As far as cellular coverage holes go, there is none bigger than outerspace. And yet, that’s exactly where the iPhone 4 has ventured to. The Atlantis took the Apple smartphone along for the ride when it launched today from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. [UPDATE: And it wasn’t the only phone. See below.]

Why would NASA stash a cellular device on a space shuttle? Well, any smartphone user can tell you it’s not just a phone — it’s a pocket computer, and as such, the crew will be using the device as a sort of pint-sized monitor for mission data. The phone is loaded with an app called SpaceLab for iOS, developed by Odyssey Space Research of Houston, TX. Specially created to make use of the iPhone’s specific features, including gyroscope, accelerometer, cameras and chip, the application allows crew members to capture and track scientific data, and in the future, could even possibly include navigation capabilities, says Odyssey.

Could you imagine? The idea of steering a space shuttle from a phone someday… well that just boggles the mind, no?

For now, though, the goal of the current mission — the Space Shuttle Program’s last — is to deliver supplies and experiments to the international space station. Once the crew and the device reach their destination, the phone will reside in a small research platform inside the station.

If you’re curious about the SpaceLab app, you might be interested in knowing that you don’t have to be an astronaut to check it out. Terrestrial end users like ourselves can take it for a spin, as the software can simulate microgravity.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the handset has left terra firma. Who could forget last year’s epic experiment by a Brooklyn father and son, who hoisted a consumer-grade HD camera and iPhone 4 up 19 miles above Earth using a weather balloon? The camera shot the stunning footage, while the iPhone’s GPS enabled its recovery. Of course, the Atlantis mission will take its tech far beyond that, but since there’s no footage of that yet, why not enjoy a repeat viewing of this homemade mission?

[via NASA]

UPDATE: As some of you rightly pointed out, the Nexus S was also taken aboard the Atlantis. Here’s the press release that went out today via Samsung Mobile and Google:


NASA has equipped a trio of SPHERES with a Nexus S by Google

Smartphone to head to the International Space Station

Kennedy Space Center – July 8, 2011 — Samsung Telecommunications America (Samsung Mobile), a leading mobile phone provider and the No. 1 mobile phone provider in the U.S. 1, and Google™ today announced Nexus™ S, is aboard NASA’s final space shuttle. As a leader in technology and innovation, Samsung is pleased to be a part of this moment which will most certainly be marked in history.

Nexus S from Google is part of research that will equip small, free-flying satellites called Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) used by the astronauts to provide a broader range of capabilities and give better communication between land and sky. Nexus S is the first commercial smartphone certified by NASA to fly on the space shuttle and to be cleared for use on the International Space Station. The experiment will use the smartphone-enhanced SPHERES as remotely operated robots to conduct interior survey and inspections of the station, to capture mobile camera images and video, and to study how robots can support future human exploration.

The addition of Nexus S to the SPHERES will add to the capabilities of each individual satellite while further increasing NASA’s understanding and exploration of space. Lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., DW Wheeler, explains, “By connecting a smartphone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent. With a smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control.”

“Samsung is proud to have the Nexus S chosen to be aboard NASA’s final space shuttle launch, an event that is historical,” said Dale Sohn, president of Samsung Mobile. “The research that is being conducted with SPHERES using the Nexus S will help monitor and communicate from the International Space Station.”

Research Overview

In 1999, a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) undergraduate students, in conjunction with the Department of Defense and NASA, built five volleyball-sized free-flying satellites. These satellites are now referred to as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reporient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) and three of them have been on the International Space Station since 2006. Each SPHERE satellite is self-contained with propulsion, power, navigation and computing equipment. When first designed, the usage possibilities of today were far from conceivable, thus an “expansion port” was built into each of the SPHERES. Additional appendages and sensors can be added to the satellites, allowing wireless power transfer systems and cameras to become parts of the systems. Nexus S is the first commercial smartphone to become a part of the SPHERES via this expansion port.

With the addition of Nexus S, it allows SPHERES a wider range of capabilities on the satellites and improved communication between the land and sky. Mission control can remotely operate Nexus S-enhanced satellites to perform relatively mundane tasks such as running inventory or environmental surveys on the space station. Thus, astronauts will be able to dedicate more time to science experiments and other work rather than having to respond to routine maintenance demands.