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Space Suit to Orbit Earth

On Friday, two astronauts will open a hatch and step out of the International Space Station to do some chores.

If you're watching on television, their first task might look a little alarming. One astronaut might seem to be tossing another crew member overboard. But that figure hurtling into the void is just SuitSat, a Russian space suit that's been stuffed with junk and turned into a radio satellite.

The idea came from a Russian science team led by Sergey Samburov. In fall 2004, Samburov realized that one of the Russian suits on the space station was getting old and would soon have to be retired. To keep trash like this from cluttering up the space station, astronauts normally pack it into a supply capsule that is jettisoned and burns up in the Earth's atmosphere. Samburov and his coworkers wanted this suit to go out in style as a communications satellite.

Frank Bauer, an engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, thought this was a great idea. He works with projects that link ham radio enthusiasts to the space station. "My immediate reaction was two-fold. It was basically 'Boy, this is crazy, but this is cool!' Right off the bat, you could see a lot of the benefits of it."

The main benefit is that kids will love it. The bulky white suit will whiz around the planet, at more than 17,000 miles per hour. It will broadcast cheerful greetings from children in English, French, German, Spanish, Russian and Japanese.

SuitSat will also relay some other messages that the scientists won't reveal, because they are supposed to be a surprise for listeners on the ground.

The satellite is equipped with sensors and will have a synthesized voice that tells listeners how cold it is inside the suit -- and it's going to be cold. SuitSat won't have the life-support system that usually keeps a suit puffed up with warm air.

But Bauer says it won't be floppy because the astronauts have worked hard to make sure that it looks like a human: "They've put a lot of stuff inside it, like trash ... because they want to get rid of that, too."

Even with all that stuffing, SuitSat won't look exactly like a lost astronaut. "People are thinking of the arms flailing around and everything. Well, they're tied, so they're right in front of the suit," says Bauer. "Sort of like you tie a turkey at Thanksgiving, to hold the stuffing in."

Still, the sight of the suit floating away is going to be an arresting image, one that's eerily reminiscent of all those classic scenes from science fiction movies where the astronaut goes hurtling into the black, endless abyss. And it will happen just days after the anniversaries of two shuttle disasters.

Bauer says that he and his colleagues talked about whether the sight was going to be too disturbing for the public. They decided it was worth it: "Isn't it kind of cool to allow us, in a very benign way, to let people see science fiction become science fact?"

Depending on how long the batteries last, SuitSat will broadcast for just a few hours to a week. Then it will go silent and circle the Earth, closer and closer, until it hits the atmosphere and burns up.

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Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.