A de-commissioned Russian space suit was transformed into a satellite in early February after a team of engineers and radio enthusiasts packed it with electronics, and then prevailed on members of the International Space Station (ISS) to deploy it into space.
The suit, released from an ISS hatch on Feb. 3, floated freely about 250 miles above the earth for nearly a week, broadcasting messages that were tracked by amateur radio operators. Ham radio operators around the world reportedly heard the suit's audio messages, which were primarily intended for school children. Radio enthusiasts joined NASA in tracking the unusual "satellite," and several websites offered updates on the suit's position as it circled the earth, transmitting signals at 145.990 MHz.
"You could use a police scanner to pick up its signals," notes Steven Bible, principal applications engineer for Microchip Technologies and a contributor to SuitSat's electronics design. "We outfitted SuitSat with very simple equipment to allow it to work with a typical ham radio."
The floating space suit incorporated three shoebox-sized 28V-batteries, a radio transmitter and internal sensors to measure temperature and battery voltage. An 8-bit PIC microcontroller from Microchip Technologies played the voices of children in six different languages, which were stored as adaptive pulse-code modulated files in an associated EEPROM. The system ran through an identification message and a greeting message, then paused for 30 seconds before playing the same message in another language. Messages could be heard in English, German, Japanese, Spanish, Russian and French Canadian. The system was also programmed to deliver telemetry data, such as temperature and battery voltage, in its message.
As of Monday afternoon on Feb. 6, messages on http://www.suitsat.org indicated that signals from the space suit were weak. Messages were, however, still being picked up by a few ham radio operators. Eventually, the suit dropped from its earth orbit, re-entered the atmosphere and burned up.
Volunteers from an international working group known as Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) sponsored the "space suit satellite" project. To create the first-of-a-kind satellite, the group packed a radio box and control box in the torso of a de-commissioned Russian Orlan space suit, then anchored a switch box to the suit's helmet, and connected the electronic hardware with co-axial cable that ran up one of the suit's arms. Builders of the system say the suit incorporated enough on-board power to continue transmitting for about six days.
"This was really exciting for kids," Bible says. "They didn't need any specialized equipment whatsoever to hear these transmissions from space."