WAITING FOR THE RUSSIANS
SATELLITE ADVENTURES IN THE CARIBBEAN
BY BILL, N2CQR/HI8
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It was one a.m. and the satellite was approaching from the south. Our computers had followed it as it had passed over Australia and crossed the South Pole. Now it was zipping through the night sky over South America at 14,000 miles per hour, 600 miles above the surface of the earth. The computers told us that it would rise over Santo Domingo's moonlit Caribbean horizon at precisely 1:32 a.m. local.
We were ready for it. Luis Ernesto (HI8LEZ) was seated in his shack across town. We both had our two meter FM rigs on 145.6 mhz simplex - the net frequency for Radio Club Dominicano. At more civilized hours this frequency was filled with the friendly daily chatter of our club, but at one a.m. we had the frequency entirely to ourselves. We were getting ready to do something a little different. We were waiting for a Russian.
With our equipment ready and double-checked, there was nothing to do but wait. We passed the time by shooting the breeze on two meters. The conversation was in Spanish and the subject matter was ham radio. Luis Ernesto and I had been hams for many years. Although we had grown up in different countries our involvement in amateur radio had provided a lot of common ground. As the bird flew over Bolivia we spoke of how good it was to be once more involved in a late night ham radio adventure. There is something special about late night radio work - the darkness and the quiet add an element of mystery and intrigue. With sunspots scarce, where there had once been exotic DX our radios were lately emitting nothing but a disheartening hiss. But now the Russian had put us back in the late night radio business.
We were waiting for the Russian amateur radio satellite RS-12. Launched in 1991 and riding aboard the COSMOS-2123 navigation satellite, RS-12 is currently set up for Mode K operations. That means it takes signals (CW or SSB) from a 15 meter uplink passband and retransmits them on a ten meter downlink. RS-12 is one of the easiest of the EASY-SATS. See the February 1994 QST for details on how to work this satellite.
The members of Radio Club Dominicano had been interested in satellite communication for some time, but we had lacked easily accessible information on satellite orbits - information on when the "birds" would be visible to us. Early in January 1994, I had the good fortune of conversing with two U.S. hams (W9CZI and AA1GW) who are satellite enthusiasts. They had kindly provided me with the times for some good RS-12 passes for the Dominican Republic. With much trepidation and lots of luck I managed to make my first satellite QSO. I'd read that for many hams their first satellite QSO was as exciting as their very first contact or their first DX. Now I understood! I was elated to hear my signal coming back to earth on the ten meter downlink and even more pleased when W9GUP answered my CQ. I felt that my old rig (HT-37, Drake 2B and dipoles) had entered the space age! I had successfully defied a declining sunspot count! I was hooked.
Fortunately, satellite tracking software arrived from AMSAT very quickly. I got the ORBITS II program and ran it without difficulty on my old 286, CGA graphics computer. The acquisition of this software was a major step forward in our space program. Now at a glance we could see the precise locations over the earth of all the satellites we were interested in. Also, we could easily ask the computer to tell us precisely when the satellite would be next appearing over the horizon. I'd advise anyone interested in satellites to make the purchase of tracking software their first step. Aside from being indispensable to your operations, the software in itself is a lot of fun. Several of us have found ourselves mesmerized by the map of the world and the little numbers representing the various birds. At first it seems unlikely that this little display represents actual objects in space, but confirmation comes when you tune to the beacon frequency of one of the spacecraft and hear the signal just as the "foot print" of the satellite crosses your QTH!
Now Luis Ernesto was going to try for a QSO. As we spoke on 2 meters, my tracking program showed the northern edge of the satellite's "footprint" moving across the Caribbean and approaching our island. "Lets tune for the beacon!" Right on cue, there it was - faint CW on 29.408 sending telemetry and the callsign RS-12. We waited a few minutes for the satellite to rise in the sky. "O.K Luis Ernesto - call CQ and I'll try to find you on the downlink!" I tuned the ten meter downlink band but somehow missed his signal. By the time I found him, he was already a Satellite Communicator! He worked five stations on that first pass. Now there were two satellite addicts in the DR.
During the days ahead Luis Ernesto and I both lost lots of sleep because of the Russian satellite. The orbital trajectory continued to put the bird over the Dominican Republic at around one A.M. local. We joked about how perilous it would be to explain our fatigue to co-workers by explaining that we had to stay up late because we needed to talk to a Russian Satellite that flies over our houses every night at 1 a.m.! (For someone who works in the American Embassy, this is an especially dangerous explanation.)
