Ham Radios in Space

NASA's Space Amateur Radio Experiment is connecting students and ham radio operators on Earth with astronauts in Earth orbit.
U.S. Astronaut Owen K. Garriott - W5LFL

For most amateur radio operators, it is the thrill of a lifetime to receive a "CQ", or general call, from an astronaut in space. But for some, like former astronaut Dr. Owen K. Garriott, call sign W5LFL, the thrill comes from receiving a response from "hams" down on Earth.

Garriott, who has been an amateur radio operator for over 40 years, was the first astronaut to take a ham radio into space, pioneering the way for an increasingly well developed amateur radio space program.
 
"It was my good fortune to take the first amateur radio into space on STS-9 in November 1983," Garriott said. "In my spare time only, I managed to hold up an antenna to the window and to talk to amateurs on Earth."

This contact was the first communication between astronauts and people on the ground outside of "official" channels, which are usually reserved for presidents and heads of state.

Owen Garriott pioneered the use of ham radio from Earth orbit during his "spare time" on shuttle flight STS-9. Now, the Space Shuttle frequently carries amateur radio equipment into space where astronauts communicate with students on Earth below.
 
Hams, as amateur radio operators are often called, use radio transmitters and receivers to talk to other hams all over the globe, as well as to those in space. There are more than 1.5 million licensed hams worldwide, including more than 400,000 Americans.

Every radio amateur must be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In order to obtain a license, a ham must pass an examination, which includes questions about radio theory, rules and regulations. There are three grades of licenses, each at progressively higher levels of proficiency: Technician, General and Amateur Extra. Any licensed ham can chat with the Shuttle.

Once the examination is passed, the FCC issues the amateur operator's call letters. The first letter indicates nationality. In the United States, the first letters are A, K, N, or W.

Garriott had originally proposed the idea of taking a ham radio into space on his first space mission, Skylab 3, but was unable to due to timing and other complications. Ultimately, though, he persisted and was able to obtain permission to fly a small hand-held transmitter/receiver aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia
 
This is U.S. Astronaut Owen K. Garriott - W5LFL - aboard the U
.S. Space Shuttle Columbia STS-9. He is holding a Motorola two meter FM ham radio.

"When in orbit over land, I could make a CQ, which is a general call, and see who responded," Garriott said. "I used a well-designed, hand-held antenna, known as a 'cavity antenna', which could be velcroed to the window. It was about 24 inches in diameter and looked somewhat like a large aluminum cake pan. The transceiver then connected to the antenna."
  
In addition to the general calls, Garriott had made a few plans to send out a call to specific Earth-bound hams at prearranged times and dates."I had specified particular times and frequencies beforehand," Garriott said. "Among others, I was able to speak with the Amateur Radio Club in my hometown of Enid, Oklahoma, with my mom, with Senator Goldwater, and with King Hussein, who was an avid ham."
 
Since that first voyage into space, NASA has continued to see the usefulness of bringing ham radios into space, and astronauts have been able to speak to hams on earth on dozens of shuttle flights, as well as on the space station MIR. "There has been substantial amateur radio activity in space since I first brought one up," Garriott said. "There is now a program called SAREX that is allowing for more and more activity."
 
The Space Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX) is a long-running program to use amateur radio equipment on board the Space Shuttle to involve students in exchanging questions and answers with astronauts in orbit. Students in hundreds of different classrooms across the country are able to ask the astronauts questions about space flight and the experiments being conducted on the mission. It also allows for communication with amateur radio operators on the ground.
 
SAREX is sponsored jointly by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) and NASA. Students and amateur radio operators can attempt to contact astronauts flying on a SAREX mission through voice, packet (computer) radio, or television, depending on what equipment is flying on the shuttle and on what equipment is available on the ground.

In addition, in 1997, NASA approved plans to include amateur radio equipment as part of the payload of the International Space Station (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station or ARISS). Since astronauts will have more time in space while on the ISS, more opportunities for ham radio contacts will exist. "Shannon Lucid used a ham radio while on MIR," said Garriott. "NASA saw how using an amateur radio would be a good thing for astronauts to do in their spare time on the space station."
 
Onboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, astronaut Linda M. Godwin (right) talks to students (left) via the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX). The payload commander, as well as several other STS-59 crew members spent some off-duty time using the amateur radio equipment to communicate with "hams" and students on Earth.

And certainly hams on the ground are eager for contact with the astronauts. Specially designed shuttle "QSL" cards, which are postcards used by hams to confirm two-way contact or reception of a signal, are among the most prized in a ham's collection -- even to a king.

"(King) Hussein regarded his 1983 contact with Owen Garriott, W5LFL, on board Space Shuttle Columbia, as a high point in his amateur radio career," reported ARRL Executive Vice President David Sumner in a special bulletin following the death of Jordan's King Hussein, JY1. ("JY1" was King Hussein's call sign.)

The Monoband HF Dipole Antenna

If you're looking for an easy antenna for your favorite HF band, you can't go wrong with a half-wavelength dipole! All you need are three insulators (one is used as your center connector) and some wire. Strong, multistranded copper wire will withstand the elements best. The only trick to making a dipole is cutting it to the right length. A dipole antenna is made of two equal lengths of wire with the total length adding up to a half wavelength at the desired frequency.
 
Here are the required dipole lengths for each of the Novice/Technician HF sub bands:

80 meters: 126' 6"
40 meters: 65' 7" 15 meters: 22' 1"
10 meters: 16' 6"
 
For example, if you're making a dipole for the 10-meter band, you'll need two lengths of wire 8' 3" long (8' 3" x 2 16' 6") plus enough extra so the wire can be looped through the insulator and secured tightly. Attach the wires to the insulators and center connector as shown in Fig 1. Attach your coax feed line at the center connector.

Solder the shield braid of the coax to one side of your dipole. Solder the center conductor of the coax to the other side. Be careful not to melt the coax while you're soldering it to the antenna. You can also purchase center connectors that feature built-in SO-239 jacks.
 
With a matching PL-259 plug on your feed line, you can easily disconnect your feed line from your antenna whenever necessary for portable operation, for example. What-ever way you connect the coax to the antenna, be sure to waterproof the connection if it will be outdoors. If water gets inside the cable its loss will increase in a hurry!

 
 
So, what type of coaxial cable should you use? If the distance from your transceiver to your dipole is less than 50 feet or so, RG-58 is fine. For longer runs, I'd strongly recommend a low-loss cable such as RG-8, RG-213 or Belden 8214. If you own an antenna tuner, you can try feeding your dipole with 450-Q ladder line. This type of open-wire feed line exhibits very low loss at HF.
  
Choose your antenna supports: trees, flagpoles, chimneys or whatever stirs your imagination. You can even install your dipole in an attic. If you decide to mount it outdoors, invest in enough high-strength rope or cord to do the job. You want to be sure your antenna will survive storms, ice loading and so on. Mount your dipole as high off the ground as possible. How high is "high?" Conventional wisdom states that your dipole should be mounted at least a quarter wavelength above the earth at the frequency you choose to operate.
  
Getting an 80-meter dipole 60 feet off the ground could present a challenge! If you can't raise your dipole to this altitude, don't worry about it! Your performance may suffer a bit, but the antenna will work. Watch out for nearby gutters, pipes, aluminum siding, window screens and other large pieces of metal. They'll detune your dipole and increase the SWR if they're too close. And, of course, never place your antenna near power lines!

If you've cut your dipole to the proper length, your SWR should be reasonably low (less than 2:1). Don't worry if the SWR seems to rise as you move in frequency toward the band edges—this is normal.
  
Of course, the dipole you've just designed is good for only one band, right? Well.  not necessarily! If you own an antenna tuner, try using it to load your transmitter on other  bands.

The SWR will be very high, but your tuner may be able to adjust it down to a flat 1:1 match. This won't do a thing for the actual SWR on the feed line, but if you've invested in low-loss cable or ladder line, it doesn't matter! Are you surprised to hear this? Many hams, even veterans, are slaves to the idea that only a 1:1 feed line SWR is acceptable. If your feed line is very "lossy," this is true.
  
If you invest in low-loss feed line, however, only a small portion of your signal is actually lost due to high SWR. The rest of it is radiated by your antenna. So if you've designed your antenna for, say, the 40- meter band, try it on other bands as well. You may find that your monoband dipole is really a multiband antenna!