On April 12, 2013, I received my Industry Canada amateur radio license. The document's official title is "Certificate of Proficiency in Amateur Radio". It was something I wanted to have since I was a teenager, but never really got around to it.  Thankfully, I took the plunge when a fellow RMC graduate student informed me of a Kingston amateur radio course in late 2012. After attending the course for about 10 weeks, I was on the air.

Although I could legally transmit on high frequency (HF), very high frequency (VHF) and ultra high frequency (UHF), I decided to begin with VHF and UHF only because I was especially interested in contacting amateur radio satellites, such as Saudisat 1C (SO-50) and JAS-2 (FO-29). I was excited by the prospect of using an orbiting satellite to briefly speak with other like-minded amateur radio enthusiasts.

I made my first successful contact with SO-50 at about 16:25 UTC on May 9, 2013 while using the VE3RMC amateur radio station at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC). I recorded the contacts made on that day and the audio file is available on my Satellites on Radio page. It was originally very difficult to make absolutely sure that I could contact the satellite until I received a response. My first contact (QSO) was AC0RA in Illinois USA. I have since (sporadically) talked with many amateurs using the SO-50 FM and FO-29 SSB cubesats using the VE3RMC amateur station.

Before Christmas Day 2013, I ordered a Baofeng UV-5r Pro hand-held VHF/UHF transceiver (shown below) with the hope of contacting nearby ground-based repeaters and cubesats from my home near Kingston, Ontario. Although the hand-held transceiver had much less power than RMC's iCom 910 transceiver (~5 Watts versus ~50 Watts) I knew that the cubesat output was much less than the hand-held (normally 1/2 Watt or less). I knew that I had a chance of contacting cubesats when their ranges from my location were under 1000 km.

The Baofeng UV-5r Pro VHF/UHF Hand-Held Transceiver with Supplied "Rubber Duck" Antenna

I first attempted to hear the cubesats as they passed overhead. Predicting when they would pass over my location was easy enough, but knowing how to position the hand-held and its small "rubber duck" antenna was a different matter. I had to use trial and error in order to determine if I could detect them or not.

The first cubesat that I heard with the hand-held was SwissCube at 05:19 UTC January 10, 2014. Since the transceiver was FM only (no CW capability), I could only hear the "thump" and not the beeps of the morse code being transmitted. I could hear it for only a few minutes before it was too far away to receive with the small antenna. However, I had confirmed that I could detect cubesats with my modest hand-held.

My next task was to transmit to the SO-50 FM cubesat (shown below) transponder with my hand-held and receive a reply as verification of contact. My first attempt was at 22:52 UTC on January 12, 2014. Although my transmission frequency and PL tone were set properly, I received no response. My window of opportunity was as short as that for SwissCube two days earlier: only a few minutes. I made several more attempts in January but was unsuccessful. Although I could clearly hear the transmissions from the satellite, I could not verify a response from my transmissions. I began to think that my transceiver's output was not strong enough to activate SO-50's transponder, even though I could reliably contact both of the Kingston repeaters (VE3KBR and VE3FRG) from 40 km away, as long as I was outside the house when doing so.

The SaudiSat 1C (SO-50) Amateur Cubesat. SO-50 is a 1U (10x10x10cm) cube that transmits with a maximum power of only 250mW (1/4 Watt)

After predicting a favourable pass of SO-50 in the first week of February, I decided to try SO-50 out once again. The skies were cloudy on the night of February 6/7, 2014 and there was a snow squall warning for my area, but I thought that I might as well try regardless. Near 00:20 UTC on February 7, 2014, I was standing outside in a snow squall trying to contact a small 10x10x10cm cube (not much larger than a coffee mug) at a range of 700 km from my house. I transmitted my call sign (VE3HEO) and my grid square (FN14) in the hopes that I would finally receive a response. Only a few seconds later, I heard my own call sign being broadcast back to me through the SO-50 cubesat! I had received a verification that I had indeed contacted the SO-50 cubesat using a $50 hand-held transceiver! I was both overjoyed and excited that I could do something so incredible with such a small piece of technology (on both sides).

When I was a child, I never would have imagined that I could have contacted an orbiting satellite using something as small as a walkie-talkie. None of this would have been possible if I did not get my amateur radio license in 2013. Now I can detect satellites (and now also contact them) not only in clear skies but in most weather conditions, thanks to amateur radio.








Talking to Cubesats Was Last Modified On February 07, 2014