February 4, 2006

Makeshift Shuttle Radio Satellite Falls Silent

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - An innovative project to fly a make-shift radio satellite housed in an old Russian spacesuit came to a premature end on Friday, completing just a couple of orbits before falling silent.

Space station crew members Bill McArthur and Valery Tokarev released the make-shift satellite, dubbed SuitSat, just after floating out of the station's airlock module to begin a six-hour spacewalk. Before they were back inside, however, SuitSat's mission was over.

"It seems to have ceased operating very quickly after its deployment," spacewalk commentator Rob Navias said from NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston.

The international team of ham radio enthusiasts who organized the educational project and built the hardware had expected SuitSat to last at least a few days.

Stuffed in the decommissioned Russian spacesuit were a donated radio, transmitter, electronics boxes, batteries and old clothes to hold the gear in place. Its helmet was adorned with an antenna.

SuitSat was equipped with a series of prerecorded messages and a digital image to transmit from space. However, ham radio operators reported only weak signals before the transmissions stopped altogether a few hours after SuitSat's release.

"Well it does show how many people are interested. Maybe they will do it again," logged a ham radio operator from Columbus, Georgia, on the project's website.

Within a few weeks, SuitSat will be pulled back into Earth's atmosphere and burn up.

After releasing SuitSat into space, McArthur and Tokarev turned their attention to the more mundane, but critical tasks of maintaining a laboratory in space.

Highest on NASA's priority list was to lock down a cable cutter on the station's mobile transporter rail car. The mechanism inadvertently triggered in December and snipped one of two cables used to relay power, data and video signals.

McArthur was to drive a bolt into the guillotine-like device to keep it from inadvertently firing again and severing the backup cable. The device is supposed to trigger only if the cable snags and traps the mobile platform car, a base for the station's construction crane, between work sites.

Despite repeated attempts, McArthur could not install the bolt. Ground control teams decided instead to have McArthur pull the good cable out from the mechanism and attach it to a handrail with wire ties.

"We did the best we could," McArthur told Mission Control. "It is disappointing that it didn't go exactly as we wanted, but that's life in the big city."

The device is scheduled to be replaced by spacewalking astronauts on the next shuttle servicing mission in May.

McArthur and Tokarev also relocated a Russian grapple fixture, completed a photo documentation of the station's exterior and retrieved a science experiment that had been exposing microorganisms to the harsh environment of space.

The men, who are four months into a planned six-month stay in space, returned to the station's airlock about 11:30 p.m. EST (0430 GMT). "That was an adventure," McArthur said.