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Amateurs recover SuitSat's signal

Undaunted by a weaker-than-expected signal, thousands of amateur hams tune in to hear the SuitSat satellite.
Lara Crigger
February 17, 2006
On February 3, Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) launched one of the strangest satellites in history: an empty spacesuit named SuitSat stuffed with ham radio equipment. Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned.

The untethered SuitSat was supposed to orbit Earth and transmit a signal to amateur radio enthusiasts (or "hams"). Students, teachers, and hams could listen to the spacesuit as it broadcasted, "This is SuitSat-1, RS0RS," as well as telemetry statistics, a SlowScan TV image, and greetings in five languages.
Astronaut in space`
SuitSat is an old Russian Orlan spacesuit, much like the one astronaut Mike Finke wears in this picture from 2004.
NASA
Hours after launch, however, SuitSat remained mysteriously silent. Eventually, listeners detected a signal, but it was much weaker than expected.

"Something just didn't go quite right," says Lou McFadin, hardware manager for Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) and member of the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT). McFadin suggests a fractured antenna is the most likely culprit for the weak signal. A piece of unconnected material orbits close to SuitSat, he notes, which could be the missing antenna piece.

The feeble signal seemed to be the end of SuitSat. News networks reported the satellite dead and the mission a bust.

But that's when the hams stepped in.

By the thousands, amateur radio operators around the world worked together to hunt the weak signal. They cleaned out their antennae, checked their cable connections, and scrambled to improve their systems, just to hear the elusive transmission.

In a unique blend of amateur radio and the Internet, hams recorded any and all received SuitSat signals on a web site. The combined logs allowed hams to track the suit's orbit and piece together the faint message.

"It's been a huge challenge," says McFadin. "But that's the beauty of it. If it had been easy to hear, it wouldn't have been much fun!"

Despite the reception difficulties, mission operators regard SuitSat as a success. "It's amazing to see how many thousands of people have gotten interested," says McFadin. "It's really spurred the public interest in space."

SuitSat has since run out of battery power and stopped transmitting, but NASA estimates the spacesuit will continue its silent Earth orbit for 6 weeks. After that time, SuitSat will reenter Earth's atmosphere, igniting as it plummets to the surface below.

Readers can still track SuitSat through NASA's J-Pass utility, which tracks ISS.

SuitSat follows the same orbit as the space station but appears in the sky 4 minutes earlier.
Lara Crigger is a science and technology writer based out of Rochester, New York.
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