A volunteer team of engineers at Microchip Technology in Chandler is already planning work on a second spacesuit satellite that they hope will be launched next year. Two weeks after being released from the international space station, the world’s first orbiting spacesuit satellite — called SuitSat-1 — continues to transmit signals and offer new surprises for the Microchip engineers who built some of the makeshift satellite’s electronics.
The most unpleasant surprise has been that the signals have been far weaker than anticipated. The result is that ham radio operators on earth have to be equipped with very good antennas and radios to hear the signals — the recorded voices of students from around the world as well as telemetry information — which often comes through with heavy static.
But Steven Bible, principal applications engineer for Microchip and the leader of the team, said that doesn’t seem to have diminished interest in SuitSat-1.
“It’s challenged people,” he said. “For those who couldn’t hear it, they have either pulled out old equipment they haven’t used in years or they have gone out and bought something new. They have found creative ways to listen to it.”
The reason for the weak signal is unknown. Suspicion has fallen on SuitSat’s transmitter, feed line, antenna or a combination thereof. More telemetry data and experiments with similar equipment on the ground will be needed to narrow down the source of the problem, Bible said.
None of the suspect equipment was made at Microchip.
Their contribution was the controller and switch boxes.
They also integrated the transmitter box, which was produced in Florida, into two flight units that were delivered to NASA in Houston.
From there the electronic gear was delivered to Russia and then to the astronauts on the space station, who installed it on a used Russian space suit that served as the satellite platform.
The completed package, minus any human inside, was released by the astronauts during a space walk on Feb. 3.
Although the signal was weak, there have been some happy surprises — the signal, originally expected to last only two to four days, has continued far longer than planned. Also the temperature inside the space suit has not risen as rapidly as expected. Another surprise: Tracking data from NORAD — the North American Aerospace Defense Command — indicates that something has broken off from the suit, creating the world’s first SuitSat debris.
“I have no idea what that is,” Bible said. “I find that really curious.”
Planners hope to include a camera on the next SuitSat, which might shed some light on such questions. Bible said the Microchip group is already working on electronics that would support the camera, allowing it to snap pictures and transmit data in sound tones, which would be picked up on the ground and reconstructed as still pictures.
Bible isn’t sure what practical applications all of this will have long term, but in the short term it has generated renewed interest in the space program, he said.
“The novelty of electronics inside a space suit has galvanized people’s attention,” he said, adding that the www.suitsat.org Web site has received more than 5 million visits since the launch.
Radio operators who want to try to pick up the messages can tune in to FM frequency 145.990 MHz. In addition to the SuitSat Web site, more information is available at www.aj3u.com/blog, a Web page set up by a ham radio enthusiast in Maryland that includes recordings of the messages.
But don’t expect crystal clear signals. “It’s a little like putting together a puzzle,” Bible said.