You can communicate with the ISS using just a handheld radio with its built in “rubber duck” antenna!

Now that the ISS’s digipeater is active there are several opportunities per day to try out different ways of confirming a radio contact with it.

Yesterday I wanted to see if it’s possible to get a data packet heard by the station 250 miles up with just the “rubber duck” antenna that came equipped with my super low-end 8 watt Baofang BF-F8HP radio (affiliate link).

Normally for satellite communications I use an Arrow Antenna designed specifically for satellite work. But is it possible to use something smaller and more portable? The answer is yes but it’s going to be much more challenging.

I attempted this contact when the station was almost directly over my location for the best results. I attached the radio to my computer with the BTECH-APRS-V01 (affiliate link) cable that converts the radio’s mic and headphone jacks into a three prong TRRS connector for smartphones and laptops with a single headphone/microphone jack on board.

After sending a ton of packets into the air while tracking the station with my smartphone it looks like one of them actually made it according to ARISS.net that listens for packets beamed back down from the station.

I was traveling when I did this so I didn’t have my Windows computer with me. I used an iOS app called PulseModem running on my Mac in its iOS compatibility mode. It was having trouble triggering the radio’s VOX so I probably sent less packets than I thought I did. I ended up holding down the PTT button on the radio and pushing transmit on the computer’s screen.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this works with a more reliable set up on future passes!

The ISS Digipeater is Active!

The astronauts turned on a data packet repeater on the space station last week. When the station is overhead licensed amateur radio operators can send short messages to the station and it re-transmits those messages back to the ground. I had a successful transmission on my first shot!

Somebody from Virginia heard me through the station and sent a message back:

To hit the repeater I used a handheld radio, an Arrow Satellite antenna, and a Signalink USB soundbox that I talked about in this video. I used a piece of software called PinPoint to manage the data packet traffic which connects up with another piece of software called Direwolf that listens for the packets and passes them to Pinpoint.

Here’s a fun video from RetroRecipes where they made contact using a Commodore 64! This worked because the packet data protocol used is the same one that was used in the 1980s to transmit data over the radio. Sometimes when something works it doesn’t need to change all that much.

This repeater isn’t always active. But the voice repeater on the station is usually going all the time. Sometimes you can even catch an astronaut operating the station during their break periods!

You can learn more about amateur radio on the ISS by visiting the ARISS website.

Weak Signals Go Very Far!

Got some new radio gear last week. I’m learning the art of “weak signals” that send tiny bits of data through the air over very long distances – no Internet required.

Using the 10 meter band (the lowest frequency I’m allowed to operate on with my license) I managed to be heard all the way in Australia! Somebody in Hawaii also picked me up.

New Video : My Ham Radio Adventure Continues with Base Station Equipment

My latest video is a “haul” of some of the Ham radio gear I picked up to begin building out my base station. For equipment I went with the Yaesu FP-991a which a solid all-round radio that covers HF, VHF, and UHF frequencies in a single unit. It has separate antenna connections for the HF and UHF/VHF sides.

I went with an HF (high frequency) antenna that blogger Tom Costello built for some of the same things I’d like to do with mine – exploring the 10 meter band with a technician license. Technicians here in the USA get a small sliver of that band to experiment on but need a General and/or Extra license to go further into the lower frequency bands.

So far the set up is working quite well – I’ve made some very long range digital FT8 contacts into Europe and South America and even talked to somebody briefly in Georgia from my home in Connecticut!

There will be much more to come on this topic as I get antennas installed and begin exploring the portions of the radio spectrum this new equipment will give me access to!

Until then, 73 KC1RGS.

Ham Base Station Acquired

I just ordered a bunch of stuff to begin my amateur radio station. I still only have a technician license which limits a lot of what I can do on lower frequencies but there’s still plenty to explore.

For the base unit I went with the Yaesu FT-991A. I like it because it integrates HF, VHF and UHF bands all in one unit and its powerful enough for the things I want to do. There’s room to grow here as it also works on the frequencies I’m not currently licensed to operate on. For power it can do 50 watts on UHF & VHF with another 50 on the HF bands. Because my HF interests are mostly in the “weak signal” domain that’s more than enough power. And the 50 watts on the UHF/VHF side should be more than fine to do some of the local packet stuff I’m interested in exploring.

