ISS astronaut answers questions from SA learners

May 26th, 2015, Published in Articles: EngineerIT


It was a day they will long remember!  Learners from the Sol Plaatje primary school in Mmbatho linked up with the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti  on the International Space Station (ISS) via a link established  by an radio amateur ground station on Saturday 2 May 2015.

Hans van de Groenendaal, ZS6AKV, president of SA AMSAT; Ebernitha Esterhuizen talking to Captain Samantha Cristoforetti on the ISS with Oratile Selatlhedi listening intently, awaiting his turn to speak with the ISS.

Hans van de Groenendaal, ZS6AKV, president of SA AMSAT; Ebernitha Esterhuizen talking to Captain Samantha Cristoforetti on the ISS with Oratile Selatlhedi listening intently, awaiting his turn to speak with the ISS.

Commander Cristoforetti is spending almost six months on the ISS. She arrived in November 2014 as part of Expeditions 42 and 43 in a mission provided by Italy’s ASI space agency. Her main tasks are to run scientific experiments that cannot be performed on Earth and to maintain the microgravity laboratory that will be her home in space. She was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on 23 November with Roscosmos cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and NASA astronaut Terry Virts.

The Italian Embassy approached amateur radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) to arrange an opportunity for a South African school to participate in the ARISS School Contacts activity. ARISS is a group of volunteers devoted to creating the experience for learners worldwide to talk directly to crew members on the ISS, inspiring an interest in science and technology, encouraging them to pursue careers in these fields, including engineering and mathematics, and engaging them with radio science technology through amateur radio.

While negotiating to secure a slot for a South African school, the Embassy approached the The South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) to assist with identifying a school for this project.  The fact that Sol Plaatje Primary School team beat 1101 other schools to win SAASTA’s National AstroQuiz in 2014, secured them this exciting opportunity. A group of about 30 learners will join the winning AstroQuiz team. – Ebenitha Esterhuizen, Kgotlholela Seagisa, Oratile Selatlhedi and Orefile Morule (who have all now moved on to Grade 8 in high school) – with their educator Micalla Lucas to talk to Captain Cristoforetti.

The original plan was for the learners to talk with Captain Cristoforetti during a morning pass but due to work pressure on the ISS the contact was moved to a late afternoon pass which resulted in the link to be shared with an Italian school.

The link to the ISS was established via a tele-bridge in the USA which connected the school in rural South Africa with an amateur radio ground station located in Casale Monferrato, in the north of Italy, operated by Claudio Arrotti IK1SLD.

Tensions were running high when it was established that the telephone line extended to the hall could not receive incoming calls. “We frantically arranged with the tele-bridge in the USA that we would be calling them,” said Hans van de Groenendaal, president of  Southern Africa Amateur Radio Satellite Association (SA AMSAT) which was approached by the Italian Embassy to take care of the technical aspects of the connection and to facilitate the learners during the talk with the ISS.

Prior to the ISS contact,  Koos Fick ZR6KF, a learner at Helpmekaar High school and the South African Radio League (SARL)’s youth activity coordinator,  made a brief presentation on amateur radio and how it is helping him in his school career and how this scientific hobby provides communication during emergencies, community and sporting events.  He said that the link up with the ISS would not have been possible without amateur radio.

As the last few seconds ticked by the learners were poised to ask their questions and with the audience were visibly on tenterhooks , but when the first words “Hi, I am Samatha Cristoforetti” were heard across the speakers, there was  spontaneous applause followed by an ten minutes of silence as Sol Plaatje learners and Italian learners  alternately asked the questions. It was an event to remember for a lifetime.

“We believe that amateur radio can play a greater role in schools by starting amateur radio clubs and setting up amateur radio stations to enable learners to communication with their peers in other schools, not just in South Africa but worldwide,” said Hans van de Groenendaal.  SA AMSAT is currently building a CubeSat, a very small satellite and is inviting schools to participate in making proposals for a small science project to be incorporated in the CubeSat, developed and built by learners. A few physically small projects can be asccommodated and schools are invited to make proposals for consideration. They can contact SAAMSAT from their website at where there is also an audio link. Click here  to listen to the ten minutes of contact with the ISS.

The science collaboration between Italy and South Africa was strengthened by the 2014 signature of a three-year Bilateral Programme of Cooperation between the two countries.  The science communities will work together in fields including information and communication technology, radio astronomy, advanced materials, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

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