Stuffed, Orbiting Spacesuit to Communicate with Earth

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.

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