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Learning the Basics of Satellite Operations

Feb 15th 2012, 17:30


Joined: May 3rd 2004, 13:37
Total Topics: 0
Total Posts: 0
For those of you looking to learn more about amateur radio satellites and just how attainable they can be, I wrote up a couple of introductory how-to guides for beginners. If you've been through the Teachers Institute program, you've by no doubt witnessed at least part of a satellite contact. For those of you that have attended the TI-2: Space in the Classroom, this may be old hat. If you have not checked out the TI-2 opportunities for Teacher's Institute alumni, visit

The best way to begin with satellites is to understand the vocabulary and lingo of space operations and astronomers. In general, the directions North, South, East and West are generally accurate enough for land navigation, but not quite accurate enough to spot a small object against the night sky. To deal with this, we use degrees of Azimuth. This is also referred to as Bearing or Heading for navigational uses, but for our celestial uses we refer to it as Azimuth. The compass rose can be divided into 360 "slices" with each slice labeled 1º.
0º is North, 90º is East, 180º is South and 270º is West - understanding that, you'll be able to introduce the concept of angles to younger students (which they pick up on very quickly) and reinforce geometry concepts for older, secondary students.

The next term is Altitude. We're not necessarily talking in feet and meters here. By altitude, we're talking about the angle from the horizon we should direct our eyes or antennas. With altitude, 0º is the horizon, 90º is straight up.

With those 2 terms under your belt, you can probably see how we can accurately describe any point in the sky.

You may want to perform an activity with your students where you give them Azimuth and Elevation of particular landmarks from a predetermined point around campus. Using a magnetic compass and protractor, the students could use the angles you provide them to locate the top of the local water tower, church steeple, Left field baseball foul pole, campus flag pole, campus sign, jungle gym or other prominent things visible from your point of reference. Start with large, wide objects at first to allow them to get the hang of it, then move to smaller and narrower objects.

Once your students have a grasp of these concepts, you can ask them try to spot the International Space Station on its next pass overhead. How to do this is explained here: Note that almost every pass will occur before or after school hours, so this is definitely a homework assignment.

Over the course of a few nights, your students will get better and better at using these terms to locate celestial bodies and this is the first objective toward making satellite contacts.

Once you're comfortable spotting the ISS, you're ready to move on to receiving satellite signals from the FM satellites:

Let us know how your kids handle the activities and any points of confusion. We'll be happy to assist!
Feb 15th 2012, 17:40


Joined: May 3rd 2004, 13:37
Total Topics: 0
Total Posts: 0
Also be sure to check out YouTube for dozens of great videos showing the mechanics of making lightweight, handheld satellite contacts as well as audio samples of what it will sound like.

It's not much in the way of visuals, but here's a sample of us working several stations as W1AW on AO-27 from the HQ parking lot during on Teachers Institute.

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