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Man in Backyard Talks to Orbiting Astronaut Using Homemade Antenna

A Michigan ham radio operator used a homemade setup with a handheld antenna to talk to an astronaut orbiting the Earth on the International Space Station. I didn’t know this was a thing! The astronaut even sent him a QSL card acknowledging the conversation (included at the end of the video). There’s more info on Reddit about the radio, antenna, and conversation.

The ISS even has an unofficial program that allows students to talk to astronauts on the station via ham radio.

An almost-all-volunteer organization called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, now helps arrange contact between students and astronauts on the space station. Students prepare to ask questions rapid-fire, one after another, into the ham radio microphone for the brief 10-minute window before the space station flies out of range.

“We try to think of ourselves as planting seeds and hoping that we get some mighty oaks to grow,” said Kenneth G. Ransom, the ISS Ham project coordinator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

That this is even possible with low-powered communication devices underscores just how close the ISS is to Earth: 200-250 miles above the surface. That’s the distance between Dallas & Houston or NYC to Boston.

Discussion  9 comments


We did a podcast called The Last Soviet about a cosmonaut who went into space and then the Soviet Union crumbled beneath him, and there was no country to bring him down... and one of the things that helped him through it was the friendship he made with an Australian ham radio operator who managed to connect with him. When we released the show, all these ham radio operators reached out to us with their stories... it was pretty wonderful.

Chris E

So cool. This used to seem impossible to me perhaps because the absolute distance is…so much less than it would seem. DIY earth-space station comms is a storyline early in the Neal Stephenson book Seveneves that sort of sets the table for an epic story that spans thousands of years after the destruction of the moon.

Russell Briggs

I think my father-in-law was the first person to do this, on his sailboat in a completely empty part of the South Atlantic east of the Falklands, and got quite celebrated for it, even got to meet the Queen in Buckingham Palace.

Matthew Battles

The waving-an-aerial-around methodology makes me think of the very cool Open Weather project, which uses DIY tools to access real-time satellite weather data. Also, I have to recommend Samantha Harvey's 2023 novel Orbital; it's a remarkable, lyrical imagining of the ISS astronaut experience during a typical run of orbits. Watch it with the ISS down-facing camera feed on a big screen.

Jason KottkeMOD

There's a pretty good discussion about this post on Mastodon, including this post:

Yes! This is a bucket list item as a ham. Did you know you can also bounce radio signals off the moon — not through the new station Japan has put there, but the actual lunar surface — to speak with other hams on Earth? 😊

You should get a ham radio license! It's very easy. Even the most basic license classification allows you to use frequencies to contact the ISS.

Jason KottkeMOD

Some good comments on Threads too.

Larry Garretson
🆒 👍 🔮  comment

I have to share this - sorry it might be a little long - but I haven't thought of it in years. In the 90s I knew a guy through our local astronomy club who shared the results of this mind-bending radio hack he once did to "observe" a meteor shower. His name was John Avallone, and he is pretty well known in amateur telescope making circles. Here's the hack -- meteors ionize the upper atmosphere as they pass through. Radio waves can bounce off the ion trails, so if you were driving down a country road listening to an AM station, you might get an intermittent signal boost - or even momentarily get a blast from a station on the same frequency hundreds of miles away. The night of one of the big meteor showers, he set up a radio (analogue - might not work with digital) tuned to the frequency of one of those big midwest 50,000 watt stations - but locally empty. Nothing but static (unless there was a meteor overhead). And he set up a little monitor to record signal strength fluctuations. He showed us the graphs. As the shower developed, the spikes started to rise. Little blasts of radio from a station over the horizon every time a meteor trail formed. As the night went on they peaked way up off the charts and came much closer together. There were rhythms to it. You could see clearly the peaks and valleys of intensity as the Earth moved through the braids -- streams of heavier and lighter density of particles that are left in wake of the different passes of the comet that is the source of the shower. There were multiple braids - rising and falling of intensity and frequency of the spikes throughout the 24 hours or so he monitored. He was mapping the structure of the comet trails that the Earth was passing through. One of the coolest and most gobsmacking things I've ever seen.

Jason KottkeMOD

Wow, what a great story! Thanks so much for sharing.

Reply in this thread

Conor Welch
🙌 ⭐️ 🎯  comment

My grandpa was a ham operator: W7WL. His call sign expired with his death in 2008 and has since been transferred to a new individual—which is perhaps an odd form of reincarnation. There's probably more to be said about that, but ...

As a kid, we would go to my grandparents' house, and in the basement, my grandpa had these crazy arrays of equipment. He worked for Tektronix and served in the Canadian Navy as communications officer. There were a few occasions when my grandpa would click on the machinery when us kids were around and I remember two things quite vividly: One, the speed at which my grandpa could tap out Morse code (and receive replies). I suppose it's just another language, but it felt absurd to try to decipher the dots and dashes. Two, a time when he got on the radio to reach out to no one in particular, and ended up having a conversation with someone in Australia. As a kid in Colorado, this felt like magic.

There's a great book about QSL postcards called Hello World: A Life in Ham Radio by Danny Gregory and Paul Sahre.

It is a fascinating world.

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