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!