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NASA’s Nanosatellite Heard by Hams

01/28/2011

When a NASA nanosatellite -- NanoSail-D -- ejected unexpectedly on January 17 from the Fast Affordable Scientific and Technology Satellite (FASTSAT), the agency called upon Amateur Radio operators to help track it. NASA asked radio amateurs to listen on 437.270 MHz for the signal and verify that NanoSail-D was operating. NASA received almost 470 telemetry packets from 11 countries.

The NanoSail-D beacon sent an AX.25 packet every 10 seconds; the packet contained data about the spacecraft’s systems operation. Listen here for a recording of the nanosatellite’s beacon, made by Hank Hamoen, PA3GUO, on January 21.

Once the NanoSail-D team received confirmation that the nanosatellite did indeed ejcect, NanoSail-D principal investigator Dean Alhorn quickly enlisted Alan Sieg, WB5RMG, and Stan Sims, N4PMF, to try to pick up NanoSail-D’s radio beacon. Both hams work at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“The timing could not have been better,” Sieg said. “NanoSail-D was going to track right over Huntsville, and the chance to be the first ones to hear and decode the signal was irresistible.” Right before 2300 UTC on January 17, they heard a faint signal. As the spacecraft soared overhead, the signal grew stronger and the operators were able to decode the first packet: NanoSail-D was alive and well. “You could have scraped Dean off the ceiling. He was bouncing around like a new father,” Sieg recalled.

According to NASA, the nanosatellite was last heard at 1354 UTC on January 21. Telemetry indicates that the sail deployed on schedule and the satellite is now believed to be out of power, which NASA said was to be expected. NASA is now asking for visual tracking and sighting reports of NanoSail-D, which is about 650 km above the Earth. According to the agency, when the nanosatellite’s sail reflects off the Sun, it could be up to 10 times as bright as the planet Venus -- especially later in the mission when the sail descends to lower orbits. You can track NanoSail-D on the web or on your smart phone. NASA estimates that NanoSail-D will remain in low Earth orbit (LEO) between 70 and 120 days, depending on atmospheric conditions.



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