Forget waterproof phones: which handsets could survive in space?

Well, Samsung DID call it the Galaxy...


It's an age old question, one which has troubled scholars almost as much as the issue of whether cats can count. But it's a question which we finally aim to answer: can a smartphone survive a trip into orbit?

Firstly, let's get the obvious out of the way: no, a smartphone can't make or receive calls in space, as it's reliant on ground based antennas.

So you can't use it as a phone, but what we want to know is whether a smartphone would still work after being left floating in space or whether that harsh, alien environment would prove too much for a device which in many cases can't survive a little water or a fall off a table.

Nexus One
The Nexus One has been in space, man

Satellite phone

You may be surprised to learn that it's already been put to the test, sort of. Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) launched a Nexus One into space last year as part of a nano-satellite called STRaND-1.

The nano-satellite doesn't just consist of a Nexus One, but the phone has been mounted to one of the satellites panels and sent into space in its entirety. While in space a number of apps have been run from the phone, both to collect data and for fun, and the handset's camera has been used to take pictures.

NASA has a similar ongoing project called PhoneSat, which first involved launching a satellite which used a Nexus One as its onboard computer and then later launching a second satellite which used a Nexus S.

The STRaND-1 tells whether a battery gets too hot or cold

You might think that answers the question but it's a bit more complicated than that as the satellites contained precautions to protect the phones. For example the onboard computer on STRaND-1 would monitor the temperature of the battery and if it started getting too cold it would trigger a processor intensive program to warm it up.

Not to mention the fact that the phones were largely enclosed by the satellites they were a part of, giving them a certain amount of protection. It's a good start but it still doesn't tell us whether a smartphone could survive unassisted.

Hot and cold

Space can get as cold as -270.4 degrees Celsius, while simply being in direct sunlight in high Earth orbit can lead to temperatures of around 120 degrees Celsius. Those are some extreme temperatures and a smartphone could potentially experience both extremes while in space.

Phones just aren't built to withstand that, which is understandable, since short of diving into a volcano followed by a trek across the Arctic to cool off those aren't temperatures that you're likely to encounter on Earth.

iPhone 5S
The iPhone 5S can withstand temperatures as low as -20 degrees Celsius

Though even within comparatively normal temperatures many smartphones don't fare brilliantly. The iPhone 5S for example can, according to Apple, withstand temperatures of between 0 and 35 degrees Celsius when turned on and between -20 and 45 degrees Celsius when off, which is nowhere near the extremes you'd potentially encounter in space.

Some phones are more resilient, but in a temperature resilience test of 15 of the most popular smartphones carried out by TechHive in 2012, all of them had shut down by -35 degrees Celsius.

Cat B15
The Cat B15 is the most resilient phone around

Even a phone designed specifically to be durable and withstand the elements, like the Cat B15, can only be operated at between -20 and 55 degrees Celsius.

Smartphone screens may also malfunction in extreme temperatures, while if it's cold enough there's even a chance the screen could shatter. Gorilla Glass has made our screens stronger but they're still not immune to the elements.

The biggest barrier for your phone to survive space? The battery

The bigger problem though is a phone's battery. If it gets too hot it will degrade faster and at extreme temperatures like those found in space the electrolyte in the battery could even ignite, while cold temperatures can cause the battery to drain rapidly.

So whether hot or cold, both coniditions can potentially cause a phone to shut down or break altogether.

Random radiation events

But it's not as simple as the phone just being hot or cold, as rather than being at a fixed orientation it's likely to be tumbling, exposing each side both to the heat of the sun and the cold reaches of space, in which case it may actually fare rather better, as it wouldn't have time to reach either temperature extreme.

As Dr Malcolm Macdonald, Associate Director of the Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory at the University of Strathclyde explained: "The temperature of the phone would depend on a range of factors including its construction (emissivity and absorption) and whether it was turned on.

"I think we can assume the phone is slightly more emissive than absorptive and if you assumed the phone is tumbling, rather than in a fixed orientation with respect to the Sun, then I'd expect the temperature to be close to the lower ends of any quoted operational temperature range, but probably above the survival limit so it would probably work once it had warmed up again.

"The battery would be the primary concern as this will likely get too cold, certainly for 'optimal' performance and may even cause a leak or burst but it might work once the phone had warmed up.

"If the phone is operating then that might be enough to keep everything warm enough. But then of course you have the increased chance of failure from random radiation events."

Risk of rays

Speaking of radiation events, cosmic rays can wreak havoc on electronic integrated circuits by altering the states of the elements in them.

This can lead to errors, corrupted data and incorrect performance of CPU's. Cosmic rays can occasionally cause problems for electronics on Earth, but out in space they're a very real threat, so a phone would ideally need shielding from them if turned on.

Of course a simple solution is just to turn the phone off. Macdonald explained that "leaving electronics turned off makes them 'harder' against the space environment, i.e. single event upsets, bit-flips, latch-up, etc.

"Failure rates are as much as 80% reduced to when they are turned on, so the electronics is more likely to work if it is switched off, but it will be subject to lower temperatures as the on-board power consumption will, in-effect, provide an on-board heater."

Assisted living

So could a phone survive in space? Sure, but it might need some help. Inside the International Space Station or a shuttle where it's not subject to the harshness of space it would have no problem and indeed astronauts have been known to take phones with them.

A smartphone can even fare pretty well as part of a satellite if STRaND-1 and PhoneSat are anything to go by.

But without certain protections and precautions it would be subject to a lot of hazards and leaving it turned off would probably give it its best chance overall.

Still, while you're never likely to find astronauts using smartphones to take photos of a quick game of space cricket they may have a real future as the brains of satellites.

In space no once can hear you call - unless you use the PhoneSat

The STRaND-1 and PhoneSat tests were in large part carried out to see if smartphones could function in that capacity, because in many cases they have faster CPU's and more memory than conventional satellites, yet because they're mass produced they're also a lot cheaper than a typical satellite computer, making them an appealing alternative.

If projects like this continue then smartphones may soon be giving us an eye on the solar system and beyond, but even in their current, fragile form, smartphones could potentially fare far better in space than you might imagine.

The temperatures and radiation would likely stop the phone from working properly while actually in space, but if the phone was then retrieved and returned to a normal temperature back on Earth or in a shuttle it might still work - although sending up a rocket to just reclaim the HTC One you forgot probably isn't worth the cost.