“November-Alpha-One-Sierra-Sierra, this is Kilo-Six-Whiskey-Alpha-Oscar.”
That call could be the start of a conversation between a licensed amateur radio operator on the ground and an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.
But the contact would only be possible for up to 10 minutes of the station’s orbit as it whizzed 250 miles overhead at 17,500 mph.
Ham radio communication through the space station and other satellites has always been limited to low orbits offering short windows for communication within a spacecraft’s coverage area as it passes by.
That is set to change with SpaceX’s planned Thursday afternoon launch from Kennedy Space Center of a Qatari communications satellite, Es’hail-2, to an orbit high over the equator.
“We’ve never gotten a transponder up in geostationary orbit,” said Joe Spier, president of the nonprofit Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, or AMSAT, in North America. “It’s this repeater station in the sky that stays overhead all the time, and that has long been a dream of radio amateurs.”
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The 230-foot Falcon 9 is targeting liftoff from KSC’s pad 39A at 3:46 p.m., at the opening of a window lasting a little under two hours.
Clouds are expected to diminish through the day, offering a 60 percent chance of weather meeting launch rules.
The rocket’s first-stage booster, which helped launch a Canadian satellite from Cape Canaveral in July, will attempt its second launch and landing at sea on the deck of SpaceX’s “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship.
The satellite built by in Japan by Mitsubishi Electric Corp. is Qatar’s second, coming five years after the launch of Es’hail-1 on a European Ariane 5 rocket.
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The mission’s amateur radio component is a partnership between Es’hailSat, Qatar’s government-owned satellite company, and AMSAT-DL, Spier’s counterpart in Germany, which built a ground station in Qatar to support the ham activity.
From its perch 22,300 miles over the equator, the satellite will be stationed over a swath of Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Satellites in geostationary orbits match the speed of Earth’s rotation and so appear to hover over a fixed point on the ground.
That means that unlike spacecraft in low orbits, Es’hail-2’s amateur frequencies utilizing spare satellite capacity will be accessible all the time within its coverage area spanning roughly one-third of the planet.
“As long as you’re in the footprint of the satellite, it’s there 24/7, all day, all night,” explained Spier, whose call sign, K6WAO, is featured in the sample communication above with the International Space Station, or NA1SS.
That footprint could link amateurs from Brazil to Thailand, but unfortunately does not include the United States.
“We won’t be able to do much with it from North America, but hopefully this will put a foot in the door to get us a ham transponder on something that North America can reach,” said Robert “Ozzie” Osband of Titusville, a licensed ham with the call sign N4SCY.
That’s long been a goal of AMSAT North America’s, but launch costs have proven too steep for the small organization founded in 1969, which now counts about 3,300 members.
“The amateur community is always like, when are you going to get a (geostationary satellite) up there?” said Spier. “My reply is: Got $6 million? Come talk to me.”
He applauded AMSAT in Germany’s achievement, the result of six years of work, noting that “to be a first at something in space is indeed a rare, rare honor.”
Ham operators say their radio frequencies can provide vital backups for emergency communications, for example in areas devastated by hurricanes, like Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last year. They serve as a last resort for space station crews.
But hams also have fun with satellites, testing how far beyond “theoretical limits” they can relay signals ranging from Morse code messages to voice calls to digital video known as Amateur TV, or ATV. Connections made to people in different states or countries, or downloads of satellite telemetry, can earn certificates or online status as the “king” or “queen” of a particular satellite.
Amateur operators should not be thought of as unskilled or unprofessional, Spier said. Their ranks include engineers and technicians from the military, space programs and universities.
An amateur roughly 50 years ago developed a spring-loaded system still used today to deploy small satellites in orbit, Spier noted.
“We are rocket scientists, there’s no two ways about it,” he said. “Amateurs make contributions for the love of the art of radio and for the love of exploration.”
- Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9 (second flight)
- Mission: Es’hail-2 communications satellite for Es’hailSat of Qatar
- Launch Time: 3:46 p.m. EST
- Launch Window: to 5:29 p.m. EST
- Launch Complex: 39A at Kennedy Space Center
- Weather: 60 percent “go”
- Join floridatoday.com at 2:45 p.m. for countdown updates and chat, including live streaming of SpaceX’s launch Webcast starting about 15 minutes before liftoff.