Somebody told me that in photography you can’t have enough lenses and in amateur radio you can never have enough antennas! In my case I’m limited to the UHF/VHF bands and a small sliver of the 10 meter HF band. So that helps a bit to narrow things down.

For UHF/VHF I went with what DX Engineering suggested – a Diamond X50A. It’s a simple vertical fiberglass antenna. For HF I found a great blog post from Tom Costello who’s doing exactly what I want to do on HF with a technician license. He built a simple dipole using a pair of MFJ-1610T antennas to make 10 meter contacts. So I bought exactly what he is using.

Because I am not all that handy I will be hiring somebody to mount the antennas and run cable into the house. In the meantime I bought a portable antenna tripod that I’ll set up when I’m exploring the spectrum. I am eventually going to get the UHF/VHF antenna up on the roof but will keep the HF closer to the ground as I’ll be needing a different antenna after I get my General license for the lower bands.

My plan is to try and reach out to a few viewers using the weak signal FT8, JS8talk, and whatever other protocols might work over 10 meters. If you think you are in range let me know and I’ll add you to the list! I’d love to do a few livestreams experimenting with it.

Great Photo of the ISS HAM Station

There’s an amateur radio on the International Space Station. Usually it’s configured in repeater mode which is how I was able to contact a fellow HAM in upstate New York. I communicated through this ISS radio in repeater mode which received my signal and re-broadcast it out.

Sometimes the astronauts talk to people on the ground too. This weekend was the National Association for Amateur Radio‘s annual Field Day event where amateurs around the world make contacts out in the field using battery or emergency backup power. Astronaut Kjell Lindgren was participating in the event making contacts on the ground. You can see a list of stations he received on his notepad in the photo.

RTL-SDR on the Secret of Skinwalker Ranch

The RTL-SDR makes an appearance on the History channel’s Secret of Skinwalker Ranch! They are really fun devices for exploring the radio spectrum through software defined radio (SDR for short). This link will take you to my series on the subject which was my “gateway drug” to amateur radio!

The History Channel show is about a ranch in Utah that is connected to the US government’s studies of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs). Apparently the government spent quite a bit of money trying to make sense of it all. Visitors and residents of the ranch have experienced quite a bit there: UFOs, poltergeist activity, cattle mutilations, strange creatures, you name it.

A recent book entitled Skinwalkers at the Pentagon details some of the work of those government investigators.

Contacted a Packet Radio BBS!

My amateur radio adventure continues. This evening I finally managed to get my gear connected to a packet radio BBS! These are simple bulletin board systems that have been around since the 80’s.

What’s cool about packet BBSes is that they do not require any type of communications infrastructure other than the radios on both ends.

New Video : HAM Radio Update!

The last time we talked about my amateur radio adventure I had just passed my technician license exam but didn’t yet have the license! In this latest video I fill you in on all of the things I’ve been doing on the air. Here’s what I’ve managed to figure out:

Contacting the Space Station
The International Space Station has a pair of amateur radios on board and it’s possible with just a handheld radio to communicate through it! Most of the time the astronauts aren’t available but the radio is set in repeater mode so people on the ground can communicate with each other over great distances. In the video I demonstrate how I was able to talk with some 300 miles away using the station as a repeater!

Digital Voice Communications
The Anytone 878UVII Plus radio I purchased works in analog and digital modes. I was able to connect to a local repeater and communicate with the Connecticut ARES group digitally. I’ve found so far that experienced Hams have been very welcoming and helpful with this newbie :).

Packet Radio
I am very interested in sending data through the air without having to use phone lines or Internet connections to do it. In the video I demonstrate how I was able to send an email through a local Winlink server using my handheld radio and a laptop.

What’s next? I need to get a proper antenna mounted on my roof for VHF & UHF communications along with a more powerful base station radio. That’s my next project although I’ll probably hire a professional to install it. I welcome any tips, recommendations and advice !

HAM Radio Update

Still having fun with amateur radio! I’ve made some progress on a few fronts.

Last night I made my first successful contact with another HAM through the International Space Station’s repeater! The person I reached is in Ithaca, NY – about 300 miles from my home in Connecticut. He offered to send over an Mp3 of his side of the transmission which I’ll post here soon!

Typically my radio can reach about 20 miles give or take so having the space station relay transmissions is a huge range booster. What’s remarkable is that my radio only transmits at about 6 or 7 watts and the station is 250 miles up.

