June 10, 2011 at 2:59 PM ET
The last space shuttle mission will be the first mission to send iPhones into orbit — but if this experiment works out the way its developers hope, you could be seeing a lot more such devices on the final frontier in the years to come.
The two Apple iPhone 4's certified for launch to the International Space Station on the shuttle Atlantis next month won't being used for phone calls. Astronauts on the space station already have a pretty reliable Internet phone link for that, so they don't have to worry whether AT&T or Verizon provides better reception from space. In fact, the phone function on these iPhones has been disabled.
"My joke is that the roaming charges would be astronomical," Brian Rishikof, the chief executive officer for Houston-based Odyssey Space Research, told me today.
Odyssey has loaded the phones with an app designed to help spacefliers get oriented in case they ever get lost in space. SpaceLab for iOS will be used for four experiments on the station:
The $100 billion space station is bristling with communication equipment, so it's unlikely that astronauts would ever lose their bearings there. But in the years ahead, NASA will have to rely on commercial space transports, and it's conceivable that mobile devices could serve as backup systems for spacecraft navigation in the event of a catastrophic computer glitch or communication failure. If you've seen the movie "Apollo 13," you might recall that those astronauts had to eyeball Earth through their window to set a course for their return from the moon.
Beyond the experiments, putting the iPhones on the station will help NASA figure out how best to adapt commercial off-the-shelf devices for use in space, said Jeffrey Manber, managing director of NanoRacks. Manber's company developed the rack-storage system in which the phones and other payloads will be flown.
Manber told me it was "extremely difficult" to get the phones certified for spaceflight.
"It was probably one of the hardest payloads we had," he said. "It's not exactly the same iPhone that you or I would buy."
Rishikof said Odyssey disabled the phone function as well as GPS location capabilities, to streamline the certification process and to avoid running afoul of other space communication channels (including military channels). Even if GPS was enabled, "you're not going to get reception" on the space station, Rishikov said. The iPhones also run off pre-certified external batteries rather than the internal batteries, although that situation may change for future experiments, he said.
Manber estimated that it took four to five months to get the phones certified — which is significantly quicker than NanoRacks' average of nine months. "NASA's not getting enough credit for making the process more commercial-friendly," Manber said.
He also said this was only the beginning of a new age for spaceworthy devices, and for NanoRacks. "We've got 60 payloads in the queue," Manber told me. "We have 15 customers already. We're going gangbusters."
Rishikof, meanwhile, said his company is eyeing potential space applications for other mobile devices. "The iPod and the iPad are natural opportunities, but we haven't done anything explicitly yet," he said.
The space iPhones are due to be returned to Earth this fall aboard a returning Russian Soyuz craft. "Actual flight data from the experiments are expected to be collected, analyzed and shared so that educators, students, scientists and space enthusiasts can re-create the experiments as if onboard the ISS itself," Odyssey said in a news release.
But you don't have to wait until then to give SpaceLab a spin. It's already available at the App Store, and you can play around with simulated data that's adjusted for Earth's gravity. Just two days after its release, the app is already heading toward the top of the charts for iPhone educational software.
Update for 6 p.m. ET: Inquiring minds wanted to know exactly what was done to the phones, and so I followed up with Rishikof on that point. He told me iOS operating system was not modified. "We did not 'jailbreak' the phone," he told me. But it wasn't merely a matter of flipping the phones to "airplane mode," either. Rishikof said minor modifications were made in the interest of getting the phones certified for spaceflight in time for launch — modifications that were analogous to, say, yanking a wire. In the future, Odyssey intends to have the iPhone certified for spaceflight as it is, "out of the box," Rishikof said.
Rishikof said he's gratified by the interest in the project, particularly because it shows how gadgets that are increasingly familiar to folks on Earth can become part of the technological landscape in space as well. "That sense of connection is really important," he said.
Meanwhile, NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told me that if the iPhones work as hoped, that would be of interest to the space agency. He mentioned the Apollo 13 example that I cited above and said, "NASA is always interested in additional layers of redundancy for spacecraft navigation."
Although several sources have said these are the first iPhones to go into space, Humphries pointed out that the line gets fuzzier when you're talking more broadly about mobile devices. "There are lots of iPods and MP3 players" on the space station, Humphries said. But the astronauts don't use them as navigational aids. They use them pretty much as folks on Earth do: for instance, listening to tunes while they do their workouts.
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