Stuffed, Orbiting Spacesuit to Communicate with Earth

John Roach
for National Geographic News
February 2, 2006
Tomorrow giddy astronauts on the International Space Station will intentionally jettison one of their older colleagues into Earth orbit.

It's no homicide, though. The "colleague" is a defunct spacesuit retooled to be one of the most unusual satellites ever launched.

The satellite, named SuitSat-1 (also called Radioskaf, or Radio Sputnik, in Russian), is designed to broadcast transmissions to students and amateur radio operators around the world.

"It was the Russians' idea," said Frank Bauer, the SuitSat project engineer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"Our Russian colleagues were interested in utilizing this suit that was going to be expended as a satellite … We really liked the idea."

If the preliminary experiment works—if ham radios pick up SuitSat-1's transmissions—astronauts may routinely use old spacesuits for satellite experiments, Bauer says.

For example, a SuitSat equipped with a video camera and other sensors could relay images and data as it falls into Earth's atmosphere.

The space station always has a stock of expendable Russian Orlan spacesuits onboard, Bauer explains. The suits are used for about two years then retired and replaced with new suits equipped with the latest technology.

SuitSat Launch

The offbeat satellite will be released in the first part of a six-hour spacewalk on Friday. Astronauts William McArthur of the United States and Valery Tokarev of Russia will also conduct repair and inspection work on the station.

Tokarev will push SuitSat-1 away from the space station at about a 30 degree angle upward and 10 degrees to the left of the back of the station.

The SuitSat carries a radio transmitter, three batteries, and internal sensors. It is also stuffed with old clothes and other junk to give it humanlike form, Bauer said.

The radio transmissions include a pre-recorded greeting in English, French, Japanese, Russian, German, and Spanish. Commemorative certificates will be awarded to the students who correctly decipher them.

After a 30 second pause, SuitSat-1 will relay its telemetry: temperature, battery power, and mission elapsed time. The transmission will end with a commemorative slow-scan television image.

Slow-scan television images are a mode of communication used by ham radio operators to send pictures. The images are about the same quality as the ones people send with cellular telephones, Bauer says.

As the satellite passes over a region, SuitSat-1's transmission can be picked up by anybone below with an antenna and a radio receiver equipped to tune to 145.990 MHz FM, according to NASA officials.

The transmissions are expected to last for several days before the batteries die. The suit's orbit will decay over the next six months, and the suit will eventually burn up as it falls into Earth's atmosphere, Bauer says.

Student Involvement

For years Bauer and his colleagues at NASA have collaborated with an international working group called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station to connect schoolchildren and astronauts.

(Get ideas for classroom activities based on satellite data from National Geographic's Eye in the Sky Web site.)

The space station is equipped with a ham radio, and astronauts routinely communicate with school groups when the station passes overhead.

SuitSat-1 continues this tradition: Project organizers solicited involvement of school groups around the world.

The spacesuit will include a CD containing pictures, artwork, poems, and signatures from the students. Another copy of the CD is on the space station.

Students bearing ham radio "handles" can also report hearing messages to the SuitSat Web site and leave messages. Several pre-launch comments from participants hint at the excitement.

For example, KF4MOU writes, "Go SuitSat! I will be listening!"

N7WEJ writes, "Good Luck!!!!!!!!!!!!"

And from qp2trz, "Radios ready at Toronto Transit Commission Communications and Huronia Centennial Elementary School. God Speed!"

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