Spacefest IV - Pasadena, CA, May 8-11, 2014
|| Tech || Culture || Activities || Resources || Links || Weblogs || Features ||
Site Info



Space Radio
Tuning in the cosmos...

NOAA weather satellite image received by a
low cost PC based satellite station system.


I'm sure that few people even in the space activist community realize the extent of the involvement of amateur radio enthusiasts with space. See below just a partial list of the firsts achieved by the amateur space radio enthusiasts. They have truly been the pioneers in public participation in space development.

Home Satellite Station
Check out the section on assembling a low cost, easy-to-build ground station to receive weather satellite images.

No ham radio license or special training needed.

Just need a computer with a sound card, a short-wave receiver, and some tracking and decoding software.
NOAA Sat Image of Scandinavia

In a sense the amateur radio community has been using space ever since they learned to bounce signals off the ionosphere to reach other hams far beyond the horizon. It seems natural that they eventually continued on above this thin barrier.

Amateur radio enthusiasts pioneered the movement towards small, cheap satellites with their development and orbiting of more than 30 amateur radio satellites since the 1960's. Using these orbiting transponders, radio enthusiasts can communicate with each other using the only free uplinks available in the whole constellation of comsats.

By the 1990's ham radio operators routinely communicated with astronauts and cosmonauts on MIR and the shuttles. The International Space Station also now has a ham radio station.


Bryan Burrough's book Dragonfly, (Harper Collins 1998) tells the dramatic story behind the Mir-Shuttle program and the fire, collision and other mishaps that occured on board the Mir while the astronauts were there.

The use of the Mir Ham station is brought up several times in the book. Several of the astronauts found it an indispensible link to the US and used it often to send emails to wives and family.

In another section, he discusses how one engineer, Mark Severance, had used amateur radio as a teenager to communicate with earlier Soviet missions. Using this knowledge he was able to fix the problems in a radio system that Goddard was trying to use to improve communications with Mir when it crossed over the US.


But you don't need a ham radio license and transmitter to participate in space radio. Monitoring of radio transmissions is a popular hobby of its own. You can listen in on satellite downlinks and shuttle communications with police scanners and shortwave radios, available at your local electronics store.

(Listening in on manned spaceflights began early in the space age. This article The first 'scoop' from space in 1999 by John Rich at the Christian Science Monitor reports on NBC reporters eavesdropping on Gordon Cooper's communications while he was in space on Mercury Faith 7.)

You can also directly capture weather satellite images and other satellite signals using radio and computer kits.

A related hobby involves reception of Natural Radio signals produced by atmospheric phenomena such as lightning and aurora. VLF (Very Low Frequency, less than 500HZ) signals from the magnetosphere can be detected from as far as 20000 miles above the earth. When these signals are converted to audio, an assortment of unique sounds such as whistlers and sferics can be heard.

Amateurs even do Radio Astronomy with homemade systems. They can carry out a wide range of observations ranging from listening to electromagnetic storms on Jupiter to picking up pulsar signals to searching for ET signals.

Space Radio News Sources

Space Radio News
in Space-for-All

See the archive for previous articles...

Getting Started
Listening only, i.e. monitoring, is the easiest way to get into space radio. The following offer introductory tutorials:

The quickest way to begin monitoring space radio transmissions is to buy a shortwave radio and/or police scanner as described by the FAQ at HearSat. This involves an investment in the US$200-500 range.

You will also need to become familiar with how to find out when and where the object of interest (i.e. Shuttle, Mir or a particular satellite) will be overhead. There are several online services that will give you this information just by entering your longitude/lattitude or the name of the nearest major city. See the HobbySpace SatelliteWatching page for more information.

Ham Radio
If you want to talk personally to astronauts on the ISS and do other space radio activities such as communicating over Amsats, then you can contact a local ham radio operator or club and ask to participate.

Or you can become a full-fledged ham radio operator yourself. This will require a substantial committment of time, effort, and expense but will result in a marvelous hobby to last a lifetime. Go to the American Radio Relay League for information on the steps required to start your own radio station.

Other introductory material includes Gary Rogers introduction papers on accessing the EasySats.

