ESA has announced the inauguration of its “Ham TV” broadcasts from its Columbus laboratory module on the International Space Station (ISS), which will allow the station to talk to amateur radio operators using video equipment, as well as providing space crews with a backup means of contacting mission control. Using equipment developed by Kayser Italia and brought to the station last August on a Japanese space freighter, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins made the first video chat with ground stations in Livorno, Casale Monferrato and Matera, Italy.
Ham radio has been a part of space exploration since the first Sputnik launch in 1957 when radio amateurs tracked its historic beeps across the sky. In 1961, the first ham radio satellite, Oscar 1, was launched, and hams have been chatting with the ISS since its commissioning in 2000. The ISS orbits only about 350 km (220 mi) above the Earth, which is very easily within range of the average ham set. The only real trick is having the directional gear to work on the S-waveband used by the station.
The new set up was commissioned last month for general use. ESA says that though the video feed is one way, the astronauts can still hear the hams using the standard radio gear. However, the contact is brief because it must be line-of-sight, so it can only work when the ISS is above the horizon.
To help keep Ham TV on the air, ESA has provided five transportable ground stations to the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station organization. These can be linked together to provide video contact for up to 20 minutes at a time. The agency also hopes that the set up will also be used for educational purposes in schools.
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