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Hams in the Sky

A 3-element tribander Fritzel beam 20-15-10m erected in LX, and waiting for a QSO via the gray line. Success assured. Document T.Lombry.

LX4SKY calling... (I)

Here is one more reason to become amateur radio instead of being bored !... There are about 1/2000th of the world population, over 3 millions people, involved in amateur radio activities. This is probably one of the largest amateur community. Among them a noticeable fraction, maybe 500,000 hams are interested in astronomy and connexed fields.

Look around you. There is more than probably an OM or an (X)YL who appreciates to look at the dark sky, doing visual observations of celestial objects, practicing high resolution astrophotography, having subscribed to an astronomy magazine or studying astronomy on a theoretical basis. 

Some have still a transceiver but they don't work much on the air. Others are professional astronomers or physicists and speak about astronomy or cosmology on the air during the rare moments of freedom that their job still offer them. At last a hundred of them have been enroled as astronauts onboard the International Space Station.

However one thing has surprised me. Many radio amateurs who are today interested in astronomy were first amateur astronomers and keep continue to practice astronomy, in the field or participating in conferences, reading books, magazines or answering posts on forums. Conversely amateur astronomers having started with amateur radio are less often involved in astronomy.

ASP's lecture : Astronomy and Education

There could be an explanation to this difference of behaviour. There is a direct link between astronomy and nature. And from top to down, if we study the astronomy, one or another day we study properties of the Sun, the Earth and at last the ones of the geomagnetosphere and the way that shortwaves propagate in the ionosphere or the way that aurora occur. So at the end we wonder if amateur radio activities could not help us to study the ionosphere or even estimate the flux density of the Sun. Et voilą, our amateur astronomer is became an amateur radio !

This link is less apparent when you begin to learn a technical matter as radioelectricity or regulation ! You can study in depth electronics and all active components and stay years far from the stars, the noose thrown in your calculations and your transistors.

You will emerge again from behind your oscilloscope when someone will speak you about antenna and propagation. Suddenly you will make the link with the ionosphere, the sky and thus with astronomy. 

Following this case study I arrive to the conclusion that there are much more amateur astronomers involved in amateur radio activities than hams practicing astronomy.

At left Roy David, WB9RKN, does not imagine how he is privileged to live close to Palomar mountain and its famous observatory... also know to be a high place of broadcast relays. At right, our friend Clifton Lasky, KD6QLG, with his 12" Dobsonian.

There are a lot of stars on the air !..., I mean well-known amateur or professional astronomers owner of an amateur radio license. Indeed, in posting special requests on forums and reflectors to find "hams in the sky" I have not realized that a lot of readers concerned by both activities where in fact standby behind their computer or their telescope. Check by yourself :

Let's review in a few lines some of these people as some of them can claim much of the credit in the development or radioastronomy, SETI programs and other applied sciences. Our representative are at work up to NASA headquarter and in the largest observatories.

To download : The list of "Hams in the Sky" (76 Kb, xls)


First of all, honor to pioneers. A significant part of professional radioastronomers share of course a passion for shortwaves. All began in the early 1930 when the famous Grote Rober, received his call sign W9GFZ and became a "DX addict" as he described himself. But as he wrote, by 1936 "after contacted hams in more than 60 countries and making WAC, there did not appear to be any more worlds to conquer". This is at this time that he read Karl Jansky's article in the Proceedings of the IRE, explaining how he discovered the first emission from the center of the Milky Way. Rebert found a new DX challenge !

At left Grote Reber, W9GFZ, in 1937. At center his recordings of cosmic static as published in Astrophysical Journal, Vol.100, p279 in 1944. At right Reber in his office at NRAO in the 1960s. Documents NRAO.

He spent the summer holidays of 1937 to build a 10m-diameter parabolic dish antenna made of wood and iron tuned on what he called the "ultra high" frequency of 160 MHz to listen to the celestial bodies. He made also some tests at 3300 and 900 MHz but recorded too much made-made interferences. As he related himself, this antenna became "an item of local curiosity" in his hometown of Wheaton, Illinois. He turned it rapidly to the sky and discovered radio emissions from the Sun, Jupiter storms, the emission of the Milky Way and several deep sky radiosources among them Cygnus-A and Cassiopeia-A..

Reber integrated soon the Green Bank Telescope team managed by NRAO and donated them his antenna in the early 1960s. Reber published his first radio map of the Milky Way in 1939 in the same Proceedings as well as in Nature, and published many scientific works until the late 1980s.

