A dream finally realized: Working the ISS!

Wow! Has it really been 2.5 YEARS since I’ve posted here? I suppose so, as I haven’t done any amateur radio in at least that long. 

Anyway, the Covid-19 pandemic forced me to shelter at home for a couple months, and during that time, I felt like it would be a good idea to exercise the radios. I pulled out the FT-817 and enjoyed listening to QSOs on all bands, listened in on local nets on my handheld, and just cleaned up the shack a bit.

My shack computer, an iMac from 2011, gets used for video editing and recording audio — however, I dual boot it into Windows 7 for ham radio ops. I hadn’t done that in a while, but I was pleasantly surprised to see DX Lab and all my logging programs were still intact. The K3 and P3 still fired right up. 

Satisfied that everything was still in working order. I turned my attention back to other matters — making music, work projects, producing podcasts (more on that in a future post perhaps), and other trivial things. 

A couple weeks back on Reddit I saw a post on the amateur radio subreddit, from a gentleman who received a QSL card from the ISS, after working the station’s digipeater with APRS. I got into ham radio back in late 2011 specifically for the purpose of communicating with the ISS. Short of receiving some voice transmissions, and slow-scan TV, I’d never successfully talked with anyone aboard the station.

Owing to my own ignorance, I had no idea you could get a QSL card from the station by using the packet digipeater — in fact, I didn’t even understand what the digipeater was. Talk about not doing my homework — this is the BEST way to use the amateur gear aboard the ISS and probably the only chance of success, unless we get another astronaut onboard that enjoys talking to hams.

So, with some interest in radio being slowly rekindled, and feeling some pride for humanity after the first manned SpaceX launch in late May, I decided it was time to once again try working the ISS — this time, using packet, a mode I knew next to nothing about.

I don’t own a packet modem, but I always enjoyed the sound card digital modes, so surely there is a way to use something like a Signalink to operate packet. There sure is: Enter the UISS program. That’s all you need!

This past weekend I assembled my dual-band Yagi LEO satellite antenna and listened for the ISS on a Saturday pass using my VX-7. The uplink and downlink is VHF, 145.825. Yep, the digipeater was active. I could hear it easily, and recorded the transmissions on my phone. I later decoded them with UISS and confirmed I was indeed hearing the station, operating under the Russian callsign, RS0ISS.

Sunday, I configured UISS, re-jumpered my Signalink for the FT-817 (Yep, let’s do this QRP), and got up before dawn on Monday for an early morning ISS pass. I was not successful. I heard perhaps three transmissions from the station over the Yagi. Only one was decoded. I transmitted my APRS information repeatedly, but I wasn’t picked up, according to the “stations heard” page run by ARISS. Back to the drawing board.

Later that night, I pulled out my FT-8800 mobile rig and configured it for packet using 50W of power. I decided I would use a vertical mag-mount antenna for my next attempt, which would be on Wednesday around 1 p.m. It was a low ISS pass, but in the northeast sky. From my backyard, I have a clear view in this direction.

I also realized my sound card settings needed some tweaking. While monitoring my signal during testing, it sounded like the full packet wasn’t getting transmitted. I adjusted the transmission delay in software to make the radio to wait a half second between keying up and sending the packet data.

The Wednesday pass couldn’t have gone better. Right as the station came over the horizon I could hear packets. The transmissions were scratchy at first, then became very clear. UISS was decoding nearly everything. I transmitted several times and got responses back from hams up and down the east coast: Virginia, Florida, and New Jersey.

A portion of the exchanges captured are below:

00:00:01:49 : RS0ISS]CQ,qAO,K4KDR-15:]ARISS - International Space Station

00:00:01:49 : N1RCN-6]CQ,RS0ISS*,qAO,K4KDR-15:=2701.15N/08202.30Wy de n1rcn EL87 Florida
00:00:02:10 : K4KDR-6]CQ,RS0ISS*,ARISS,qAO,K4KDR-15::KM4TJO :Heard you via ISS in Montpelier, VA FM17es
00:00:02:13 : N1RCN-6]CQ,RS0ISS*,qAO,N4WXB-10::KK4DSD :de n1rcn EL87 Florida
00:00:02:18 : KM4TJO]S6TU8Q,RS0ISS*,WIDE2-1,qAO,K4KDR-15:'h&Vl -/] Eric's D710G=
00:00:02:25 : KK4DSD]CQ,RS0ISS*,qAO,N4WXB-10:=3408.45N/08052.30W-73 via Satellite {UISS54}
00:00:02:42 : K4KDR-6]CQ,RS0ISS*,ARISS,qAO,K4KDR-15::VA3TYB-7 :Heard you via ISS in Montpelier, VA FM17es
00:00:02:54 : VA3TYB-7]T4PT1X,RS0ISS*,BIRDMY,qAR,KA8YES-6:'k6sl \YK]CQ CQ Looking for APRS QSOs, live op!=
00:00:03:00 : K4KDR-6]CQ,RS0ISS*,ARISS,qAO,K4KDR-15::KK4DSD :QSL - 73!!
00:00:03:06 : KK4DSD]CQ,RS0ISS*,qAO,K4KDR-15::K4KDR-6 :59 de KK4DSD, 73
00:00:03:09 : WA2NDV-4]APRS,RS0ISS*,qAO,K4KDR-15::KK4DSD :Copy you in FN30 QSL 73
00:00:03:15 : K4KDR-6]CQ,RS0ISS*,ARISS,qAO,K4KDR-15::KK4DSD :Heard you via ISS in Montpelier, VA FM17es
00:00:03:20 : KK4DSD]CQ,RS0ISS*,qAO,K4KDR-15::WA2NDV-4 :59 de KK4DSD, 73

