This weekend was full of excitement for commercial space fans. Orbital Sciences Corporation launched the Antares rocket, making them only the second private company to put a vehicle into orbit. Like the SpaceX Falcon 9, Antares is intended to carry cargo to the International Space Station. Antares is cool for a couple of reasons – partly because it represents a further gain in the United States’ launch capability, but more notably because the target market for Antares commercial launches are smaller spacecraft than the usual several-thousand-ton geosynchronous birds.
Smaller spacecraft are particularly cool because – since their design, fabrication, and launch costs are lower than big satellites – satellite manufacturers are more willing to take risks with their design. I don’t mean “risks” to imply that these spacecraft are unsafe. I mean that they are not quite as tried-and-proven. In other words, they can be more cutting-edge. More innovative. More likely to push the envelope.
In that vein, what I find most exciting about the Antares launch is that the vehicle carried three NASA CubeSats specifically designed to puncture the conventional wisdom about how conservative spacecraft designs need to be. They are called “PhoneSats,” and what makes them special is that their flight computers are off-the-shelf Android cell phones. Their on-board avionics software is an app.
The idea behind these CubeSats is to test how robust spacecraft really need to be. Commercial spacecraft engineers design huge margins into their vehicles. We tend to be very careful and conservative. But since many spacecraft last well longer than their quoted design lifetimes…maybe we’re too conservative. The PhoneSats will help answer the question: If we just get commercial computer hardware and design a system that works – without so much conservatism – how long will it last in space? Maybe it will operate long enough to complete its mission.
If the PhoneSats stayed in orbit forever, they’d be likely to burn out. Their Android processors and flash memory would fail under the onslaught of cosmic rays. But, at under $7000 each, maybe even the short mission of these satellites would make them competitive with the longer-lasting multi-million-dollar vehicles.
I’ll be very interested in the results of the PhoneSat project!