Highlights of Amateur Space Radio

Here are a few of the accomplishments of the amateur space radio community (ref):

  • 1930'2-1940's: Grote Reber in the 1930's used homebuilt parabolic antennas in his backyward in Wheaton, Illinois to make comprehensive radio sky maps showing the locations radio noise sources across the sky. This led to the creation of the branch of science know as Radio Astronomy.
  • 1953: Ross Bateman (W4A0) and William L. Smith (W3GKP) successfully received radio signals bounced off the moon.
  • Dec. 12, 1961: The satellite OSCAR I (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) built by amateurs on the U.S. west coast was launched piggyback (i.e. used in place of ballast) with the Air Force Discover 36 satellite. This satellite held a simple radio beacon and worked successfully for 22 days. 570 amateurs in 28 countries picked up its signal.
  • March 9, 1965: The communications satellite OSCAR III was the first amateur satellite to provide voice relay. Over a 1000 amateurs in 22 countries communicated with one another with its transponder, which worked for several months.
  • August 1971: amateurs used 2.3GHz recieving stations of their own construction to monitor direct transmissions from the Apollo 15 Command Service Module as it circled the moon.
  • Oct. 15, 1972: The AMSAT-OSCAR 6 satellite, built by teams in the U.S., Australia, and Germany, was launched and succeeded in demonstrating dopplar location techniques for search and rescue, and low cost medical relay from remote locations.
  • 1970's: Japan (JAMSAT) and Soviet amateur satellites (RS series) were successfully launched.
  • 1983: Astronaut Owen Garriot on the Columbia space shuttle mission STS-9 SpaceLab-1 used a 2-meter FM transceiver to contact over 250 hams on the ground, including his sons.
  • 1985: The SAREX (Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment) on Spacelab-2 aboard the shuttle Challenger succeeded not only in voice communications with the ground but also in slow-scan TV. SAREX is now often included on shuttle flights.
  • 1988: First amateur radio communication with cosmonauts aboard Mir.
  • 1996: Amateur radio enthusiasts on earth help to test the Mars Relay transponder aboard the Mars Surveyor on its way to Mars.
  • Since the launch of OSCAR 6, there has always been at least one low altitude amateur satellite with a transponder relay on board till this day.
  • 2000+ : Ham station installed on the ISS and is routinely used by astronauts, cosmonauts, and space tourists.

Satellite Radio Monitoring

The HearSat Website
The HearSat website provides an enormous amount of information on monitoring of satellite transmissions. The FAQ, in particular, provides a good starting place for the beginner.

Monitoring Times
Satellite Times, a wonderful magazine for the space radio enthusiast, is unfortunately no longer in publication. However, many of the same articles, news and reference material will be included in Monitoring Times, as well as the advertising of equipment and software aimed towards the radio hobbiest. Published by Grove Enterprises Inc, whch also provides an extensive catalog of products of interest to space radio enthusiasts.

Sven's Space Place
Sven Grahn , program manager of the Science Systems Division of the Swedish Space Corporation, has been interested in space radio since he listened in to Sputnik beeps as a kid. His page here provides lots of information and links related to space radio, especially from Russian satellites.

FUNcube Dongle Software Defined Radio
AMSAT-UK created the FUNcube educational Cubesat project

with the goal of enthusing and educating young people about radio, space, physics and electronics. It will support the educational Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) initiatives and provide an additional resource for the GB4FUN Mobile Communications Centre. The target audience consists of primary and secondary school pupils and FUNcube will feature a 145 MHz telemetry beacon that will provide a strong signal for the pupils to receive.

The FUNCube-1 (AO-73) was placed into orbit by Dnepr rocket on November 21, 2013. The satellite is now operational.

A great spinoff project from FUNcube is the FUNcube Dongle Software Defined Radio. This small device connects to the USB port of your computer and turns it into a powerful satellite receiving station. You just need an antenna to receive signals directly from satellites passing over your location. From the FUNcube Dongle website,

Similar to a USB TV Dongle, the FUNcube Dongle simple fits into your computerís USB port. Itís compatible with many radio reception programs like Rocky, M0KGK, Spectravue and LinRad. The FUNcube Dongle also works with Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 both x86 and x64. In addition, it is compatible with Linux and MacOS as it uses standard USB drivers already integrated into the operating system.

