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Ham radio's space vision

— An innovative space transmission system built by volunteers has started sending down pictures from the international space station to the whole wide world via amateur radio. Thanks to SpaceCam1, anyone with a police scanner or a suitable radio rig, plus a computer and the appropriate software, should be able to receive pictures from orbit, the project's organizers say.

Tony Hutchinson / SpaceCam1
Space station commander Pavel Vinogradov looks
into the camera while he operates the SpaceCam1
system on his laptop, visible in the background.


The SpaceCam1 slow-scan television system, which combines a couple of hardware gizmos plus the signal-coding software on one of the station's laptop computers, has been three years in the making. The project follows up on a http://www.msnbc.com/news/227580.asp">less sophisticated system that was tested aboard Russia's Mir space station in its waning years.

"It's been fun, and this is just a steppingstone," said Miles Mann, project lead and chief executive officer for the MAREX amateur-radio club. MAREX was involved in the Mir project - and it teamed up with another volunteer group, Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, for SpaceCam1's next-generation SSTV system.

SSTV basically means snapping a digital still image and translating the scan lines of that image into a sequential stream of data. That stream can be transmitted on a radio frequency, then decoded on the other end to reconstitute the digital image.

On the space station, the original image can come from something as simple as a Webcam, hooked up to an onboard laptop. Astronauts can point the camera at themselves, at the station interior or just set it up at one of the station's windows for a view of Earth below.

The data conversion is done through software on the laptop plus a little hardware interface known as a "VOX box." Then the data is beamed down to Earth via a radio transmitter.

David Worboys / SpaceCam1
This SpaceCam1 picture shows NASA astronaut Jeff
Williams, Russia's Pavel Vinogradov and Germany's
Thomas Reiter, flanked by empty spacesuits.


Down on the planet, you can tune your scanner or radio receiver  to 145.800 mHz on the 2-meter band, pick up the signal, have it converted automatically on your own computer ... and voila! you've made contact. (Here's a technical how-to with links to shareware sources ... or you can do a Web search for software.)

The equipment and the software was sent to the station last September on a Progress cargo craft, and since then the space station astronauts have been working off and on to get the system running. On July 30, they sent the first still image - and at least two more have come down since then.

Farrell Winder, a retired electrical engineer who is part of the SpaceCam1 team, said the system was still being adjusted for the optimal operating mode. After the shakedown, the camera can be set to run even when the astronauts are off doing something else.

T. Veall / M. Beralso / SpaceCam1
SpaceCam1's first picture from orbit shows the space
station's Expedition 13 logo mounted on a window,
with a solar array and Earth's glare visible outside.


"We have great confidence that it's going to give us hundreds of pictures a day," he said.

And that's just the start. Eventually, the system will be able to receive pictures sent up to the station from licensed ham-radio operators, Mann said.

Mann is already dreaming of the day when a SpaceCam can be fitted aboard a moon-bound spacecraft, to serve as a transmitter or even as a relay for earthly transmissions. A fair number of radio enthusiasts are already bouncing their signals off the moon to reach faraway earthlings, Mann noted.

"We'd be able to increase the number of people who can do that tenfold," Mann told me.

For the record, here's the full release from the SpaceCam1 team:

Amateur Radio established an exciting "first" for the international space station on July 30, August 12 and August 13, 2006.  This event was the sending of still picture images from  the ISS via amateur radio. Amateur-radio and shortwave listeners in many countries including England, Russia, Brazil and Australia were able to see these images from the ISS, which is orbiting Earth approximately every 90 minutes at an altitude of around 225 miles.  These pictures were sent by ISS Commander Pavel Vinogradov, an amateur-radio Operator with call sign RV3BS.

The amateur-radio software program used to send pictures is called SpaceCam1. This project is currently being operated intermittently during the crew's free time.  After testing is complete, the system will have the capability of sending several hundred images per day from the ISS Amateur Radio VHF link. With a direct onboard camera feed pointed out the window or in the cabin, each picture sent down could be of unique content.

SpaceCam1 was developed over a three-year span. The concept was initiated by the same group that developed the very successful amateur-radio TV system flown on board the Russian space station Mir, 1998-2001.

Those involved with this amateur-radio development are:

Dr. Don Miller, W9NTP
Hank Cantrell, W4HTB
Miles Mann, WF1F
Farrell Winder, W8ZCF

While the Mir system was a hardware system, the ISS SpaceCam1 system is a software-based system which was developed primarily by Jim Barber, N7CXI, Silicon Pixels, working with the above team.

Several international amateur radio teams supported the final success of this system under the auspices of the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) international working group.

In the United States, team members from AMSAT (Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation), and NASA, under the direction of Frank Bauer, K3HDO, supported systems integration, safety verification and extensive ground-based testing.

AMSAT member Lou McFadin, W5DID, was responsible for the integration hardware between the Kenwood D700 Radio Transmitter and the onboard computer, which comprise the SpaceCam1 system.

In Russia, Sergey Samburov, RV3DR, chief of the Cosmonaut Amateur Radio Department, RSC Energia in Korolev, Russia, coordinated Russian cosmonaut training, onboard procedure development, hardware and software flight manifest on a Progress launch vehicle.

The final image downlink tests from ISS, performed over the last few days, were coordinated by a team that included Miles Mann, WF1F, MarexMG CEO; Kenneth Ransom, N5VHO, NASA Amateur Radio Coordinator; and Frank Bauer, KA3HDO, in the United States; Sergey Samburov, RV3DR, in Russia; and Pavel Vinogradov, onboard the ISS.

We expect many additional pictures to follow as soon as final tests are concluded.  SpaceCam1 has picture-receive capability aboard the ISS from Earth, which will be tested at a later date. ...

Anyone can receive picture signals from the ISS. See the MAREX-MG Web page, www.marexmg.org  for details about  receiving and tracking the ISS. See also the ARISS Web site, www.rac.ca/ariss. Being an amateur-radio operator is not a requirement for receiving transmissions from the ISS.

Amateur-radio contacts by the ISS crew with amateur operators on Earth give the crew a break from formal activity. We have learned from one of the recent crew members, Bill McArthur, KC5ACR, that it provides great pleasure and relaxation during off-duty time. It likewise gives amateur operators and schoolchildren on Earth a challenge and excitement of outer-space communications involving very interesting and educational pictures.

Update for 4:30 p.m. ET Aug. 21: I've revised the item to reflect the SpaceCam1 system's shakedown status.