Google Sends The Nexus S On A Mission To Space

Google obviously has some grand ambitions for Android, its mobile OS that is now being activated on 300,000 devices per day and has a forthcoming release called Honeycomb that will take on the iPad. But even that isn’t enough — now Google wants to bring the green robot to an entirely new market: the final frontier.

Alright, so maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself — Google hasn’t stuck a Droid flag on the moon just yet. But it did just use weather balloons to send seven Nexus S devices over 100,000 feet above Earth, each equipped with a variety of sensors to see how the device performs at some very extreme conditions. Google also strapped the phones with some cameras, so we get to watch them rise into the sky (and then full back down).

Google ran different apps on each phone, like Google Maps to plot the phone’s current position on the map (or at least, what they were above) and Sky Map to see if the phones could actually recognize stars while the phones were headed to space.

Here’s how Google describes the rig used to carry the devices:

Well, first the Android platform provides a robust development environment and Nexus S has a great set of embedded sensors, both of which made it easy for us to write the apps we needed for this project. Going forward with other similar projects we have an open environment that we can modify at any level necessary. We then worked with UCSC student Greg Klein to prepare each of the payloads, which were housed in foam coolers. We secured a nylon load line to the cooler and attached to it a radar reflector, a parachute, and finally, a weather balloon. Every payload had an APRS transmitter attached to a GPS that was known to work at high altitudes, as well as batteries for power. The remainder of each payload was different for each balloon: some had digital cameras taking pictures and some had video cameras mounted at various angles (up, down, and at the horizon).

The resulting data is interesting: turns out, the GPS unit works up to 60,000 feet and the phone can function at temperatures as low as -50C. I’m sure this information will come in handy some day.

Some other stats:

Maximum Speed: 139 mph
Maximum Altitude: 107,375 ft (over 20 miles, over 30 km)
Maximum Ascent Rate: 5.44 m/s
Average Flight Duration: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Average Descent Time: 34 minutes

And yes, I know the definition of space is actually 100km above Earth (these phones got to around 33km). But when you can see the curvature of the Earth, you’re still pretty damn high.

It’s worth noting that Google is hardly the first company to send weather balloons into the sky. In fact, a father-and-son team recently did something very similar with an iPhone 4, though weren’t tracking quite as many tests.