The Space Suit Heard 'Round the World
Although it was "quieter" than anticipated, SuitSat-1's voice was heard around the world -- in more ways than one!
Image to left: SuitSat-1 used a Russian Orlan space suit like the one pictured here. Credit: NASA
On Feb. 3, 2006, the crew of the International Space Station placed a very unusual satellite in orbit. SuitSat-1 was a Russian Orlan space suit that had reached the end of its lifespan and could no longer be worn. The ISS crew placed a transmitter in the suit, and then pushed it into space.
Immediately after ISS Expedition 12 crewmembers Bill McArthur and Valery Tokarev released SuitSat-1 into orbit, there were premature reports of the satellite's "death." However, soon after, reports began coming in that amateur radio operators were hearing transmissions from SuitSat.
During the two weeks after its release, SuitSat-1 broadcast multilingual voice recordings, contributed by students around the world, as well as live telemetry information about the suit's status. The suit transmitted on amateur radio (also known as "ham radio") frequencies, which are above the FM broadcast band. The transmission also included an "SSTV" image that could be received through the signal via Slow Scan Television.
Rather than being "dead," SuitSat-1 was alive and operating flawlessly, except for a signal strength that was weaker than anticipated. SuitSat operated for two weeks after its launch, outlasting initial estimates that it might transmit for four to nine days.
"Despite its much-lower-than-expected signal strength, SuitSat-1 was heard by ham radio operators and school students around the world," said Frank Bauer, the international chairman for Amateur Radio on the International Space Station group, which sponsored SuitSat-1. ARISS is an organization of volunteers from national amateur radio societies around the world and the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation.
SuitSat's low signal strength required antennas with some gain, or signal gathering ability. The broadcasts were audible on handheld receivers with adequate antennas.
"One great positive that came from these issues is that it challenged the ham radio community, worldwide, to improve their station-receive capabilities so that they could pull every bit of signal from SuitSat," Bauer said.
Image to left: A control panel on the outside of the space suit allowed the crew to activate SuitSat-1. Credit: NASA
The ham radio community definitely rose to the challenge. They succeeded in receiving the signal despite the problems, sharing reports of their experiences tracking the satellite and even making it possible for others to hear SuitSat-1's transmissions. Through their efforts, those who could not listen to the broadcast through ham radio were able to do so online. "Virtual reception" of the student messages, the SSTV image and the telemetry was made possible through SuitSat Web sites and blogs that stored MP3 files from key ham radio stations around the world.
A ham radio operator in Canada, Bob King, was the last person to receive a voice signal from SuitSat-1. He heard the message early on Saturday, Feb. 18, almost exactly two weeks after the satellite's release. When SuitSat-1 was launched from the space station, the crew placed it in a trajectory that would cause it to de-orbit, re-enter Earth's atmosphere and burn up within months.
In addition to the voice recordings, SuitSat-1 also carried a disc containing over 300 items submitted by schools (including several NASA Explorer Schools) and other educational organizations around the world. These contributions included such things as creative artwork, student signatures, class and group pictures, and logos of schools or scout troops.
Image to right: Students from all over the world contributed materials for SuitSat-1. Credit: NASA
The ARISS team now plans to use the SuitSat data collected by the amateur radio community to create classroom materials for teachers. "One great idea is to use the audio with the spin fades as well as the EVA release video to let students determine whether the spin rate slows down, speeds up or remains the same during the mission -- a simple physics experiment using ham radio," Bauer said. "We have many other lesson plan ideas, too."
Bauer said that the ARISS team was pleased with the accomplishments of the SuitSat-1 project, from capturing the imagination of students to proving the viability of a self-contained amateur radio satellite. "While the transmission part of the SuitSat experiment was not stellar," he said, "SuitSat-1 has been tremendously successful in several areas."
David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services