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iPhone 4 Experiment Planned for Final Shuttle Mission

The final Space Shuttle mission planned for next month will have a unique twist: the shuttle will carry two Apple iPhone 4s to the ISS for a series of experiments using the SpaceLab app. The app, currently available in the app store, was created by Odyssey Space Research and aims to carry out positioning and other experiments with the phone. Though not mission-critical, and no doubt somewhat aggrandizing, the experiments will help improve SpaceLab and maybe open the possibility for similar functions on handheld devices in space.

Once in orbit, the ISS crew will test SpaceLab’s ability to determine altitude and position. Amazingly, the app can apparently do all of this without a data connection, instead using a sequence of images taken with the iPhone’s camera as a reference and performing the calculations internally. The lack of wireless functionality is partly due to NASA’s concerns about the phone’s electronics interfering with station functions. The ISS crew will also calibrate some of the app’s senors, and the app itself will monitor the effects of radiation on the device by watching for blips on the phone’s memory during orbit.

While tablet and personal computing technology has revolutionized how individuals live and do business, their adoption has been slower in some of the more extreme lines of work. But with pilots replacing flight manuals with iPads and soldiers carrying smart phones into battle, that could be changing. Experiments like this could lay the ground work for the powerful and flexible mobile platforms we take for granted being used in new, innovative ways. Maybe someday, and it’s a big “maybe,” astronauts would carry iPhones with SpaceLab technology as backups to their onboard systems.

The phones will stay on the station for until September, when a Soyuz return mission will bring them back to Earth for analysis. Once analyzed, the information obtained while in orbit will, according to the app’s creators, be shared via the app.

(Odyssey Space Research via Wired)

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