Contacting the ham radio operator astronaut(s) on board the International Space Station may be much easier than you think. At least, after you have done it and know what you know, it seems easy. In reality, it’s not all that difficult. Here are some resources and procedures that will help you. My first contact with them was on 10/11/2010. Was it worth the effort… well… YEAH!!!
- A 2 meter ham radio. Nothing fancy required. Power is good (I used 50 watts) but you can do the job with a HT (hand held radio) and 5 watts and the right antenna. One thing that IS required is the ability to transmit on one frequency and listen on another. Sound like basic repeater functionality? Yeah – but the distance between the receive and transmit frequencies is much greater than on standard repeaters. Read further for details on frequencies. No tones are needed for the International Space Station (ISS). Tones are required for other amateur radio satellites.
- A 2 meter ham radio antenna. Need a huge array and fancy rotator? No sir! What I used was a magnet mount base, PL-259 to NMO mount converter and an NMO dual band 5/8 wave antenna. Total cost – less than $100. The mount was as much as the antenna. Why? So that I could mount various antennas on one mount. Selection of a less expensive magnet mount single band 2 meter antenna would be just fine! Figure $50 brand new with freight – or get one at a hamfest or borrow one.
- An antenna mount. Need a massive tower and ground radial system? No sir! I used a 4 drawer file cabinet in my home office… Total clearance from antenna tip to ceiling? Less than ½ of an inch… The house is also sided with aluminum siding…
- CRITICAL in my estimation is the ability to track, or predict, when the International Space Station (ISS) will fly over, what direction it will come from and go to, and what height (angle) it will be in the sky. There is no one BEST method. Your choice will depend on your budget, resources, etc.. I had a PC and internet connection and I downloaded the FREE “Ham Radio Deluxe” program that includes a satellite tracking program. Get your Ham Radio Deluxe software FREE and get to know it. Use the software to alert you, even via digital voice, when to make your attempt. There are web based alternatives – do a Google search for “satellite predictions” and “satellite tracking” for many more alternatives.
- Know the correct frequencies. Visit www.AMSAT.org to find the information on various satellites and how to work them. For specifics on the International Space Station (ISS) go to their section at www.HamSat.org .
- Set-up your radio. Remember that for the International Space Station (ISS) use NO TONE. This is probably NOT the default setting on your radio if you work repeaters. Read you radio manual to determine how to do split frequency operations. You may be able to set one frequency in your “A” VFO and one in your “B” VFO and switch between them after transmitting. My radio could do this. It also could set them up as a repeater (remember to adjust the offset…) or it would allow me to set them up as a Split Memory pair of frequencies. Two radios also would work – a HT to listen and another radio to transmit.
- Learn to say your call sign in proper, standard phonetics. Remember that you are talking to trained professionals. They will NOT appreciate and may not even understand any “cutesy” personalized phonetics. Also learn to transmit your CITY quickly after your call sign. The city will help others know that the astronaut wants YOU to tell them the rest of your call sign in case they miss part of it.
- Lastly, do have some patience. They may be busy. You may be busy. Remember that ham radio on the International Space Station is generally done in their spare time. Good luck busting your first space pile-up!