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December 23, 2010

Google's Nexus S Smartphone Still Functions at 60,000 Feet

By Beecher Tuttle, TMCnet Contributor

Always one to test the bounds of its technology, Google on Wednesday launched seven mini air balloons into space, each one containing the company's new Nexus S smartphone.

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Google (News - Alert) researchers noted in a company blog post that the experiment was meant to test the capabilities of various sensors that are built into the new handset; or maybe they were just bored.

UCSC student Greg Klein and Google's team of engineers housed seven Nexus S smartphones in generic foam coolers and shot them into space using modified weather balloons. Each payload contained a radar reflector, a parachute and an APRS transmitter attached to a GPS device. All of the handsets were running different applications, including Google Maps to identify where the balloons were located and Google Sky Maps to see if the phones were able to recognize surrounding stars.

The experiment actually collected some pretty interesting data. First off, Google found that the phones didn’t lose functionality until the payloads reached 60,000 feet -- nearly twice as high as the average flight pattern of a commercial plane. The highest altitude that was reached was 107,375 feet, while the maximum speed was around 140 miles-per-hour.

Probably the most impressive aspect of the project is that all seven smartphones began functioning again after dropping below 60,000 feet on their way back down to earth. This is after an average flight time of 2 hours and 40 minutes, much of which was spent in temperatures as low as -50 degrees Celsius. The handsets' GPS, gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer were all operating at full capacity on the ascent and descent.

Zi Wang, Google's lead engineer on the project, also noted that the phones were able to help determine the speed of the jet stream, which was moving at around 130mph at 35,000 feet. All seven phones were recovered at the end of the experiment.


Beecher Tuttle is a TMCnet contributor. He has extensive experience writing and editing for print publications and online news websites. He has specialized in a variety of industries, including health care technology, politics and education. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Tammy Wolf