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FITSAT-1 satellite scheduled to write Morse code in the sky


July 28, 2012

If successful, FITSAT-1's Morse code messages will be visible to the naked eye

If successful, FITSAT-1's Morse code messages will be visible to the naked eye

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We like to think of space as the one place where all tech is high and all gadgets are bleeding edge. That may be the case most of the time, but Japan’s Fukuoka Institute of Technology is taking one small step backward for man by sending a satellite into orbit that uses Morse code and bursts of light to send messages back to base. FITSAT-1, which will be launched from the International Space Station (ISS) in September 2012, will use LEDs to flash Morse code messages like an outer-space Aldis lamp that may be bright enough to see by the public with the naked eye.

FITSAT-1 is a cubesat. That is, a cubical satellite 10 cm (4 in) on a side. Since it weighs only 1.33 kg (3 lb), it’s technically a nanosatellite. It’s unofficial nickname is “Niwaka”, which is short for “Hakata Niwaka". Hakata is the old name for Fukuoka, Japan, which is home to the Fukuoka Institute of Technology. Sometime in September, it will be launched from the ISS using one of the station’s manipulator arms as a sort of pea shooter. It will then orbit between 51.6 degrees north latitude and 51.6 south latitude, making it potentially visible to most of Earth’s inhabited areas. To keep the satellite properly aligned, a neodymium magnet is mounted on it so that it points north like a compass needle.

The main purpose of the mission is to test the tiny satellite’s equally tiny high-speed transmitter capable of sending a 480 x 640 jpeg image inside of six seconds. The satellite also contains a 439 MHz beacon transmitting a standard Morse code carrier wave signal as well as telemetry.

But what the general public may notice, even if they've never heard of FITSAT-1, is the plan to use to try to send visible-light Morse messages to Earth. Using high-power LEDs, the FITSAT-1 fires intense bursts of light like an overcranked flashgun. These bursts will spell out Morse code messages aimed at the ground. For the test, the messages will be received by a telescope with a photomultiplier in Fukuoka to determine if visible signals are a viable form of satellite communication. However, mission planners hope the flashes will be visible on Earth to the naked eye or binoculars, so there’s still time to brush up on your Morse.

Meantime, remember that if you’re outside on a clear night this autumn and you see high in the sky a dot dash signal flashing out against the darkness, it’s not an astronaut sending an SOS, it’s FITSAT-1 phoning home.

The animation below shows how FITSAT-1 will be launched from the ISS.

Source: Fukuoka Institute of Technology

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

The flashing Morse code part is kind of pointless, but cool none the less. BTW, you won't be able to see it like the photo above unless you're looking at a time lapse photo.

It reminds me of a "skyline easter egg" we have (had?) in Dallas. The Texas Instruments headquarters building had a tall radio tower which, of course, was required to have a flashing beacon at the top of it. What many people never realized was that instead of just flashing on and off, it flashed "TI" in Morse code. One long flash, followed by two short ones. I don't know if it still does it, but it did when I worked there back in the 80's and 90's.

Jeff King

Well, let's just hope it doesn't transmit any more National Security Leaks for all the world to see. Our Amateur Radio Club tower transmits WX (weather) in morse via the flashing light on top.

Bruce Williams

Reminds me of that very short Monty Python skit, "Shakespeare on an Aldis lamp".

Gregg Eshelman

Another amateur radio satellite OSSI created by Hojun Song launches in December. It also has an LED array to sent messages in Morse Code, so they'll be two of them up there.

OSSI CubeSat http://www.uk.amsat.org/?p=9220

Additional FITSAT-1 info with TV video report at http://www.uk.amsat.org/?p=9249


Hello Heard about how FITSAT was to be deployed from ISS. NHK ( Japan TV ) showed that vid in a report about the ( I think it was called HI- 2b, but could be wrong) resupply mission to the station. Now, to find that "Learn Morse Code" tape I bought 30 years ago...

Mike Neary

This is a typical article, written by someone who neither knows or appreciates the International Morse Code and its usefulness. First, they are NOT dots and dashes. They are dits and dahs as anyone who is proficient would know. Second, the first Morse character shown in the sky is not used, if indeed it is a valid character. I know the International Morse Code has been officially declared obsolete. But, don't tell that to the tens of thousands who use it on a daily basis. Also don't tell that to my doctors. When I was in the hospital, unable to talk and type, I was still able to use a Morse key connected to my laptop to spell words on the screen to tell them how I felt, etc... LONG LIVE MORSE!

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