Amateur Satellites

Satellite Communications

My first big project with Amateur Radio was Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellite Communications. I made hundreds of contacts on UO-14 before it went silent in the summer of 2003. I was taught how to do this by my friend Cal, N3CAL. My primary setup was a handheld “Arrow Antenna” and Kenwood TH-F6A Dual Band HT.

Most of the time, I use the Arrow Antenna in a handheld configuration for ease of movement, unlike the tripod mount shown.

Tips for Satellite Operating

  1. aj-arrow2When working a bird for the first time, just listen. You will soon notice that there are different operating practices on different birds. The FM birds will be the most different from the others. Part of this is due to their short access time over a particular area and partly because only one person can talk through them at a time. You will hear the exchanges of callsigns just like you did on HF but you will also hear something like EM77 or FN41. These are known as gridsquares and are collected by some for awards such as VUCC. You can think of VUCC similar to DXCC but oriented for VHF/UHF.
  2. Satellites pass over your horizon at different angles from the horizon. When first working a bird, look at working with the higher passes so you will have more of a clear shot at “seeing” the bird. As you become more comfortable with working a particular bird, you can work progessively lower and lower passes. The clearer your path to the horizon will make it easier for you to work a bird as its pass gets lower to the horizon.
  3. aj-arrow-calIf you are starting out with a hand held beam similar to the Arrow Antenna, get a compass for a sporting goods store and use that to find where on the horizon that satellite will appear (AOS – Aquisition of Signal) and where it will disappear on the horizon (LOS – Loss of Signal). You can get these numbers for a particular pass from some of the satellite pass prediction software packages such as Nova or from web sites such as http://www.heavens-above.com. Check each of the settings several times before the pass you want to work the bird so that you become familiar with where the bird will appear and disappear from your field of view.
  4. When working with pre-amps to boost the received signal, place them as close to the antenna is possible. Part of why you are using the pre-amps is to make up for the signal loss in the cable that you are connecting the antenna and the radio together with. Use the best cable you can get. Low Loss cable such as Low Loss 400 is popular.
  5. When operating handheld, logging contacts may be a challenge. I have found that using a micro-cassette recorder and let it hear what I am hearing from the receiver and playing it back after the pass is over will help your sanity in working the satellites.
  6. To keep up with the constantly changing state of some of the satellites, subscribe to the Amsat-BB reflector. You will find a good collection of fellow operators here who can help answer your questions. You will also find that a condition change of a satellite will show up on the reflector before you may see it change on the Amsat Satellite Status page.
  7. To really work the satellites easily, you will need to run in full-duplex mode or in other words, you will need to hear your signal on the downlink. While you can get away from this to a degree on the FM birds, it will be easier and more fun to work the birds when you can hear how well you are getting into the birds. This will mean some type of headset plugged into the receiver so that the built in speaker doesn’t feed back into the microphone for the uplink. You don’t have to get fancy but do get something that will be comfortable to wear.