Radio in space: in the Beginning there was SAREX

With space shuttle Atlantis’ return to earth this past July 21st, an era of space exploration has come to an end.

The 135 missions of the American Space Shuttle Program which have taken place since April of 1981, right up to this year, testify of progress, not indifference to the field of science, having seen a multitude of experiments conducted by astronaut crews in orbit, having played a fundamental role in the assembly of the orbiting space station MIR (from 1986 through 2001) and the International Space Station (from 1998 to present).

Let it not be forgotten, in celebrating the achievements of progress, arrived at under the direction of NASA, the shuttle has also been a valuable vehicle for experimentation of amateur radio technologies. It was the 28th of November, 1983, when Mission STS-9 was launched with “Columbia” (unfortunately lost in the tragic accident of February 1, 2003) as the orbiter. Among the crew present was specialist Owen Garriott. The astronaut, an active ham radio operator when on terra firma, W5LFL, with permission to take his ham gear with him into space, could now exercise his hobby in time remaining from his rigid mission schedule.

By way of information, the rig which was brought aboard the shuttle was a 2 meter Motorola, plus a cavity antenna with a diameter of 60 centimeters which Gariott secured with velcro on the inside of one of the shuttle windows. That station, much like tens of thousands of others on the earth, had not only the effect of an “out of body experience” for many OMs (answering to a CQ launched from space), but consequently allowed for some QSOs which remain truly symbolic to this very day.

In addition to the first response received from earth (originating from WA1JXN, Lance Collister from Frenchtown, Montana), Garriott connected with his mother, also senator Barry Goldwater, the club station of his home town (Enid, Oklahoma), and King Hussein of Jordan, the unforgettable and active holder of the callsign JY1, amongst others. Right up to his death, the sovereign considered his contact with the American astronaut one of the high points of his amateur radio career.

The calls made by Garriott during the days of the mission, with a final log of about 300 contacts, persuaded NASA of the usefulness of intensified experimentation of amateur radio technologies in space. Thus was born the SAREX Program (Space Amateur Radio Experiment), with the ARRL and AMSAT as principal partners of the American aerospace industry. The initiative, above all, was aimed at getting students from schools on earth, connected – on phone or packet – with the astronauts. Clearly, the most obvious purpose was to satisfy the curiosity of children and teens regarding life in space, always a strong element of attraction and fascination of the human existence in general.

An important step forward was accomplished on a second occasion when the shuttle put amateur equipment into orbit. It was the event of the STS-51F mission in 1985 and specialist Tony England, W0ORE, who, working right from the start with a small group of OMs, completed a monumental task. The idea was to put a system in place which didn’t function in simplex mode, as Garriott had done, but to configure it as a repeater by design. The input remained on 2 meters, in order to facilitate terrestrial stations in reaching the spacecraft, while the output was done on 10 meters. This band, in particular, was also used to transmit and receive SSTV. The final log ended up with 130 contacts (including one with a mobile station, which caused quite the stir for that time) and ten images in Slow Scan Television which were successively received on-board the shuttle. The first to appear on the monitor was that which depicted his wife Kathi. This ended up being the first form of television having been received in space.

The shuttle missions which directly involved the SAREX Project, successfully worked these two “experiments” into a total of 23. These activities concluded on-board Columbia in 1999 with mission STS-93. This did not end, however, in a definitive way. Amateur activity which was also sponsored on MIR, had also spawned a growing interest in classroom instruction, with some 200 schools participating at the end of the program, resulting in “cosmic” QSOs. This led NASA, in 1997, to include amateur radio gear in the accouterments which would make up the equipment on the International Space Station (ISS). In fact, the program, as such, has come to be known as ARISS, “Amateur Radio on the International Space Station,” managed by an international team. The development of the amateur station systems was studied in several stages. The first, completed definitively in 2001, saw the astronauts using fairly simple equipment, installed in the “Zarya” module. From that point came the first amateur transmission from the ISS in December of 2000.

