ISS Astronaut Creating Ham Radio Buzz, Taking Science to Students
By Rick Lindquist, WW3DE
Astronaut Doug Wheelock, KF5BOC, has just a few more weeks to top the record for the most ham radio contacts made from the International Space Station (ISS), but he’s making the most of what the station’s NA1SS has to offer. That has included taking space science and technology to students on Earth via ham radio. Aboard the space outpost since June, Wheelock returns to Earth in November. Recently he chatted via ham radio with students in New York during a scheduled Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) school contact.
“Welcome aboard the International Space Station!” Wheelock greeted the audience gathered at Kopernik Observatory and Science Center in Vestal during the September 22 contact between the Center’s K2ZRO and NA1SS. AMSAT and ARISS veteran Drew Deskur, KA1M, was at the controls at Kopernik. Responding to questions, Wheelock told the students that some 130 experiments currently are under way aboard the ISS, one of them involving plants.
“The plants actually grow very well,” Wheelock explained, noting that it is necessary to provide supplementary ultraviolet light in space. Given the microgravity environment on the ISS, plants tend to grow in all directions and “the root systems can grow every which-way as well,” added Wheeler, who became ISS Expedition 25 commander just hours after speaking with the New York students. Leading up to the contact, the Kopernik Center worked with educators representing 36 schools in the Windsor Central School and Owego-Apalachin School districts, folding in the ARISS contact with a larger science and technology program at the center.
“The Kopernik Observatory had four days with the students to teach them about space travel, telescopes, the SSTV lab, tracking the ISS and, of course, ham radio,” Deskur explained. The elementary through high schoolers took part in activities emphasizing scientific inquiry aimed at encouraging them to think and observe as scientists. This sort of coordination with educators is a major component of the ARISS program to connect young people directly with researchers aboard the space station. The New York schools’ educational plan ultimately calls for “the purchase of Amateur Radio equipment for each school and the establishment of ham radio clubs.”
During the September 22 contact, Wheelock also told the youngsters that solar flares can affect the station’s computer systems. “It’s amazing, some of the things that happen to our computer systems,” he said. “A lot of times we’re replacing hard drives, we’re replacing batteries and parts to the computer systems, so the solar flares really affect those the most.” Video of the contact has been posted on YouTube.
ARISS Helps Celebrate a Centennial
A few days earlier, an ARISS contact with Boy Scouts in the Utah National Parks Council was a highlight of the 100th anniversary of Scouting. Wheelock took questions via ham radio with Scouts attending the 2010 Centennial Camporall in St George.
“I can only say that the September 18 Boy Scout Centennial was made even better by our very successful radio schedule with the crew of the ISS,” said Frank Eldridge, W7GGR, of the assisting Dixie Amateur Radio Club, who called it “truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
“The boys were in awe, as were we and their leaders.” All 5000 boys and leaders got to see a video of the contact later, and Eldridge says about a dozen Scouts expressed an interest in knowing more about ham radio. “They were definitely piqued,” Eldridge added, “and about six others said they wanted to become astronauts and/or engineers for sure.”
On October 5, Wheelock took questions from students at IRSEA, a non profit research and educational institute in Bisceglie, Italy. That contact was facilitated via a telebridge (terrestrial teleconnection) with K6DUE (ex-NN1SS) at the International Space Station Amateur Radio Club 3 in Maryland.
During the on-air Q&A, Wheelock told the audience of more than 100 that it’s “pretty sterile and dark” and “a little scary” to stare into the void of space. Viewing Earth, on the other hand, reveals “an explosion of color.”
In his off-time, Wheelock, who has described ham radio as “a fun way to stay ‘connected’ with planet Earth,” has been squeezing in some casual contacts from NA1SS with earthbound hams — surprising or exciting all of them and, in a few cases, leading to some media coverage. ARISS reports that he’s been making some two dozen general contacts each day he’s on the air, and the program now finds itself running low on QSL cards.
“It was totally unexpected, on my way back from a shopping trip!” Erik Janssens, K5WW, of Texas said of his recent contact with NA1SS. “Exhilarating!” A new ham, David Pruett, KF7ETX, of Oregon, posted an informative and well-received YouTube video of his lucky contact with Wheelock. During his chat with Wheelock, Pruett gave the astronaut a “shout out” from a mutual acquaintance, Will Robertson, AI4QT, of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
In late summer four young hams at Nelson County Area Technology Center in Kentucky — an ARRL Education and Technology Program (ETP) school — and their instructor, Charlie Cantrill, KI4RDT, were thrilled to make an impromptu contact with NA1SS. “ARISS Rocks!” they e-mailed ETP Coordinator Mark Spencer, WA8SME. Other hams have posted reports to the ISS Fan Club site. Ham radio-in-space enthusiasts can follow the fun via Twitter and Facebook.
Aiming for the Stars
Although Wheelock has put at least 500 contacts in the NA1SS log (a more precise count is unavailable), he has a way to go to beat the record astronaut Bill McArthur, KC5ACR, set several years ago during his ISS tour. McArthur logged more than 1750 contacts and received honorary Worked All States, Worked All Continents and DX Century Club awards from the ARRL.
The ISS boasts slow-scan television (SSTV) and packet in addition to 2 meter and 7 cm FM capability. Later this year or early in 2011 European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli, IZ0JPA, will install the Ericsson VHF and UHF radios that had been in the ISS Service Module in the ESA’s Columbus module. Nespoli is scheduled to travel to the ISS with Expedition 26 in December.
On October 9 the Expedition 25 crew greeted cosmonauts Alexander “Sasha” Kaleri, U8MIR, and Oleg Skripochka, RN3FU, at the ISS. They will relieve Wheelock, astronaut Shannon Walker, KD5DXB, and cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, RN3FI, in November, when Nespoli, astronaut Catherine Coleman, KC5ZTH, and cosmonaut Dmitri Kondratyev arrive for a five-month duty tour.
Ham radio’s space presence will expand further when AMSAT’s ARISSat-1/RadioSkaf V is deployed from the ISS during a spacewalk next February. The new satellite, now undergoing final testing and outfitting, will offer simultaneous 2 meter FM, CW, BPSK and transponder capability using a software defined transponder (SDX).
A Saturday, October 16, ARISS contact is scheduled with youngsters attending Astronomy Day at George Observatory at Brazos Bend State Park in Needville, Texas. That contact will take place via a telebridge with WH6PN in Hawaii. Sponsored by astronomy clubs in the greater Houston Area in conjunction with the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Astronomy Day typically attracts some 4000 attendees. In addition to astronomy and space technology lessons, a daylong display will offer information on ham radio.
In conjunction with the annual Jamboree on the Air (JOTA) event, local Boy Scouts will set up an Amateur Radio near the observatory to make JOTA contacts and work on the Radio merit badge. The Brazos Valley Amateur Radio Club will assist with the JOTA activities.
ARISS is an international educational outreach with US cooperation from ARRL, AMSAT and NASA.