There are two versions. The entry level FUNcube Dongle gives access to the satellite frequency band that FUNcube and some other satellites use. The Pro version gives unlimited access to the frequency range 64 to 1,700MHz.

Itís also all-mode: this means that itís not just limited to narrow band FM reception. As well as data, the FUNcube Dongle will also recieve many other narrow band signals including AM, FM and SSB. It will even receive TV sound channels!

The video below displays the basics of the device, which can be ordered here from the FUNcube group

Alexandru Csete (OZ9AEC) has several blog posts about using the Funcube Dongle. His posts are listed here and include, for example, these items:

Other resources:

More SDR - Software Defined Radio
SDR uses the power of modern microprocessors to allow a software program to replace many of the tasks previously done in a hardware tuner to isolate and process a signal of interest at a particular frequency. The software works on data obtained from digitising the raw electromagnetic wave patterns from an antenna.

Ideally an antenna output would go into an analog to digital converter in the PC, such as that available in the soundcard, and the SDR program would work on the AD output. However, that is not practical with real world noisy and weak signals. So interface hardware is still needed. This can be provided by a "dongle" USB device that can include a low noise amplifier, a tuner to obains signals in a given frequency range, and a AD converter. The output of this then used by the SDR program running on the PC.

So a system to recieve low earth orbit weather satellite images can be as simple as a low cost antenna (which can be connected to a pre-amplifier) connected to a low cost "dongle" plugged into the USB port of a computer is running the SDR program to analyze the digitized signal in the frequency range selected by the user. For satellite imaging, there would, as with the standard hardware tuner case, use the SDR output to decode the signal into a weather image.

The signal environment in a particular location, say the middle of a city with high buildings, could be very poor for satellite reception. In that case, you can still do SDR satellite reception by getting the input signal data from other locations via the web. See SDRSPACE.com for details.

SDR resources:

More Sites

Kettering Group
The late Geoff Perry started monitoring satellites with students at the Kettering Grammer Boys schools in the 1960's. The group became famous for detecting satellites launched by the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War and for guessing at their function by clever analysis of their radio signals. They were also the first to reveal the Soviet Plesetsk launch site in northern Russia.

Sound Clips

ISS Radio

Ham Radio on the Space Station
The International Space Station holds a ham radio station for astronauts and cosmonauts to talk to earth hams, school classes, friends and family. These sites follow the development of this system.

MAREX-MG SpaceCam 1 - Download pictures directly from the ISS to your home PC
The MAREX-MG (Manned Amateur Radio Experiment, North American Division) group has led a project to install a Slow Scan TV system on the International Program and to broadcast the pictures via amateur radio bands to earth. With a very basic, low cost system, a home space radio enthusiast or a science school class can start downloading the pictures when the ISS passes overhead.

See the How to use SSTV on ISS for instructions on how to setup a system using a low cost radio receiver, simple antenna, and a PC with sound card.

Space Tourists and Ham Radio on the Station

Greg Olsen:

Mark Shuttleworth took great advantage of the ISS Ham Station. While the first space tourist Dennis Tito used the station to contact family and friends, Shuttleworth went much further and communicated with several schools and individual hams.

He made science and math education a theme of his trip and the radio played a big role in letting him publicize this.

He even obtained a special amateur radio operator license for his trip. Although he tried to finish his qualification studies before he left, there was not enough time. So a temporary 3 month license was issued by the South African Radio League.


Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment at NASA's Goddard Space Fligth Center involved ham radio communications originally with shuttles and later with Mir and the ISS. The ARISS program (see above) has contined the program. (The site sarex.gsfc.nasa.gov has gone off line.)

Goddard Amateur Radio Club
Very active space radio club at Goddard Spaceflight Center. They are especially focused on Shuttle radio and provide a re-transmission service of Shuttle communications onto Ham radio frequencies. See their Shuttle Retransmission Fact Sheet.

Dirk Frimout: First Belgian Ham In Space
This site is dedicated to Dirk Frimout - ON1AFD - and his Ham activities aboard the shuttle on flight STS45, April 1992. Information on the shuttle ham radio setup and the contacts he made during the flight.

