When I was a teenager, I remember seeing a television-edit version of Aliens. When I think of it now, all that meant was that they’d edited out some of the “worst” swear words and replaced them with ones from further down the sliding scale of rudeness. I was fascinated, though… probably by the combination of these dangerous alien organisms and the marines running round with big guns. I’ve kind of been reliving this at the moment, as I’ve been playing the new Aliens: Colonial Marines game on my Xbox.
Anyway, it was a while after seeing Aliens that I got to see the original Alien movie… the one that started it all off… the one with the tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream”.
Funnily enough, a team from the University of Surrey are testing that with the launch of their new smartphone satellite, STRaND-1.
What’s a smartphone satellite? Well, if you imagine a “normal” satellite – it’s got all manner of complex systems including, most likely, a custom-built computer. The thing is, smartphones are also little computers, and are actually powerful enough to be used in place of the custom-built components. The benefit is that they’re cheaper and more readily available than getting someone to build a satellite from scratch. Additionally, smartphones are designed to allow developers to write apps for them, so it’s not a mammoth task to create the required software for the task at hand. Finally, smartphones are brimming with sensors… cameras, accelerometers, gyroscopes, compasses, microphones… all of which can be put to use in the name of science.
So this particular smartphone will be running an app that plays screams through the phone’s speaker, and then checks whether those screams can be heard by the phone’s microphone. In reality, any sound could have been used, but the satellite’s builders have obviously been influenced by Alien… and that’s no bad thing!
There’s more to this satellite than just testing a movie myth though – it will also test how durable consumer electronics are in space (if this goes well, we could see more smartphone satellites), and will test two new propulsion methods; the WARP drive, which uses a jet of water and alcohol to provide thrust, and a pulsed plasma drive which uses electricity to heat and evaporate a material to produce a jet of ionised gas.
It’s all very clever, and there’s some great science being done here. What I want to know, though, is whether those screams can be heard or not!
You can keep up with the latest about the satellite, STRaND-1, on the official Twitter account at http://twitter.com/SurreyNanosats.
[Source: BBC News]