Earlier this year, American space agency NASA sent three smartphone into orbit to see how the consumer technology compared to its fancy space cameras. Onboard three different miniature satellites (appropriately names Alexander, Graham and Bell, after the man who invented the telephone), the 5-megapixel Nexus Ones snapped photos of Earth.
Instead of slapping a filter on the photos and immediately post them to its spectacular Instagram account, NASA sent the photos through radio waves to a team of amateur radio operators. Each operator pieced together one section of what would become a high-resolution image.
This isn't the first time that a Nexus One has been sent into space. Earlier this year, a team used the Nexus One to allow Earthlings to scream in space.
The results of NASA's Nexus One photos are underwhelming. The images are just a mosaic of blurry and clear patches of our planet. Despite the lackluster image quality, NASA representatives are pleased with the mission as a demonstration of smartphones functioning in orbit as data collection tools.
From NASA's news blog:
"During the short time the spacecraft were in orbit, we were able to demonstrate the smartphones' ability to act as satellites in the space environment," said Bruce Yost, the program manager for NASA's Small Satellite Technology Program. "The PhoneSat project also provided an opportunity for NASA to collaborate with its space enthusiasts. Amateur radio operators from every continent but Antarctica contributed in capturing the data packets we needed to piece together the smartphones' image of Earth from space.”
As part of their preparation for space, the smartphones were outfitted with a low-powered transmitter operating in the amateur radio band. They sent the image information to awaiting hams who worked with the Ames engineers to stitch together multiple, tiny images to restore the complete Earth view.
Piecing together the photo was a very successful collaboration between NASA's PhoneSat team and volunteer amateur ham radio operators around the world. NASA researchers and hams working together was an excellent example of Citizen Science, or crowd-sourced science, which is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. On the second day of the mission, the Ames team had received over 200 packets from amateur radio operators.
"Three days into the mission we already had received more than 300 data packets," said Alberto Guillen Salas, an engineer at Ames and a member of the PhoneSat team. "About 200 of the data packets were contributed by the global community and the remaining packets were received from members of our team with the help of the Ames Amateur Radio Club station, NA6MF.”
The mission successfully ended Saturday, April 27, 2013, after predicted atmospheric drag caused the PhoneSats to re-enter Earth's atmosphere and burn up.
“The NASA PhoneSat Team would like to acknowledge how grateful we are to the amateur radio community for contributing to the success of this mission,” said Oriol Tintore, an engineer and a member of the PhoneSat Team at Ames who participated in the picture data processing.
The PhoneSat project is a technology demonstration mission funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters and the Engineering Directorate at NASA Ames Research Center. The project started in summer 2009 as a student-led collaborative project between Ames and the International Space University, Strasbourg.
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