Apple’s iPhone 4 wasn’t the only smartphone to get blasted into outer space with today’s launch of the 135th, final Space Shuttle mission from Kennedy Space Center. Along with two modified iPhone 4s, the mission included another interesting payload: two Nexus S handsets. The astronauts will use both Apple’s and Google’s smartphones for various experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). CNET explains that the Nexus S phones will be attached to a pair of orbs found on ISS. Dubbed Spheres (an acronym for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites), these bowling ball-sized devices (shown above) are normally used to test spacecraft maneuvers, satellite servicing and flight formation:

Normally, the Spheres orbs carry out pre-programmed commands from a computer aboard the ISS, but the Nexus Android phones will give them increased computing power, cameras, and links to ground crew who will pilot them.

This sounds easy, but so-called “zero robotics” is an incredibly complex field, as you could imagine. As a result of replacing the manual Spheres controls with Nexus S handsets, crew members might have more time for other mission critical tasks. It all depends whether the astronauts can rely on consumer electronics like Android-powered smartphones to run reliably and without absolutely any hiccup in zero gravity environment. If everything goes smoothly, the Nexus S orbs will be certified for use later this year. Here’s a little video showing a test of the Spheres experiment.

Robotics, various contraptions and a plethora of external devices are all expected to play a huge role in expanding the Android accessories ecosystem through the Android Open Accessories initiative, announced at Google I/O in May. The initiative relies on Honeycomb 3.1, the latest version of Android for tablets and Android 3.0 for smartphones code-named Ice Cream Sandwich, scheduled for release in the fourth quarter of this year. Both Honeycomb 3.1 and Ice Cream Sandwich contain new connectivity features allowing smartphones and tablets to interface with a wide range of external devices and accessories, from USB sticks and external storage to home automation systems and electric cars.

Android Open Accessories seeks to enable Android devices to talk to and control any device imaginable. The Android operating systems is already widely used in robotics.

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