Got a Ham Radio? Call an Astronaut

With new upgrades, you can even videochat as the ISS orbits overhead.

NASA astronaut Mike Fincke uses the amateur radio on board the International Space Station to talk with crew at the Palmer Research Station in Antarctica in 2004.

I hear static, but the voice comes and goes. 

crackle crackle “NAcrackle “NA1…” crackle 

The hair on my arms stands up as I anticipate hearing more of the astronaut’s voice. I picture the International Space Station as it passes overhead. My excitement builds. I raise my handheld radio to my mouth and say the two call signs, “NA1SS, NA1SS from K1STO, Kilo 1 Sierra Tango Oscar, K1STO.” 

NA1SS is the call sign for the U.S.-licensed amateur radio station on board the space station. My call sign is K1STO. 

I wonder if the astronaut will stay on the air for a bit longer, or if he’ll float off to do some work.  If he stays, will he hear my signal? Or will a hundred other amateur radio operators vying for his attention drown it out?

I hear nothing more—this time. You never have long to acquire the station’s signal and talk to one of the astronauts before the signal fades. In just 10 minutes, the space station has traveled from one horizon to the other, and is now out of reach.

My friends are astonished that I can reach an astronaut at all. I tell them how a team of amateur radio operators from around the globe began working, with NASA’s encouragement, back in 1996 to arrange for radios to be placed on the station. The Russian Mir station sported an amateur radio, and sometimes NASA’s space shuttles would get equipment installed prior to certain missions. The team continues to work together today, and the collaboration is a microcosm of how the U.S., Russia, Europe, Canada, and Japan partner together on station activities.

Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, ARISS, primarily focuses on encouraging young people’s interest in science, technology, engineering, and math. Calls are coordinated with schools around the world, where an assembly hall of hundreds of students might listen to a radio (usually provided by local amateur radio operators) for a few brief minutes to reach into space and ask the astronaut crews about living and working on board.

ARISS team members – all volunteers – come from groups that are part of the International Amateur Radio Union or other similar organizations. In the U.S., that typically means the American Radio Relay League or the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation. We are engineers, educators, retired NASA types, and DIYers, and one of us is even the great-grandson of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, father of Russian rocketry. We’re happy when the astronauts flying overhead want to talk to adults too. 

My pilot buddies understand my fierce love of ARISS, probably because a big percentage of pilots have an amateur radio license. Many amateurs have used their radios to talk to a pilot in the air, sometimes even on commercial airlines. I’ve been on the other end of the experience, when amateur radio operators have caught me in flight. Neither of us forgets the details of those contacts: the type of airplane; the radio frequency; the pilot’s location.

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins tested the space station's new ham TV by setting up videochats with three ground stations in Italy. Video: ESA.

Naturally, we’re enthralled with the opportunity to snag an astronaut. Think of it: An astronaut orbits over your house, and you reach out, but you’re unsure you’ll make the connection. The possibilities, the uncertainty—it’s an adventure!

One of my favorite stories is about a farmer, Troy Fehring, who tracked when the space shuttle would be over his farm in Oklahoma. Finally one day, in November 1993, Fehring took a break while baling hay in his field and turned on his radio, which he kept in his tractor, to listen. Figuring he’d have no chance, he called out anyway, and to his surprise, the astronaut responded! The farmer hadn’t brought a pen, so he pulled out a big screwdriver and scratched the time, date, and signal report on his toolbox for posterity.

It helps that most astronauts want to get their amateur radio license after hearing from NASA how ARISS excites kids about science. The equipment that most radio amateurs use can access the 144-MHz frequency band, where the station’s radio transmits. But using this band means the station needs to be in the ground operator’s line of sight, thus the horizon-to-horizon time limit. Of course, it’s the luck of the draw as to whether crewmembers will be listening to the radio for calls at all; crews make time to chat mostly on weekends.

Many components of the station’s radios, including the antennas, cables, and power supplies, were designed, built, and tested by the ARISS team. In fact, the station actually has two ham radios. The Russian call sign, RS0ISS, is used for the radio near the dinner table in the Service Module, and NA1SS transmissions come from the radio in Columbus. Crewmembers can use either station. 

Recently, the space station got a nice expansion to their radio equipment. ARISS’ European team members, in partnership with ESA and Kayser Italia, an aerospace engineering company, successfully designed, tested, and deployed video equipment on the radio in the Columbus module. That’s right: Ham TV. ARISS hopes amateurs, particularly those mentoring students, will now tune in to watch the crew for about half of the 10-minute conversation – or, with linked stations provided by ESA, up to 20 minutes. The video signal is only one way, like a regular TV signal, so the astronauts can only hear who they’re talking to.

For non-school radio contacts, the length of conversations during the 10-minute window depends on the crew.  Some exchange just names, locations, signal reports, and genial greetings, often ending with the ground-based caller offering sincere thanks for taking time from a busy schedule. But some astronauts orbiting over high-population areas during the wee hours will take advantage of the short time by talking about research that’s recently awed them, or, “Hey, how ‘bout them Red Sox?!”      

IR0ISS, an Italian call sign licensed for the station, has gotten quite a bit of recent use. Last August, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano wrote that there were times when he felt isolated because he could not see the planet in a particular phase of the station’s orbit. He thought perhaps the radio would help reconnect him to the people below, so one day he switched it on. 

Then suddenly, a voice surfaced above the other sounds…. I was taken aback by the emotion that rose in me as I tried to reply to a call, using the Italian call sign IR0ISS. But my excitement was nothing compared to the sheer astonishment and disbelief I heard in that voice, thousands of kilometres away. Speaking English with a beautiful Portuguese accent, the radio operator on the other side of the signal managed to say a few words – ‘I don’t know what to say. This is a dream come true for me!’ – before our conversation was interrupted and buried by swarms of other calls.

Parmitano imagined that these radio operators all over the world “became members of one family, scattered over thousands of islands and in contact with each other through nothing but these ‘messages in a bottle,’ sent out with no certainty at all but with the faint hope that somebody somewhere would pick them up.

“They wrapped me in a warm blanket of friendship and gratitude,” he wrote, as the station orbited out of the earshot of some callers and into range of others. For astronauts, ARISS provides opportunity to share their unique experiences with those of us on the ground who are patient enough to wait and listen.

Rosalie White, K1STO, represents the American Radio Relay League as the ARISS-US Delegate, and volunteers as ARISS-International Secretary.  Frank Bauer, KA3HDO, ARISS-International Chair assisted with this story.

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