Ken Oyadomari’s work space at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., looks like a triage tent for smartphones. Parts from dozens of disassembled devices are strewn on workbenches. A small team of young engineers picks through the electronic carnage, carefully extracting playing card-size motherboards—the microprocessing heart of most computers—that will be repurposed as the brains of spacecraft no bigger than a softball. Satellites usually cost millions of dollars to build and launch. The price of Oyadomari’s nanosats, as they’ve become known, is around $15,000 and dropping. He expects them to be affordable for high school science classes, individual hobbyists, or anyone who wants to perform science experiments in space.
A big reason nanosats are so small and cheap: They run on Google’s Android operating system, familiar to anyone who’s shopped for a smartphone or tablet. It’s the No. 1 mobile OS by a wide margin; Android handsets outsell Apple’s iPhones globally by about 4 to 1. Impressive as those numbers are, they actually understate Android’s prevalence, because increasingly it’s the operating system behind just about anything with a computer chip. Along with Oyadomari’s nanosats, three of which recently went into orbit, Android runs espresso makers, video game consoles, refrigerators, rifles that post video to Facebook, and robotic harvesters for farms.