FITSAT-1 CubeSat Flight over Erie, Pennsylvania - December 12, 2012
stayed up late last night (early this morning, actually) to watch the FITSAT-1
CubeSat satellite flash
its Morse code "HI DE NIWAKA JAPAN" message via super-bright LEDs over eastern North America. It
was scheduled to pass just south of my location in Erie, Pennsylvania, at
1:14 AM, with a lights-on intensity great enough to be easily seen with
is a project conceived of and built by professors and students at the
Fukuoka Institute of Technology (FIT) in Japan. In addition to the
LED visual display, the satellite also carries several Amateur Radio
payloads including a CW beacon on 437.250 MHz, a telemetry beacon on
437.445 MHz and a high-speed data downlink on 5,840.0 MHz.
The CubeSat Project was developed by California Polytechnic State
University and Stanford University's Space Systems Development Lab. It creates launch opportunities for universities previously unable to
access space. A CubeSat is 10 cm on a side and may have a mass of up to
1.33 kg. Launch vehicles sell space to CubeSats for around $40,000,
which makes them very affordable to place in orbit. Kits of parts
available from a number of suppliers range from around $6,000 for
the frame and power supply to about $40,000 for an entire launchable
FITSAT-1 was launched from the International Space
Station (ISS) at 15:44 (UTC) on October 4, 2012. Orbital tracking is provided in real time on the
SAT-Flare 3-D website. The screenshots below were obtained just one
minute before I went outside to look for the satellite. As can be
seen in the sky track map on the right (annotations added by me for
identification), FITSAT-1 would pass directly through one of the
most prominent objects in the winter sky:
Pleiades asterism in the constellation of Taurus (often mistaken
for the Little Dipper). That would make the satellite easy to spot
even for someone not familiar with the night sky. Amazingly, the
path also crossed very close to the brightest star in Andromeda (Alpheratz),
the brightest star in Taurus (Aldebaran), the 2nd brightest star in
Orion (Betelgeuse), and midway between the brightest star in the
entire northern hemisphere (Sirius in Canis Major) and the 7th
brightest (Procyon in Canis Minor). The intensity of the LEDs would
vary between about magnitude 7 (roughly the brightness of the
dimmest of the six main stars in The Pleiades) and magnitude 12
(larger number is less bright).
There is only one thing that
could possibly keep a seasoned sky navigator like me from spotting
FITSAT-1: clouds. Guess what? The sky had been mostly clear along
the flight path up until around 10 PM. Accuweather predicted a
further clearing through the night. By 1:10 AM, the entire sky was
clouded over with only a rare opening. *@(#$*%^@!!!!! I grabbed the
binoculars and frantically looked for a reference point. For a brief
moment I found The Pleiades, but clouds quickly obscured them again.
After all the planning I didn't get even a glimpse of FITSAT-1. When
I got out of bed at 7:15 AM, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, from
horizon to horizon! Life can suck sometimes. Hopefully, the tiny
craft will still be in operation at a later date to give me a second
chance at it.
FITSAT-1 Earth and Sky Track Maps
This video shows the building and launching processes for
Posted December 12, 2012
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