The equipment from “Phase 1″ consisted of: two portable Ericsson MP-A radios (for 2 meters and 70 cm); a series of adaptors for power and various connections; an antenna system (two 1/4 wavelength whips); a TNC and headset. In 2002 there was, at that point, enough room for the installation of four antennas in total, designed by the international ARISS team, in order to enable better performance on 2 meters and 70 cm; also HF (with particular reference to 20, 15 and 10 meters); and on the L and S microwave bands. The antennas, called WA1, WA2, WA3 and WA4, were installed during the course of a few “space walks,” which took place in January and August, 2002.

Taking into account the implementation of the second phase, focusing on the improvement of systems by means of superior equipment design, this was realized, on VHF/UHF, with a Kenwood TM-D700. From this new station, located in the service module, with phone capability, packet and SSTV; and alternatively working as a repeater between the stations on ground (the typical uplink is on 145.200, with an output on 145.800, 145.825 if activated as a packet cluster), Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori, IZ6ERU, contacted several Italian schools in April, 2005 during Mission “Aeneid.” In particular, the QSO of 18 April, 2005, with the Marconi Institute of Civitavecchia, was exciting, thanks to the participation of Princess Elettra Marconi, daughter of the discoverer of the properties of radio waves who exclaimed to the astronaut, “my father would be proud of you for this fantastic mission.”

One contact after another, one comes to a recent story, told by the commander of “Expedition 24,” Doug Wheelock, KF5BOC, in a 20 minute video, while he makes various contacts with OMs in North America. And there’s Italian astronaut Paulo Nespoli, IZ0JOPA, who, during his 157 days stationed on the ISS, from November to March of this year, made an impressive series of contacts with schools from Italy. Nespoli broke every record of the ARISS, contacting 45 different schools of learning. Additionally, with unprecedented drive on his part, this resulted in QSOs going beyond the allotted time in the area of education, offering students twice the opportunity to satisfy their curiosity. A willingness to communicate with all has earned formal acknowledgement from the ARISS. Among other things, during Nespoli’s stay on-board, 21 December, 2010 marked the tenth anniversary of the first ARISS contact, with the astronaut ready to festively celebrate the occasion. Almost all of his contacts with earth were subject to video recording and can be seen on AMSAT Italia.

A recent story capably offers literal “magical moments” to young students who remain involved (i.e., have participated in one of the contacts, remaining dumbfounded, like the teachers, as is the case, at the two hours of silence which is breathed into an auditorium where, during days of “normal” instruction, the volume levels of the little ones will vary), these not having been developed without the realization of intuitiveness exercised early on – and the readiness, however rapid, to partner with institutions of learning and the times when we could associate with these fine OMs – Garriott and England. Thus, it’s all of humanity which should say thanks to the Shuttle Program for many reasons, ham radio operators not being indifferent at all to the name “SAREX.”

 Translation by Mark Kelley, W0BG.

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2 Responses to "Radio in space: in the Beginning there was SAREX"

  1. ix1ckn says:

    A quick update to let everyone know this story is bouncing in interesting corners of the web, such as “ARISS Status” of 15th August. So, you can find it here:

    http://www.amsat.org/amsat-new/ariss/ariss_news.php

    and here:

    http://www.issfanclub.com/node/32273

    73,
    Chris

  2. Lou McFadin W5DID says:

    I was the one who actually put together the ham radio for all the Shuttle missions so I am in a position of first hand knowledge. I also am the ISS-HAM Hardware manager.
    Some facts need to be corrected.
    1 SAREX originally stood for Shuttle Amateur Radio EXperiment.
    When the program transitioned to the ISS we changed it to Space Amateur Radio Experiment.

    2. There was never a 10m capability on Shuttle.
    “while the output was done on 10 meters. This band, in particular, was also used to transmit and receive SSTV.”
    That is not true.
    If you want to check facts send me an e-mail at W5DID@mac.com.

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