RS-12 is a lot of fun and provides amateur radio operators the opportunity to toy with the heavens. While attempting to coordinate a contact with HI8P (The Dominican Republics's only life member of AMSAT), I was having a bit of trouble finding him in the downlink. Headphones on, I was carefully scrutinizing the ten meter band. Suddenly I heard - from space- the sound of a phone ringing! How strange! ("Spock! What's that?") It took me a moment to realize that in my excitement I was gripping the push-to-talk and that the headphones had prevented me from hearing my phone ringing - except via the satellite path. The phone call was from HI8P - I congratulated him on his first RS-12 connection.
RS-12 also provides a great opportunity for friendly assistance to interested fellow hams - Outer Space Elmering. Newcomers to the satellites really need some information and guidance - frequencies, how to cope with Doppler and - above all - info on when the bird will be overhead. Anyone who has made a few contacts and has a tracking program running is in position to help others get into this exciting and different mode. One Sunday morning I told a friendly group of DXers on 20 meter SSB (K8JP and the group) that I would soon have to QSY because the satellite was coming over the North Pole. That was enough to get them interested. Within minutes the whole group had shifted to the satellite frequency and made satellite contact. Later - back on 20 meters - they chastised me for afflicting them with a new addiction.
In addition to providing opportunities for contact with other earthlings, the RS-12 satellite allows you to make your first extraterrestrial QSO! There is a robot onboard. I had heard the robot but I'd never been able to work him. One morning the heavens were aligned properly: the satellite's footprint had moved away from the heavy activity in the eastern U.S. but - from my Caribbean perch - I still had the bird in sight. RS-12 was calling CQ. I gave him a call in the proper format and - miracle of miracles - a robot in outer space responded to my call. The robot is a very courteous ham - he says "thank you", wishes you 73 and follows up with a QSL (via a manager in Germany!) FB!
Obviously I've really enjoyed getting involved in the satellites - I've found this part of our hobby to be a great way to learn about space sciences and physics. Contrary to popular opinion, the satellites do provide lots of opportunities to employ home brew gear and - as my old tube-type station demonstrates - you don't need to buy a small scale version of the Johnson Space Flight Center to get into the fun. An old version of the Satellite Experimenter's handbook provided some sage advice: start out simple and take things one step at a time. Get some experience on the EASY-SATS and then move on - little by little, receive system first - to the more advanced satellites. Each time you work through a new satellite, you'll get the satisfaction that comes from technological conquest along with something of the thrill DXers get from "working a new one."
Have fun! See you on the satellite! 73!
RS-12 has really whetted our appetites and has sparked a real burst of interest in the Amateur Satellite program. Several of our club members are getting set up for satellite operations on RS-12; soon Pericle, HI8P got into the action with successful RS12 contacts. We are getting set up for other birds and we are exploring the possibility of setting up a DR chapter of AMSAT. RS12 is a great "club activity." It's the kind of thing that lends itself to cooperation and team effort. Most hams won't have to make any big investments in new equipment, but working even this "EASY SAT" usually requires a little coaching from and Elmer until the new guy gets the hang of it.
I found that working one satellite quickly leads to a desire to get on other "birds." We quickly set up our computers to track a number of low orbit satellites with downlinks we could copy (downlinks on two or ten meters). Soon we were listening to the RS-10, AO-21 and DOVE satellites. During Space Shuttle mission STS- 60 we got the Keplerian elements from a BBS in the U.S. and we think we managed to hear a few packet bursts from the spacecraft. We've done the same with the MIR station.
RS-10 was my next conquest - a number of articles on this satellite suggest that it is possible to work this bird by simply using a two meter FM rig as a CW transmitter (using the Push to Talk as a key). I tried this with my old Yaesu memorizer and I managed to get a signal through the bird, but it was so chirpy that I myself had trouble copying it! Undaunted, I opened up the rig (my first time inside a Yaesu!) found the 12 volt line supplying power to the final amplifier and the driver cut the line and interposed some RG-174 mini coax. Connecting a key to the other end of the line and closing the PTT circuit at the mike jack with a little jumper cable, I found the quality of the CW (while still far from perfect) had improved considerably. Soon I had worked W1JSM via RS-10! I'm something of a QRPer and I found that I took special delight in this RS-10 contact - the thought that my little store-bought 2 meter FM radio had just worked New Hampshire on CW was well...pleasing!
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