Summer 2008 Issue

ARISS Inspires
A New Generation of Hams

The ARISS program continues to provide students around the world with exposure to amateur radio communications. N8MS tells the story of his Earth Science students in Coloma Junior High School in Michigan.

By Matt Severin, N8MS


A total of 13 Coloma students have spoken to astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Ham radio has been a part of my Earth Science instruction since 1997, when I was first licensed in Virginia. My teacher-mentor and Elmer, Jim McCloud, KU4C, encouraged me to get my license because it had many applications in the Earth Science classes we both taught. Jim explained that with ham radio the students could get local and national weather updates, learn about the electromagnetic spectrum, and even communicate with one another while on field trips. Ham radio is an excellent tool to bring into the classroom and make science real!

In early 2006, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) released an old Russian Orlan spacesuit with a ham radio transmitter and internal sensors to measure temperature and battery power. SuitSat, as it was called, was designed to transmit its condition to the ground and the message could be heard using ham radios or VHF scanners. I thought this would be a great way to introduce my Astronomy class unit (I now teach at Coloma Junior High School, in Coloma, Michigan), so I brought a small handheld radio to class with the hopes of hearing SuitSat as it flew over Michigan. Although I wasn’t successful in hearing the satellite, my class did happen to catch a conversation between a school in Canada and the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Hearing the QSO while at school inspired me to look into contacting the ISS. A few years back I had tried to work the space station, but was never successful. Looking back, I realized that all of my attempts were too late in the day, and the astronauts were probably sleeping.

After some online research, I learned that astronaut Bill McArthur was very active on the ham bands, and the chances of working the ISS were good. With a modest station consisting of a Radio Shack HTX-212 transceiver and a homemade 2-meter copper cactus antenna stuck in a bucket of sand on the roof of the school, I started monitoring the ISS downlink frequency of 145.800 MHz. As luck would have it, March 21, 2006 was a scheduled rest day for the astronauts on the ISS, and Bill McArthur, KC5ACR, began a marathon of ham radio contacts using the callsign NA1SS.

From 16:50 to 16:54 UTC (11:50 to 11:54 AM local time), 24 students in my fourth hour Earth Science class listened in on a short conversation between Bill McArthur and me. I was using my previous callsign, KG4EDK, at that time. When astronaut McArthur asked if any of my students were with me, 24 faces lit up with broad smiles as the students realized this was real: An astronaut 220 miles overhead was asking about them! McArthur stated, “We sure think Earth Science is important …we live it every day as we observe the Earth, and it’s truly spectacular.” The conversation ended with a motivational greeting from the International Space Station when Bill McArthur encouraged Coloma students to “… get the best education [they] can …”

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