What I’m finding with this hobby is that you need the right antenna for the job. So I recently picked up the handheld monstrosity pictured above which is designed for making space station contacts. It’s also useful for regular local contacts until I get a proper antenna installed here.

Additionally I was also able to send my first message through the Winlink email system without using any Internet infrastructure! This is a hybrid email network that can work via local radio receivers but can also route email either from station to station or over the Internet. It was fun to watch the transaction on my laptop. I bought a special device called a “SignaLink USB” which can switch on my handheld radio’s transmitter when the PC sends out the audio.

Once I get an antenna installed I’m going to set up a little BBS on a Raspberry Pi for the local HAMs to use.

I’ll put together an update video soon once I have a few things ironed out!

New Video : Your Next Smartphone Might Use Satellites vs. Cellular Networks for Messaging

This week’s Weekly Wrapup Video was inspired by a Robert X. Cringley post about a rumored secret deal between Apple and satellite operator Globalstar. From the post:

Apple will shortly enter the satellite business by acquiring GlobalStar and its 24 satellites. They will use those 24, plus 24 more satellites that Apple has already commissioned, to offer satellite service for iMessage and Apple’s Find My network just like they implied in their denial last year.

The link in Cringley’s post goes to this Space News Article about a recent infusion of cash that Globalstar is set to receive from a top secret potential customer.

The operator said Feb. 24 it picked MDA and Rocket Lab to supply a set of 17 satellites to replenish its constellation after a “potential customer” agreed to fund most of the $327 million project. The agreement includes an option for up to nine additional satellites at $11.4 million each

The potential network will only run at about 10 megabits per second per satellite so it won’t be able to transfer large items like videos or high resolution imagery, but it is enough to provide service even in the most remote locations. In fact this type of messaging is very popular in the amateur radio world, with protocols like APRS transmitting location data in very small bursts at a much slower rate 1200 bits per second.

Would it work indoors? Who knows. But developments in weak signal technologies lead me to think that it will be able to send small bits of data anywhere in the world with an off-the-shelf consumer smartphone.

Like many other tech leaps the confluence of a bunch of technological developments are coming together here: cheaper launches to space, microprocessor advancements and smaller and cheaper satellites.

The Amateur Radio Repeater on the ISS

My first amateur radio project is to make contact with the ISS through a repeater onboard the station. I have yet to be successful being heard but I have managed to tune into the repeater for a majority of the station’s pass overhead. What do you hear? Not the astronauts but other amateur radio operators transmitting signals through the station’s repeater. They talk quickly but there’s very limited time to make contacts. Usually it’s just a call sign, an acknowledgement, and a farewell. 

Because the station is moving so fast towards me and then away from me, the radio’s tuner needs to be adjusted slightly as it passes to account for the doppler effect. This video from Tech Minds was really helpful in dialing in the right frequencies. So that was the big progress I made last night – before that I could only hear the repeater for a minute or two. Last night I got about 5 minutes out of it – the duration of the pass in range of my location. 

After I make verbal contact I’m also going to attempt to bounce some data packets off of its digipeater!

More information can be found at ARISS.org’s contact the station page.

KC1RGS is on the Air!

I was assigned my callsign from the FCC last night so now I’m officially an amateur radio operator! I already made my first contact with somebody off a local repeater station. He’s located about 20 miles away from me. The cool thing is that he’s been into contacting the ISS and other orbiting satellites which is something I’m interested in too.

I’m sure we’ll have more to come on the radio topic!

Shortwave Radiogram

I picked up an RTL-SDR (affiliate link) Software Defined Radio dongle recently and have been having a blast with it. You can see my adventures so far with it here. 

My most recent project is to discover and decode all of the digital signals transmitting through the air around me. I looked at lot of different things like the FT8 weak signal protocol, POCSAG pager decoding, and packet radio to name a few. 

A viewer tipped me off to another digital signal to look for which is the Shortwave Radiogram broadcast that transmits a few days a week on shortwave frequencies. It consists of a 30 minute broadcast that transmits text and small images. Part of the challenge is to keep the signal strong enough to decode it! You can see what it looks like thanks to “Shacking Off” on YouTube.  

More information can be found at the SW Radiogram website. They also have links to recordings so you can practice ahead of the next broadcast. 

There’s a whole community around this too. Check out their Facebook group. 

I am almost done studying for my HAM radio technician license. Just need a few more days to run through the practice exams. Stay tuned!