Palm-sized Japanese satellite flashes a greeting from the sky

The flashing green LEDs of Japan’s FITSAT-1 were photographed as the satellite passed through the constellation Taurus last night. Credit: Tsuyoshi Watanabe

Can we get any more plates spinning?  So far we’ve seen two asteroids fly by Earth, the launch of a North Korean satellite, two meteor showers expected for tomorrow night and now the return of the space station to the evening sky. Flying near the big bird is a tiny new satellite you can watch go blink in the night.

The Japanese satellite called FITSAT-1 and nicknamed Niwaka is a 4-inch (10-cm) cube weighing 3 lbs. It’s the creation of a group of scientists at Fukuoka Institute of Technology (the FIT in FITSAT) and released from the International Space Station into its own orbit near the station.

Professor Takushi Tanaka holds a model of FITSAT or Niwaka at his laboratory in Fukuoka. The 4-inch cubic satellite, which has LED lights on surfaces, was launched from the space station on October 5, 2012. It transmits an LED message in Morse code across the night sky. Credit: AFP photo / Fukuoka Institute of Technology

The palm-sized cube’s purpose is to test a new transmitter that can send JPG images back to Earth within six seconds as well as investigate optical communications via satellite.

Niwaka’s also outfitted with numerous high-intensity LEDs that will flash the greeting Hi De Nikawa Japan (“Hi this is Nikawa Japan”) in Morse code in 200-watt pulses. Mission planners say the flashes may be visible with the naked eye and definitely with binoculars. Ham radio operators can listen in to Niwaka’s radio beacon which transmits at a frequency of 437.250 MHz.

Observers in the northern hemisphere will see the front of the satellite, which is studded with green LEDs, while southern hemisphere observers will see the “backside” with red LEDs.

Photo taken by FITSAT-1 of the International Space Station (ISS) after it was launched into orbit in October. Credit: Fukuoka Institute of Technology

Since darkness is required for viewing the lights, they won’t flash when the satellite is in sunlight – the way we see the space station – but rather once the sun has set on Niwaka.

Japanese mission control planned to activate the lights over Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and the Virginias early this morning between 1:14 – 1:16 a.m. (EST). So far, I’ve not heard of any sightings.

European/British Isles observers will get their chance for flashes tomorrow Dec. 13 between 10:10 – 10:14 p.m. Greenwich Time. That’s it for now – when the next set of times is announced, I’ll post them here. I’m eager to see this artificial “twinkling star” myself. Maybe I’ll even use my green laser to return the greeting. For maps, times and tracks of FITSAT passes, check out the Visual SAT-Flare Tracker 3D.

Picture of FITSAT-1 along with several other mini-satellites in space against the background of one of the space station’s solar arrays. Credit: Fukuoka Institute of Technology

One satellite you’ll see with ease over the next few weeks is the International Space Station. Times for the Duluth, Minn. region are listed below. To know when to spot it from your town, go to Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page or log in to Heavens Above. The latter site not only gives time and direction to look, but if you click on the time link, you’ll be shown a map of the station’s path through the sky.

Times for the Duluth, Minn. region:

* Tonight Dec. 12 starting at 6:25 p.m. A brief pass in the southwestern sky
* Weds. Dec. 13 at 5:35 p.m. across the south
* Thurs. Dec. 14 at  6:20 p.m. Brilliant pass up from the west and then disappearing in Earth’s shadow when highest in the southern sky
* Fri. Dec. 15 at 5:30 p.m. Brilliant pass high in the southern sky. Fades out at 5:35 p.m. right next to Jupiter low in the northeast.
* Sat. Dec. 16 at 6:16 p.m. Another very bright pass across the north, disappearing into Earth’s shadow just above the North Star
* Sun. Dec. 17 at 5:26 p.m. Wonderful high pass across the top of the sky. Brilliant!

14 thoughts on “Palm-sized Japanese satellite flashes a greeting from the sky

  1. I believe I saw this around 04:55 this morning. I live in Austin Tx. The blinking was a little northeast of overhead. Could this have been the blinking satalite?

    • Hi Steve,
      There’s only a remote possibility. The Japanese report said the lights would only be on for two minutes around midnight (CST) and visible from the East Coast. I suppose it’s possible they switched them on again, but I’ve not heard of it. Other satellites flash in different ways. For instance, spent rocket stages will often tumble and flash (blink) when the sun angle is right.

  2. Hi Bob, I’ll have to use binoculars so as not to confuse the satellite with a high flying jet. I was out last night and happened to see what I thought was a dim satellite but at the same time I thought I could see flashing lights so I just wrote it of as a jet. I did not look at it with my binoculars because I’ve looked at hundreds of jets before. Today I hear this news and think otherwise. Most likely it was not this particular satellite because it was traveling from south to north I thought maybe it was one of the iridium? satellites maybe catching a little sun light. What do you think.

    • Robert,
      If you were able to watch it flash for a while it probably was not an Iridium. It could be a tumbling rocket stage or if it flashed a lot, it might be this cool little satellite called EGP that outfitted with disco-ball like mirrors.

  3. I used to sometimes see space junk falling like fireballs in the early 70′s when I was like 8 years old and used to love watching Skylab go over

  4. Aw, what a little cutie.

    Bob, what’s your opinion on “hearing” meteors? I believe I’ve heard something more than once.
    Do you agree with this assessment from EarthSky?
    “But what about meteors that seem to make a sound at the same time you are seeing them? These meteors would be seen and heard simultaneously. Is this possible? Astronomers now say it is possible. They speak of “electrophonic meteors.” The explanation is that meteors give off very low frequency radio waves, which travel at the speed of light. Even though you can’t directly hear radio waves, these waves can cause physical objects on the Earth’s surface to vibrate. The radio waves cause a sound – which our ears might interpret as the sizzle of a meteor shooting by.”

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