NASA’s final shuttle mission will feature outer space’s first iPhone, tricked out with an app to measure spacecraft radiation levels, orbital location and altitude.
The iOS-based software, called SpaceLab, will come pre-loaded on two iPhone 4s. Testing the software isn’t mission-critical, but it may lead to terrestrial commercial devices being repurposed for space in the near future.
“When Apple added gyros to the iPhone, it suddenly became a small avionics platform,” said Brian Rishikof, CEO of Odyssey Space Research, the company that designed SpaceLab. “You can imagine using it to do backup functions to recover navigational state. If it has any potential life-saving functions, it suddenly becomes a whole different animal.”
Getting any gadget aboard a NASA space shuttle, much less the space agency’s very last mission on July 8, involves a grueling certification process that typically takes up to two years. The device can’t off-gas dangerous chemicals into recycled air, interfere with electronics or otherwise compromise mission performance.
Without relying on wireless communication, SpaceLab can tell astronauts their altitude by analyzing Earth’s curvature, which becomes more pronounced with distance. Sequential photos of Earth’s coastlines, perhaps snapped from the space station’s big window, will give orbital position and spacecraft speed. Letting the phones rest will allow SpaceLab to measure radiation by looking for “single bit upsets,” when radiation smacks into a memory bit and changes its value (from 1 to 0 or 0 to 1).
Space station crew can play with the phones until September, when a Russian Soyuz spacecraft takes them back to Earth for analysis.
“We’re attempting to show how a commercial product that millions of people use can function as spaceflight hardware,” Rishikof said. “Once you demonstrate that it’s capable, you begin to wonder what else is possible.”
Before the phone launches into orbit, NASA will review its software one final time. Rishikof said it’s safe to assume a copy of Angry Birds won’t make its way on.
“We don’t want to compromise astronauts’ time,” he said.
Image: Odyssey Space Research, LLC
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