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Space Blog

STRaND-1: A "lightbulb" moment

We’re excited that this innovative mission is in the final build and test phase so we thought we’d take a look back to the beginning: where did the idea for STRaND-1 come from?
So when did the “lightbulb” moment occur? Well, Doug Liddle, SSTL’s Head of Science came up with the concept one day whilst getting to grips with his new smartphone. Doug says “I was checking out my new phone’s features, and it suddenly occurred to me that the phone packed a lot of the functions we build into our satellites: a GPS system, radio frequency comms, cameras, magnetometers, accelerometers, a high end processor and loads of data storage. And that was it – a true lightbulb moment, and STRaND-1 was born! My first thought was to launch the phone ‘as-is’ from the side of one of our larger satellites and communicate with it over WiFi as it took videos of the host satellite and the Earth. However, when I started talking to the team it became clear that we could do a whole lot more by mounting the phone inside a ‘cubesat’ and the idea grew from there.”

Mobile phone technology has made leaps and bounds over the last 5 years. Smartphones are now equipped with a whole host of features that allow phone applications to help us, inform us and entertain us and many of these features are also used on satellites for practical purposes like navigation, communication and attitude control. The big draw for a satellite manufacturer is that a smartphone’s equipment is a fraction of the weight and cost of the satellite tech and has already undergone extensive testing and investment in R&D to select high performance components.

Doug again: “STRaND-1 was born out of the same philosophy that started SSTL back in the 1980s: why spend hundreds and thousands of pounds developing special components for satellites when these components are easily available commercially at a much lower cost? With STRaND-1 we’re using the smartphone to test if what has made such a difference to our lives on Earth can also make a difference to what we do in space. Many of the current phone technologies are much more advanced than traditional space technologies and if we can adapt even some of them for space use then the result could be a big step in the performance of our satellites. Also, STRaND-1 has evolved and is now much more than just a smartphone in space as we’ve packed the mission with other new technologies and asked the team to deliberately take a very non-standard approach to the design and build of the satellite. We’re taking the DARPA approach in that we’re encouraging the team to do something new and not be afraid of failure. Consequently we’ve already learned loads of new lessons and we haven’t even launched yet!”

STRaND-1 stacked but missing the outer skin, solar panels and antenna.  You can see the phone camera peeking out of the "porthole" at the top of the stack

Whilst STRaND-1 uses commercial off the shelf technology for a low-cost, rapid build, which is typical of the SSTL approach, it is markedly different from SSTL’s commercial missions in many respects. For starters, STRaND-1 is a self-funded “proof-of-concept” mission, with no customer, and is flying a raft of potentially game-changing technologies in space for the first time. Demonstration missions like STRaND-1 are important for scientific development and to “leap-frog” new technologies in space - after all, progress is hard to achieve without looking ahead at the next big (or in this case, small) thing!

Surrey was a hub of space innovation long before STRaND-1 and both SSTL and the SSC have been working together for more than twenty five years, taking advanced space research engineering through to design and build of real space missions. The SSC/SSTL team launched SNAP-1, the UK’s first nanosatellite in 2000 and now working together again on STRaND-1 they will be launching the UK’s first ‘cubesat’.

When SSTL engineers approached SSC with the idea of flying a smartphone it was an instant “Yes, let’s do it” response - both parties could see huge advantages to the collaboration, and the process of working so closely together on STRaND-1 has been mutually beneficial. And the rest is (soon to be) history!





10 January 20130 Comments1 Comment

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