Today his call sign was reassigned to the NRAO Amateur Radio Club, W9GFZ located in Socorro, the home NRAO operations in New Mexico.

Above left Groter Reber, W9GFZ' s parabolic dish of 10m (31.4 ft) in diameter that he used in 1938 in his backyard of Wheaton, Illinois. At center Reber standing in front of his antenna now at the permanently historical display on the NRAO grounds in Green Bank, WV. The picture was taken in the late 1970s after the telescope was painted red, white, and blue for the US bicentennial. At right the new Green Bank Telescope, nickname GBT, erected in 2004. This is a 7,000-ton steerable dish of 100x110m in diameter. How does it perform ? Compared to ham standards, at 432 MHz the GBT provides more than 51.5 dB gain ! In other words, if you place a 7 W signal at the prime focus, it will be radiated with an effective power of 1 megawatts ! Below the VLA used in Carl Sagan's film Contact.

All carriers take together, project manager, software engineer, safety officer, HVAC mechanic and other RF engineer, the NRAO gathers approximatively 10% of radio amateurs, much more than in any other scientific field. Even Radio and TV broadcasts or large spectrum users like Motorola (satellites) or Sony do not reach such a percentage. Among them our friend David Finley alias N1IRZ, who also contributes to ARRL's QST magazine from time to time.

At Jodrell Bank, U.K. as well, a handful employees are radio amateurs, to name for example Ian Morison, the senior Project Manager, alias G0DMU. Ian makes also a special appearance in the SF film "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (HG2) released in summer 2005 and based on Douglas Adams' famous cult-novel (better known to the English-spoken community than to French-speaking one albeit his novels were translated in French as well).

In the framework of radioastronomy, we cannot avoid to speak about the SETI community gathering both professional and amateur astronomers.

Name first Paul Horowitz, alias W1HFA who has pursued a passion for amateur radio since childhood. Heading the Harvard University SETI effort, Paul designed projects META (1985) and BETA (1995) partly founded by the Planetary Society. Since 1998 he has turned his interests and expertise to Optical SETI.

John Kraus alias W8JK (sk. 18 July 2004) designed many radio telescopes including the Big Ear of Ohio State University, the institution that conducted the longest running continous SETI sky survey in history (100,000 hours between 1973-1986). 

To check: SETI programs carried out to date

(46 KB .XLS file, also in French)

John Kraus' graduate student Bob Dixon, alias W8ERD, who also participated in OSU SETI survey succeeded him as Director of the OSU Radio Observatory and since 1995 he helps amateurs in designing the ARGUS radio telescope.

Kent Cullers alias WA6TWX is the first blind individual to earn a PhD in astronomy. He is better know to the public as "Kent Clark", the character based upon him in the popular film "Contact". Kent Cullers developed some of the signal detection algorithms for the late NASA SETI program and later for the SETI Institute's PHOENIX project.

Richard Factor, alias WA2IKL refused the cancellation of NASA SETI program by the Congress in 1993 and decided in 1994 to found the private organization The SETI League, Inc, gathering today 1450 members in 66 countries. The League objective is to promote radioastronomy, helping amateurs to build their radiotelescope and software, coordinating all-sky surveys, giving conference, publishing articles, etc about SETI. Today, The SETI League's main medium of communication is through its extensive website along with half a dozen specialized e-mail discussion lists (reflectors) as well as its "Contact In Context" on-line scientific magazine.

Name also Dr H.Paul Shuch alias N6TX, the volunteer Executive Director of The SETI League, Inc. Like David Finley, Paul Shuch sometimes contributes to QST and other magazines in encouraging amateurs to participate in SETI.

At last, because we have to end somewhere, there is Seth Shostak alias N6UDK working at the SETI Institute. Seth is well-known for his scientific program addressed to the public; through his face on US television, his voice on broadcast radio and his writings (articles and books) dealing with SETI.

The only one larger group of "hams in the sky" is in fact a special guest star. It is constituted of the hundreds of astronauts and cosmonauts who hold a radio amateur license.

NA1SS calling Earth...

Alexander Kalery, U8MIR, and Mike Foale, KB5UAC, who joined ISS crew orbiting Earth in October 2003. Up to now 24 crews joined ISS for missions that last several months. More than 100 astronauts and cosmonauts are also involved in amateur radio activities.

