NASA builds Android-based satellite

If Google wants to find somewhere not dominated by Apple’s iPhone, they’ll have to leave planet Earth — which is exactly what’s being planned. NASA will launch the Android-powered Nexus One smartphone this fall as the brains of a tiny nano-satellite.

The Android phone will be at the heart of PhoneSat, a 4-inch cube space agency engineers are building using off-the-shelf parts with a $3,500 budget. Turns out, the Android phone has all of the basic features to power what NASA hopes will be an orbiting ring of tiny satellites. Along with the Android operating system, the Nexus One has a fast processor, communications gear and a nifty camera with which to snap photos of Earth from space.

PhoneSat 1.0 won’t be doing any complex missions, however. The first version “has a basic mission goal of staying alive in space for a short period of time,” the government’s website explains. PhoneSat 2.0 will have bigger plans. With the new Nexus S as its brains, the PhoneSat will include a two-way radio for ground controllers, solar panels to charge the handset and the ability to change spatial orientation.

No word on why rocket scientists didn’t choose iOS for the tests. Perhaps more Androids were available or could fit the tiny budget. Either way, the project should lend the Android team a promotional bonanza: just imagine the ‘NASA-tested’ ad campaigns!

NASA plans to launch three Android-powered PhoneSats (two of the early versions and one 2.0 unit) in the fall as part of a test of the Antares rocket. Now that the Space Shuttle is grounded, the agency is giving Space X’s Falcon and the Antares from Orbital Sciences Corp. a chance to show their stuff on the launchpad.