The final, much-delayed mission of Space Shuttle Atlantis, which has a 30% chance of lifting off this Friday, will be carrying with it the planet’s first astro-phones — a pair of Apple iPhone 4s, ready for a first-of-its-kind experiment aboard the International Space Station, using a $1 app.
The app, SpaceLab for iOS [iTunes link], uses the iPhone 4′s in-built three-axis gyroscope to replace far more expensive custom-built equipment. It will measure altitude, the curvature of the Earth, and locate itself by looking for recognizable coastline via the iPhone camera. (Astronauts aboard the ISS will be taking the snapshots; no word yet on whether they’ll also be choosing filters and posting them to Instagram.)
The idea is to help future spacecraft that might get knocked out of position, lost in low-Earth orbit. In other words, this may be the beginning of a GPS for space.
But that’s not all. NASA is also interested in discovering how well iPhones can withstand the rigors of space travel, particularly how much radiation they are exposed to. The phones will also be taking snapshots of QR codes to help calibrate their sensors, and because QR codes are impossible to avoid these days, even in orbit.
The one experiment that must be on the mind of every iPhone user — seeing whether you can pick up an AT&T or Verizon signal from space — is not an official part of the ISS experiment. But the iPhones will be hooked up to bulky external batteries, so astronauts won’t need to worry about a weak signal draining their phones or finding somewhere to plug them in.