RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
OK, let's hear about launching a smartphone into orbit.
On Sunday, NASA sent up three smartphones - just like the one you might be using right now to listen to MORNING EDITION.
As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, the little PhoneSats, as they're called, could bring big changes to the satellite business.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Meet Jasper Wolfe.
JASPER WOLFE: I'm 22 years old.
BRUMFIEL: And Jim Cockrell.
JIM COCKRELL: I'm one of what you might call one of those graybeards, you know.
BRUMFIEL: He's only 53. Jasper and Jim are both engineers working at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. Around a year and a half ago, they came together as part of a project to turn ordinary Android smartphones, bought off Amazon, into orbiting satellites: PhoneSats. Jasper heard about NASA's PhoneSat project from a friend, and he was so excited about it he left his native Australia the minute he finished college.
WOLFE: I graduated on Thursday and flew over here on Friday and started work on Friday afternoon.
BRUMFIEL: Now Jim, on the other hand, he just got his first iPhone last month. So when he heard about PhoneSat...
COCKRELL: Well, I guess my initial reaction is: What sat? Sure, I'll be glad to work on it, but I'll have to figure out what it is.
BRUMFIEL: The idea of PhoneSat is simple. Satellites are big machines custom-built for things like communication and navigation. They use expensive electronics designed to work in space. Modern smartphones are a lot cheaper and can do a lot of the same things. So why not just turn one into a satellite? Jim had his doubts.
COCKRELL: I was really skeptical at first because I said, OK, there's a reason why NASA develops these expensive satellites and tests them extensively.
BRUMFIEL: Jim knew the PhoneSats needed to survive extreme temperatures and radiation. Could a smartphone really operate in such a harsh environment? Jasper thought so.
COCKRELL: The mobile phones are designed to be thrown around the room and for people to drop them in water and, you know, they're really robust bits of technology.
BRUMFIEL: Jasper Wolfe, Jim Cockrell and the rest of the team got the PhoneSats ready for launch. They added extras like plus-sized batteries and a powerful transmitter. They put it all in a metal case the size of a Kleenex box. But the phones were still ordinary smartphones. They still had games on them.
WOLFE: We played around with "Angry Birds" on the grounds.
BRUMFIEL: Did anyone bother to delete "Angry Birds" before you launched it?
WOLFE: Actually that's a good question.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...four, three. Go Antares. One, Ignition start. Liftoff of the Antares A1 test mission.
BRUMFIEL: The PhoneSats hitched a ride on the very first flight of a commercial rocket called Antares, which NASA hopes will soon be resupplying the International Space Station.
COCKRELL: Within the first orbit after being released from the launch vehicle we started receiving signals.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
BRUMFIEL: That signal could mark big changes in the satellite business.
Peter Platzer is CEO of NanoSatisfi, a startup company that's about to launch a small satellite into space using money raised on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. He sees a world in which satellites aren't just owned by powerful corporations and governments.
PETER PLATZER: The same way the computer morphed into becoming a personal computer, we could see a future where the satellite morphs into becoming a personal satellite.
BRUMFIEL: The satellite he's working on will actually take apps. Users can program them here on Earth and beam them up into orbit.
PLATZER: I think whenever you create this flexible platform that you let people program and decide what their own use is, it becomes really, really hard to predict where the combined creative genius of mankind will lead that platform.
BRUMFIEL: The PhoneSats will eventually run out of juice. But Jim's going to keep working with Jasper and the young team. He finds it inspirational.
COCKRELL: They don't know what they can't do. You know, they haven't been told what's not possible, and that really opens up a lot of creative thinking that somehow tends to go away with time.
BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.