A spacewalk scheduled today by two astronauts outside the international space station will be of particular interest to a group of engineers at Microchip Technology in Chandler.
That’s because Cmdr. Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev are scheduled to release the world’s first spacesuit satellite into orbit around the Earth. The suit contains electronic components designed and built by four volunteer Microchip technicians in Chandler.
If all goes according to plan, the unusual satellite will broadcast children’s voices in several languages that can be picked up around the world by ham radio receivers and FM very high frequency scanners, such as police-band scanners.
“We’re pinching ourselves,” said Steven Bible, the Microchip engineer who headed the project. “We can’t believe it’s gotten this far. Every step along the way we thought someone would say ‘no.’ But it kept on going. Now the thing is assembled and ready.”
The spacesuit is scheduled to be released by hand at about 3:20 p.m. today Arizona time, and ham operators in the United States will be able to hear the signal and track the spacesuit as it floats through space beginning Saturday morning. Coverage of the spacewalk is scheduled to be broadcast on NASA TV, available in streaming video on the www.nasa.gov beginning at 2:30 p.m. today.
The idea of transforming an empty spacesuit into a functioning satellite came from a Russian member of an international organization called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, Bible said. He proposed that a Russian spacesuit that had come to the end of its certified life span be converted into something useful instead of being thrown away.
Bible became aware of the idea in October 2004 though an American friend who is a member of amateur radio group and wondered if a microcontroller made by Microchip could be used to control the SuitSat-1.
“There was no doubt in my mind we could make it work,” Bible said.
Bible and several of his colleagues went to work on the project, encouraged by Microchip officials who allowed them to pursue the project on company time and contributed electronic parts.
The mission got the green light at a meeting of the amateur radio group, Microchip and NASA officials at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in February 2005.
The Microchip engineers produced switch and controller boxes and integrated a transmitter into a package that could attach to the spacesuit.
Meanwhile, the amateur radio group’s education office approached schools in several countries to produce recorded greetings by children in Spanish, English, German, Japanese and French, which would be broadcast from SuitSat-1.
The recordings were sent by e-mail to Microchip in Chandler, and Bible’s team programmed them into the satellite’s memory.
The completed electronics package was shipped to Houston, and from there it was shipped on to Russia.
The gear was transported to the space station via a Progress 19 rocket launch from central Asia in August.
Once at the space station, the astronauts had to attach the electronics and cabling onto the used spacesuit to turn it into a makeshift satellite — a task they completed in late January.
Once SuitSat-1 is released, its transmissions will be short lived. The batteries that power the suit are expected to last about six days, and the spacesuit will lose altitude and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere in a few weeks. But it is expected to provide valuable information on how used spacesuits might be converted into functioning satellites.
Fanie Duvenhage, product marketing manager for Microchip, said the project hopefully will generate more interest in technology among the public. “It’s a fun project, it’s good visibility for the company, and it’s a good experience for the people at the company,” he said.
“As a technology company, it is good for us to have a presence in international science projects.”
Ham radio operators who want to follow SuitSat-1 can find more information at www.amsat.org.
WHAT: An old Russian spacesuit is scheduled to be released today as the world’s first spacesuit satellite into orbit around the Earth.
WHAT MICROCHIP ADDED: Engineers produced switch and controller boxes and integrated a transmitter into a package that could attach to the spacesuit.
MORE INFORMATION: Coverage of the spacewalk is scheduled to be broadcast on NASA TV, available in streaming video on the www.nasa.gov beginning at 2:30 p.m. today.