ASTARS - APRS Satellite Tracking and Reporting System
APRS (Automatic Position Reporting System) was developed by Bob Bruninga (WB4APR) "for tracking and digital communications with mobile GPS equipped stations with two-way radio".

It works with the packet communications systems that have developed by hams. Packet radio essentially turns an amateur band into an Internet or Ethernet like network of nodes.

A packet consists of the addresses for the recepient and the sender plus the message to be sent. A ham radio station uses a modem like (or ethernet like card) device called a terminal node controller (TNC) to send the packet to a neighboring stations. The TNC checks first if no one else is broadcasting and then sends out the packet when the "line" is free. If two sites send out packets simultaneously (a packet "collision") then each waits a random period of time before trying again. "Digipeaters" and other systems allow for packets to be forwarded to other stations just like packets travel over the internet. See the FAQ at Tucson Amateur Packet Radio - TAPR for more info on packet radio.

The APRS allows for 3 types of packets - Position, Status, & Message. From the position and status of stations currently transmitting their position and status, maps can be made of the extend of the network. Messages to be forwarded can, for example, then take advantage of the nearest stations to their destination.

The ISS ham station now includes APRS packet radio and students around the world can send and receive packets via the station as it passes overhead. The Navy Academy's PCSAT also does APRS.

MIR - Mir is long gone but many Hams have fond memories of communicating with the orbital base. This site provides some background on the Ham radio communications with MIR.
Other resources

Image Reception from
Weather and Other Satellites

Introductory Info
Hardware Info & Sales

Satellite Image Galleries
Many amateur satellite scanning enthusiasts have posted galleries of their best images from the NOAA and other satellites:

Roberto Ferrari and Enrico Falconelli provide a big site on how

"..to build by yourself a low cost ground station to receive satellite images. All the software and hardware are homemade by Roberto Ferrari and Enrico Falconelli and are not intended for any commercial purposes but for educational and/or personal use only."

The NOAA satellites and the SeaStar satellites are emphasized.

Large site from Marius Rensen with lots of resources about radio-faxcimile and SSTV transmission and reception. Includes a good intro to weather sat reception -HI-Fax Beginners Guide to Receiving (Live) Weather Data .

Older site still at HF-FAX Weather Sats

ON6SAT WeatherSat Reception
Willems Berto gives this page with lots of links dealing with amateur weather satellite reception.

Remote Imaging Group (RIG)
This is a British based amateur group that

"...caters for everyone interested in remote imaging from satellites. The group which has a membership of nearly 2,500 spread across 45 countries, is keen to assist new members and provide an ongoing service to our existing membership, which includes both professional and amateur interests. Members receive a quarterly colour journal running to approximately 100 pages, containing articles of an informative and constructional nature, the latest news on a wide variety of remote imaging topics, images and related pictures." - homepage

U.S. Satellite Laboratory
This company builds satellite receiving stations especially for schools for grades 3-12.Weather and remote sensing satellite reception system is used to teach science, geography, environmentalism, and other areas. Studies of the images and data help to develop analytical skills. The systems include hardware and software.
More Sites


Nasa Toys and Gifts

Photo To Space
The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey
XCOR Aerospace
New Space Watch
The Nerds Coupons



Satellite Handbook

Steve Ford
Amazon: US 

The Satellite Projects Handbook
Satellite Projects Handbook
Lawrence Harris - 1996
Amazon: US 
How-to book for setting up a satellite receiving station




Space Radio & Observing Books

The ARRL Handbook for Radio Amateurs 2009
Amazon: US UK
Radio Monitoring : The How to Guide
T. J. Skip Arey - 2003
Amazon: US UK
The Sky is Your Laboratory: Advanced Astronomy Projects for Amateurs
Robert Buchheim - 2007
Amazon: US UK
The Beginner's Handbook of Amateur Radio
Clay Laster - 2000
Amazon: US UK
Radio Astronomy Projects
William P. Lonc - 1996
Amazon: US UK
Radioscience Observing
Joseph J. Carr -1999
Amazon: US UK
Home  |  Directory  |  Advertising  |  About  |  Contact  |  Disclaimer
© 1999-2013 HobbySpace, All Rights Reserved.
HobbySpace is a part of Space-H Services.