceramics now that serve fine and are probably in most all new tech. "no potentiometers" "absolute minimum connectors" and an entire other course about how things wind up cold welding together in vacuum and most lubes don't work (including surprisingly, graphite which requires an oxygen layer to be slippery). Things like the tempco monster when using dissimilar materials need extra thought so things don't simply warp or explode at big temperature swings as well.

    So, NASA has been there, and done that, and even they forgot some of the lessons when they pissed off most of their real engineers and substituted young punk academics with no real world experience...

    Here goes history rhyming again.

    • I also imagine that consumer stuff has a wide spec margin, so that you may test several phones and they work, but another batch has their specs noticeably different in the areas that matter for operating in space. This spec difference doesn't matter on Earth, because they aren't being pushed near the limit. It's like overclocking CPUs; you test it a lot and it works fine at say 1.5 the rated speed, but then doesn't work on another batch or a later revision.
    • Please tell me you were shaking your cane and shouting for the neighbor kids to get off your lawn shortly before posting this. I rarely see something so obviously written by someone with a grudge against testing and "playing" with modern equipment...

      Also,, who calls them "birds" anymore?
    • by mr1911 (1942298)
      Heat removal isn't the biggest problem in space. Radiation is a problem. All those little particles that the atmosphere filters for us does nasty things to ICs in space.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Maybe you missed the part in the TFA (which, frankly, appears shorter than your post) where they already tested to make sure the device would function just fine in a vacuum.

      But no, keep on ranting. Being ageist and crude is a real tradition here at Slashdot.
      Something tells me you were one of the "real engineers" replaced.

    • by bughunter (10093)

      Well, just like our economists forgetting the economics lessons of the past 80 to 100 years, now NASA is faced with budget cuts after the resulting spectacular economic failures. So, how does NASA respond? By apparently forgetting the engineering lessons of the past 80 to 100 years. Keyword apparently.

      I've designed build space electronics, from launch vehicles to earth science instrumentation for low earth orbit, to weather and comm satellites for GEO and even cameras for planetary science missions, and

    • by Anonymous Coward

      i agree with all the vacuum created issues, but i often wonder about using radiation hardened(and ungodly expensive) chips even on low orbits. i mean commercial electronics work fine at e.g. ISS crew use, why could it not work in actual craft control systems? sort of raises the question, has anyone actually tried to? its all too easy to follow industry standards and burn money away if you have budget to spare. and honestly, cost is the only thing wrong with today's space tech, in this tech sector its like i

  • About a dozen groups have hooked smart phones to weather balloons and gone to the "edge of space" i.e. taken photos of the earth's curvature from 30-some miles up. A smart phone has all the basically components in a small, light package. Not least is self-location for when it lands to retrieve the pictures. All the group need do is cobble together an App to tie the pieces together.

    I am seeing smart phones used in student robot competitions and science fairs. The students can concentrate on algorithms
    • by bughunter (10093)

      There's a difference between operating for 30 min at an altitude of 100mi and operating for 10 years at 23,000 miles altitude. I doubt NASA is proposing using Androids and iPhones for things much more demanding than weeklong shuttle missions, or maybe pushing the envelope to ISS deloyment for 90 days or so. Beyond that, the phones *will* reliably fail.

      Google the phrase "total dose ionizing radiation" and poke around a bit, maybe also looking for the phrase "total dose hardness of bulk cmos" for fun. Then

  • by xkr (786629) on Monday January 24, 2011 @05:39PM (#34986882)
    How would that be different than ATT service 2day?
  • by KZigurs (638781) on Monday January 24, 2011 @05:40PM (#34986890)

    So, let's just summarize. They want to give control of (no matter how insignificant) chunks of hardware in space to stuff that:

    - Is designed at best for 60-70*C temp range (+/- 30-40 usually)
    - Is assembled planning for 1atm +/- 0.10atm ish.
    - Has a projected design life of 36 months (or thereabouts, again)
    - Is re-designed every 12-18 months leaving previous designs generally unsupported
    - Is considered and counted to be field-updateable for any more complex implementation
    - Is fab'd/assembled by the lowest bidder

    Sure, why not! Also, let's hope that the failures will end up re-entering and buring out instead of sticking on some kind of weird trajectory contributing to the junk already out there.

  • Wouldn't routerboards be more suited to these kind of extremes? Like Mikrotik or Ubiquity gear?
  • This looks like a stupid publicity stunt designed by some inexperienced publicity-seekers in collaboration with their organization's addle-pated and self-serving PR office.

    I mean, what's not to like?

    Err... radiation. If we wanted to know how a smartphone reacted to the LEO radiation environment, we could test that on the ground, and it would be a darn sight cheaper. But we don't need to do that, because we already KNOW that radiation will affect it badly, and that it doesn't include any mechanism to r
  • Anyone knowns if WiFi works on space?

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