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.

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