Have you ever wanted to talk to an astronaut orbiting hundreds of miles above Earth? Wouldn't it be nice to ask about the view from the International Space Station? If you're active on Twitter and a fan of all things space-related, you're probably following a number of astronauts, usually designated by the "Astro" in their handles. These social media-savvy space explorers have given us a lot of insight into life in zero gravity from their tweets. But Twitter isn't the only way to reach out to the ISS.
There's another, perhaps more personal, way to connect with the astronauts, and people have been doing it for years. All over the world, some amateur radio enthusiasts — known as "hams" — have made a hobby out of making contact with the ISS. The goal is to enjoy short conversations with astronauts from the comfort of their own ham radio setups.
Recently, the Telegraph reported such an exchange between a U.K. man and the ISS. Adrian Lane from Gloucestershire was able to make contact with the space station from his backyard shed. Lane is among the ranks of hams who have made successful contact with the ISS. A video from 2011 shows ham "N0KGM Bob" from Utah having a very polite conversation with Col. Douglas Wheelock. In a video provided by NASA (see below), Wheelock describes how he operates the space station's ham radio and what the process looks like from inside the ISS. The video shows Wheelock using the radio, which looks almost old-fashioned compared to other equipment aboard the space station. In the clip, Wheelock briefly talks to a few hams and even tells them "welcome aboard the International Space Station," six words which would be thrilling for any space enthusiast to hear. One conversation even includes a discussion of Wheelock's Twitter picture. During the video, many calls come in, and it becomes clear that hams are clamoring to reach out to the ISS.
The hobby is not limited to the earthbound, either. The astronauts aboard the ISS are able to make unscheduled ham calls in their free time. It's an activity they can enjoy before or after work or on the weekends. The ISS website posts each astronaut's schedule so you can see what each resident of the space station is doing at any given time and find out when they might be making random ham radio calls. However, phoning the ISS is not a simple process. Timing and location must be just right for a ham transmission to be successfully received, and the operation of a ham radio requires a license.
If you're interested in reaching out to the ISS, the Internet contains many resources for hams seeking a cosmic chat. The ISS Fan Club provides maps, recordings of chats with the ISS and a discussion forum for hams and other enthusiasts. The Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) lists frequencies, call signs and other useful information. If you're keen on DIY, you can even build your own ham radio from the many guides available online.
So, where did this specific hobby come from? According to ARISS, we have astronaut Owen Garriott to thank for the ham radio program. In 1983, Garriott took a hand-held radio with him aboard Space Shuttle Columbia to engage with students. That was the beginning of the SAREX (Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment) program, which is now ARISS.
According to the National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL), educational groups can schedule ham radio calls between the ISS and students in an initiative to promote interest in STEM by allowing young learners to ask astronauts questions about their experiences in space. Instructions for applying to schedule a call between an educational organization and the ISS are available online. The next application window opens in September and closes on Nov. 1, 2015.
While the International Space Station is hundreds of miles above us, making contact might just be a ham radio call away — and that's out of this world.