Make Space your technology partner in work and play – amateur radio will take you there

June 23rd, 2015, Published in Articles: EngineerIT


“Amateur radio – your ticket to space communication”. This appears on the last page just before the index of the first amateur radio satellite handbook authored by Martin Davidoff, K2UBC, (published  by the ARRL in 1985).

OSCAR 1 on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.

OSCAR 1 on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.

He wrote “Amateur radio by its very nature is space communication. Not only do (radio) hams bounce signals off our largest orbiting satellite, the moon, but they also bounce signals off meteor trails and most commonly the ionosphere. Amateur radio is science, a hobby, a sport, a public service and exciting fun.

He further wrote “It’s up to you. The world of active space communication from your home isn’t science fiction or a dream of some imaginative futurist- it is a reality here and now.”

The space age only dawned when Russia launched Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957 – not even a lifetime ago – to be exact 58 years this October. Shortly after midnight the BBC monitoring station near London noted the appearance of a strange “beep beep beep”.  Something about the unfamiliar signal attracted the operator’s attention. Though the average strength was gradually increasing, rapid fading was superimposed. The signal’s frequency drifte d slowly downward, and the direction-finding equipment showed the azimuth of the source to be rapidly changing. Only one conclusion is possible, the signal was coming from an artificial space satellite.

I was just a schoolboy at the time and when I heard the announcement on the news I tuned our radiogram to the 15 m band and waited patiently to hear the signal. Great excitement when I heard it as described by the BBC. My parents at the time were concerned about my mental state, it was just a few beeps so what was all the hype about? But a seed was planted. I kept tuning into the short wave bands, listening for other strange sounds and often tuned in to shortwave broadcasting stations in search of more space stories. During one Sunday morning I came across what sounded like a news bulletin, but it was about amateur radio and after the news many people called in. That morning a second seed was planted and I was firmly on my way to becoming a radio amateur.

Amateur radio did it for me on 12 December 1961 when the first amateur radio satellite was launched, OSCAR 1, (orbiting satellite carrying amateur radio).   The author William I Orr W6SAI summed it up well when he wrote “The spirit of adventure lies buried in every man’s soul. Strike the spark and ignite the soul and the impossible is accomplished”. Well, I didn’t quite launch my own satellite but I was certainly fired up.

Today space is just about everyone’s technology partner. One just has to look at the number of DSTV dishes around; but channel hopping  is not the same as being actively involved and explore the science that makes all of this work.

No TV show can make up for the excitement of watching the international  space station moving across the early night sky while  you are talking to an  astronaut on board who also is a radio amateur.

I remember in the early days of the space shuttle on one of the missions the shuttle carried a seed-growing experiment from a school in the USA. After launch one of the astronauts had to power up the experiment and it was scheduled to happen as the space shuttle came from the north and entered space over Africa. On switch-on a small beacon would transmit telemetry and the school was eager to confirm that the experiment was working. South African radios pointed their antennas skywards. With delays in the launch it appeared that the switch-on would not be over South Africa but over Kenya.  A radio amateur was located in Kenya who had some equipment but had no experience in satellites. A radio network on HF was set up and he was talked through his paces of what to do. All set – but one mistake, he was never told about Doppler shift. At the crucial moment it dawned on us and we told him to tune around the given frequency. We just heard the tail end of the telemetry as the shuttle left space over Kenya and continued its orbit in a south easterly direction missing South Africa. But we did it and were able to confirm to the school that indeed their experiment was working and sending telemetry.

Yearly a large number of CubeSats (satellites measuring 10 x 10 x 10cm) are launched with interesting experiments that can be followed by pointing an antenna skywards and tuning around. Today software defined radio devices on a USB stick can turn a laptop into a powerful VHF and UHF receiver. Receive your own pictures from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s satellite, TshipsioSat. All these satellites operate on amateur radio frequencies and if you are not a licensed amateur yet, you can apply for an amateur radio listener’s licence which makes it all legal.  From time to time the International Space Station transmits slow scan television pictures. So abandon your channel hopping and opt to play in real space. Let amateur radio take you there. You can find an abundance of information on the web. A list of URLs can be found on

Start your journey into space communication; it’s the press of a few buttons away and as Martin Davidoff said, “It’s up to you”.

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