If everybody knows who was the first man to walk on the Moon[1], do you remember who was the first ham to operate from space ? Amateur radio operated for the first time from space on November 30, 1983. It was Owen Garriott, W5LFL, one of the six scientist-astronauts boarded on the space shuttle Columbia, STS-9 mission, better known as Spacelab-1. There is a long time ago...

The transceiver was a portable Motorola, the VHF antenna being fixed inside the space shuttle near the porthole. As told Owen, "from a modest beginning two decades ago, ham radio has grown to become an integral part of planning for human space flight operations. It is an important, even essential, element in space station operations, contributing even to safety of flight".

It was AMSAT-NA and ARRL that persuaded NASA that Amateur Radio could greatly enhance NASA's public outreach and educational programs.

Two years later, in July and August 1985, Tony England, W0ORE operated on Spacelab-2 on 2 meters FM-voice and created SAREX (short for Shuttle Amateur Radio EXperiment) in order that more youth experiment the thrill of talking in real-time to astronauts by shortwaves.

Then in 1988, Russian amateur radio worked from the space station Mir. The first cosmonaut to operate was Vladimir Titov, U1MIR. It was only on July 5, 1997 that the first SSTV transmission was operated, showing to hams worldwide real-time shots of Mir team at work. These images were exceptionally free of QRM.

Since that time radio amateurs started their own planning for what is now called ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station). It became the guest star introducing the IMAX film "Space Station" in 2002.

Remember than in 2007, ARISS team should install a S-band transceiver (2400-2450 MHz) of 10 W output and a Digital Amateur Radio Television (DATV) station on board the European Columbus module of ISS.

In this context, remember also that NASA's administrator (2005) is a radio amateur, Mike Griffin helds indeed the license NR3A. He understands better than other administrators what can be the impact of QRM, including the one of the electric thrusters (ET) exhaut plumes - the famous Russian "ET shadow experiment" -, on radio amateur traffic. Mike is also at the best place to support ARISS when we know that NASA has already plans for missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Today over a hundred astronauts are radio amateurs and have worked on VHF from various space missions and recently from ISS under the generic call sign NA1SS. At some occasions these transmissions are relayed on the Echolink AMSAT Conference server.

Not only astronauts have helped the ham community to launch their ham satellites, some by hand, but in 2001 Susan Helms, KC7NHZ, took part in the first ARRL Field Day activated from space !

Some astronauts' QSLs. Crews of space missions work with hams in various modes from packet to SSTV and soon DATV, including voice. In VHF, up/downlinks are on 145.200/145.800 MHz. The S-band transceiver works on 2400-2450 MHz. Their ISS fan club is always very active.

Space tourists

Last but not least, on October 1, 2005, ISS saw the first "space tourist" holding an amateur radio ticket. Indeed, Greg Olsen of Princeton, New Jersey, got his technician license KC2ONX just before to undergo his cosmonaut training in Russia for his 8-days visit onboard ISS thanks to a Soyuz spacecraft. Greg holds a PhD in materials sciences. He founded Sensors Unlimited in 1991 and sold it in 2000 for $700 million. Remember that his trip was arranged by Space Adventures on behalf of the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation (FSA). Greg paid his ticket about $20 million for the privilege of being the third civilian "space tourist", behind Mark Shuttleworth and Dennis Tito, this latter being a retired NASA engineer.

But do never forget that these ARISS and other radio amateur activities are few of the many accomplishments results from the work of many volunteers that make possible over the years for hams to communicate with astronauts in orbit.

Take the opportunity to contact these hams on the air, on Echolink or in packet radio to speak about their job or astronomy and share ideas on subjects that we all appreciate. Be sure that many SWLs will listen to you too !

Have a clear and dark sky !

I warmly thank David Finley, N1IRZ, senior news editor at QST magazine from ARRL, and Paul Shuch, N6TX, from The SETI League, for their contribution in writing this article and keeping it updated.

For more information

Famous hams (Excel file listing some celebrities)

SETI League, Inc.

An Introduction to Amateur Satellites, W0ECC (PDF on AMSAT website)

ISS and Ham radio, NASA Spaceflight

ISS Fan Club

ARISS (net)

ARISS (EU, provides also a maillist)


Monitoring NASA communications (frequency list)


Jodrell Bank

Astronaut biographies, NASA/JSC


Apollo 11

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[1] If you don't remember it was Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969 (Apollo 11). Buzz Aldrin was with him while Michael Collins was in the Command module orbiting the Moon.

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