I was also spotted on both aprs.fi and the ARISS stations heard page:

To say I was over the moon, would be an understatement. I’m looking forward to doing this again, preferably using QRP! The best part is, it doesn’t take any crazy or expensive gear to do it: An old 2-meter rig, a cheap mag-mount antenna, some free software and a sound card is all you need.

Tubular Bells and VLF interference

This is amazing! Low frequency Morse code embedded in the recording of Oldfield’s classic album, Tubular Bells.

I love these intersections of radio and music. I was obsessed with the Tubular Bell’s album for much of my senior year in high school after I learned that the music had been featured in the classic horror film, The Exorcist. The music itself is eerie enough, but this just adds another layer of intrigue.

I may have to pull out my CD and give this a shot!

Ham Radio Blog PD0AC

Tubular BellsRemember that album from Mike Oldfield? A user on YouTube found out that this album contains a hidden and unintentional CW message.

This was caused by a powerful VLF station located next to the recording studio, which interfered with the recording equipment. Because the signal is very weak nobody ever noticed it — until now.

The video below shows you how to receive VLF signals with nothing else than an antenna plugged into the microphone input of your sound card and SDRSharp to make it visible and audible.

The decoding of the the Tubular Bells signal is shown at 9:54.

(via Reddit)

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We’re doing good work in S.C.

A growing group of hams in South Carolina are on the verge of doing some great things in the world of amateur radio contesting. The state’s last W1AW/4 effort showed that 26 radio operators statewide could be coordinated for a massively successful week-long endeavor spanning all bands and modes.

I’ll cite the last report from our state’s ARRL section manager, Marc, N4UFP:

A team of operators under the leadership of Don Crain, W4OC, put SC on the air as part of the W1AW/P centennial operation. They made just under 30,000 QSOs in one week. I want to thank Don for his leadership and also to thank all the operators for volunteering their time. They did a fantastic job!

I was lucky enough to participate in the W1AW operation and I worked hundreds of QSOs on RTTY several nights on 3-4 bands, where I enjoyed massive pile-ups, particularly on 40 meters.

Some of the folks involved in the W1AW operation have formed a statewide contest group, the Swamp Fox Contesting Group, and I’m excited to see where that club goes. I don’t have an ideal “contest” station as such, but I do enjoy working a contest every now and then to test my capabilities. Nothing will improve your skills as an operator like a contest will, and like any competitive activity, it’s a lot of fun.

I’m looking ahead to the S.C. QSO Party and it will be here next weekend. I don’t intend to go mobile this year, despite having an epic time back in 2013. I’ll try and operate SSB and digital and we’ll see what happens!

QRMed by my wife

I was tuning around on 20 meters Monday night and came across a nice signal from VP8LP out of the Falkland Islands off the coast of South America. Having never worked this rare DX, and eager to add a new entity to my log, I started throwing my call into the pile-up. Propagation seemed strong, and I felt like my chances of making a contact would be good, albeit challenging with the pile-up and changing band conditions.

In the next room my wife was running an electric carpet cleaner. All the doors were closed, so the roaring noise didn’t bother me.

I tossed my call into the mix and got a response: “The KK4 … sierra delta station?” Close enough — I called again. He came back to me again, one letter off my call. I was just about to repeat my call when my wife cranked up the floor cleaner again. An angry buzzing sound erupted from my speaker as I heard the DX station repeating my call. The buzzing continued, apparently electrical interference from the carpet cleaner. It was like a power line hum, but louder and harsher. I tried to respond to the Falkland station, but all I could hear was that electrical hum.

I sighed. Went to speak to my wife. She agreed to turn it off for a few minutes. When I came back to the radio, the DX station was shutting down — somewhat ironically, because he was concerned he was transmitting on top of another DX station on the frequency. I tuned around but never discovered where he QSYed to.

Last night I was tuning around 40 meters and came across a very loud, very clear and distinct familiar voice. Even before I heard his call, I recognized Bob Heil, K9EID. I don’t have a Heil mic but he obviously builds nice gear because he sounded amazing. I’m sold.

Naturally, being a celebrity of sorts (after all, he is the host of Ham Nation…), he had a nice pile-up going. Randoms hams asking him technical questions about audio and their how to set their rigs up. It was like an on-air help desk.