Floating in Space

In 2006, a figure was hurled out of the ISS and sent tumbling off into space. Here’s the story of SuitSat-1, the spacesuit repurposed as a satellite


“Reduce, re-use, recycle” is the mantra of the sustainability movement, but it rarely applies to space science. Almost every one of the many rockets that are launched every year are single-use — they burn up on reentry.

Add that to the need to create backup components in case crucial parts fail at the last minute, and you end up with a lot of wasted parts that never get used. Among them are one of the most expensive parts of space travel — the space suits. NASA occasionally sells these off in extravagant garage sales.

But when a pair of Orlan spacesuits stowed in the International Space Station were due to be retired to free up storage space, engineers had another idea.

SuitSat was a Russian brainstorm,” said Frank Bauer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Some of our Russian partners in the ISS program, mainly a group led by Sergey Samburov, had an idea: Maybe we can turn old spacesuits into useful satellites.”

NASA

Samburov, the great-grandson of Soviet space science pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, wanted to fill a spacesuit with electronics, mount a radio transmitter on its head, and then shove it out of the airlock to drift in Earth’s orbit.

“We equipped a Russian Orlan spacesuit with three batteries, a radio transmitter, and internal sensors to measure temperature and battery power,” said Bauer. “As SuitSat circled Earth, it could transmit its condition to the ground.”

The objective of the experiment was mostly to see how long such a satellite might last. Without a human inside, the temperature controls of the suit were turned off to save power, and so the suit would float with arms and legs splayed wide, endlessly spinning in the inky blackness of space, exposed to the harsh rays of the Sun without a way of regulating its internal temperature.

“Will the suit overheat? How long will the batteries last? Can we get a clear transmission if the suit tumbles?” asked Bauer. Those were just some of the questions it was hoped that the project would answer.

On 3 February 2006, SuitSat-1 was launched. By then it had acquired a host of nicknames from the astronauts that had grown quite fond of their companion — the Russians called it Ivan Ivanovich, after the mannequin that accompanied space dog Chernuskha into orbit in 1961, but the Americans simply called it Mr Smith.

“Goodbye, Mr Smith!”

With a cheery cry of “Goodbye Mr. Smith!”, the suit was released at 11:02UTC and gently tumbled off into orbit.

The suit was set up to broadcast “This is SuitSat-1, RS0RS,” followed by a prerecorded greeting in English, French, Japanese, Russian, German and Spanish. The greeting contained special keywords that students listening in from the ground could tune in to and decipher, then send in by mail to receive a special certificate.

Then the suit would broadcast its telemetry — temperature, battery power, mission elapsed time — using a voice synthesiser. “The telemetry was stated in plain language—in English,” says Bauer. Finally the transmission ends with a slow scan TV picture that students could also decipher.

“All you needed was an antenna (the bigger the better) and a radio receiver that you can tune to 145.990 MHz FM,” said Bauer. “A police band scanner or a hand-talkie ham radio would have worked just fine.” NASA encouraged schools to team up with local ham radio clubs to help them, and many did — hundreds of reports from around the world were received.

Reports from people who successfully tuned into SuitSat-1

Unfortunately, Mr. Smith didn’t last long in space. After only two orbits, it was announced that SuitSat-1 had ceased broadcasting due to battery failure. A few people subsequently reported hearing a signal — though far weaker than expected, but it was clear that the mission had not been a total success.

The satellite re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere about six months later, at 1600UTC on 7 September 2006. It broke up over the Southern Ocean, about 1,400 kilometres southwest of the southwestern tip of Australia.

A few years later, a plan was hatched to replicate the experiment with SuitSat-2 — but after some discussion, the spacesuit housing was replaced by a box of solar panels before launch. This allowed it to recharge its batteries, but as the ‘suit’ part of the satellite had gone, it was renamed Kedr, or ARISSat-1 — where ARISS refers to Amateur Radio on the International Space Station. That mission successfully launched in August 2011, and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere in January 2012.

To date, there are no further plans to replicate the SuitSat experiment, but the ARISS programme continues, connecting earthlings with astronauts high in the skies above. To find out more, head to the amateur radio ISS Fan Club.


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