An unmanned Japanese cargo vessel headed for the International Space Station (ISS) this week is carrying some unusual cargo. In addition to regular supplies, the vehicle contains some tiny, cube-shaped satellites that, when deployed, will write Morse code messages visible in the night sky.
One of the mini satellites, known as cubesats, has the job of helping researchers test optical communication techniques in satellites. The cubesat will use LEDs to first twinkle like an artificial star and eventually blink in Morse Code.
The cubesat is known as FITSAT-1 and was developed by Japan's Fukuoka Institute of Technology (FIT). It weighs just under three pounds and carries high output, 200 watt LEDs that will turn the cube into a flashing Morse code beacon.
Project leader Takushi Tanaka, an FIT professor of computer science and engineering discusses one of the most exciting elements of the project on the FITSAT-1 website:
"These [Morse code flashes], we hope, will be observable by the unaided eye or with small binoculars," Tanaka says.
It is expected the FITSAT-1 will be deployed from the ISS on September 6, by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, using the Kibo module's robotic arm. Once in orbit the FITSAT-1 will travel between 51.6 degrees south latitude and 51.6 degrees north latitude, according to researchers.
The orbit and orientation is important to the success of the project. The tiny satellite contains a neodymium magnet that will always point it to magnetic north. This way, when the satellite rises above the horizon it will be to the south of the FIT ground station.
The flashing lights and Morse code signals from the FITSAT-1 will be received by the FIT ground station telescope and photo-multiplier device linked to an antenna. The ground gear and the satellite's LEDs will be aligned so the ground will receive the main beams.
The FITSAT-1 project will conduct high-speed and optical communication experiments for three minutes as the satellite moves through orbit, to prove the viability of optical communication with satellites.
Tanaka's website has additional detailed information on the construction of the FITSAT-1, communication frequencies and what it will be transmitting during the testing.
Seeing the little satellite in action firsthand might be challenging, but even if we only get to see the sky's newest inhabitant work via video from Tanaka's lab, it's cool to know we can wish upon a whole new star!