The Space Station Fires Music-Playing Satellites Into Orbit

You can hold these CubeSats in your palm.


A group of five softball-sized satellites have had quite the journey: After a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted them into space, astronauts on the International Space Station received the tiny instruments, and on July 7 they shot them into Earth’s orbit like cannonballs, whose epic flight is shown in the image below.

These five mini-satellites are cubes, not spheres, and they comprise a fleet of instruments called “BIRDS,” developed by AMSAT-UK, a private organization that designs, builds, and operates “amateur” satellites. Their mission, aided by the International Space Station, is to improve radio communications from satellites to the receiving stations used by regular folks down on Earth, aka “amateurs.”

Each of the five BIRD satellites is identical and built by an international team comprised of five disparate nations — Bangladesh, Nigeria, Mongolia, Ghana, and Japan. As the little cubes zip around Earth, the radio operators will try and pass control of the satellites between different ground stations around the globe, with an added game-like component: If the ground stations can successfully send data to the satellites, Earthlings everywhere will be rewarded with space-made music.

To get the music, global researchers will upload digital music data (MIDI files) to the little cubes as they pass overhead, and the satellites themselves will transform the data into music using a vocal simulator. This processed music will then be emanated down to anyone interested in listening to these cosmic sounds. AMSAT-UK provides directions for tuning in here, and says that all one needs is “a common hand-held receiver and hand-made Yagi antenna positioned to track the satellite at each given pass over the region.”

AMSAT-UK engineers beside their tiny, though powerful, satellite creation.

The International Space Station shoots CubeSats into orbit using a Star Wars-like weapon, the double-barreled JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer, which has no malicious or defensive capabilities; it simply fires little cubes into space, sending them to their appropriate locations in Earth’s orbit.

The first two cube satellites spat into space by the JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer in 2012.


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