My favorite ham activity is making contacts via satellites. Not only is there the romantic notion of sending messages into outer space, but you have to trace the orbit of the satellite with your antenna while tuning the radio, to compensate for the Doppler effect.
The satellites AO-51, SO-50, and AO-27 orbit the Earth acting as repeaters. Repeaters are automated relay stations that allow hams to send signals over a greater distance using low-power hand held transceivers. The satellites allow hams to relay messages from Earth to space and back to other hams somewhere on the planet. The International Space Station (ISS) also has a repeater, but occasionally, if you’re lucky, the astronauts turn on their radios to make contact directly with hams on the ground.
The following instructions will get you started listening to birds (satellites) on FM, which can be done with a simple VHF/UHF FM radio with a whip antenna, without the need of a ham license. For better coverage, you can use a Yagi antenna (like the one pictured above) connected to a mutli-mode radio and a license (if you want to transmit). A Yagi antenna can also be used to improve the signal of your hand held radio.
All you need is a VHF/UHF FM receiver (like a police scanner) or a VHF/UHF transceiver (like a Yaesu VX-7) and an antenna.
1. Specifying your location
Start by visiting Heavens-Above.com to check the orbit of the satellite you want to listen to and specify your location.
2. Specifying a satellite
Check the passes of your specific satellite or the ISS. AO-51, SO-50, AO-27, ISS. Make sure that the passes are shown for your correct location.
3. Reading the chart
This pass chart shows the Start (when/where the satellite enters on the horizon), the Max. Altitude (when/where the satellite is at its highest point in the sky), and the End (when/where the satellite finishes it’s pass). Alt. is the altitude, the angle of the satellite from the observer’s horizon. 0 degrees is exactly on the horizon, and 90 degrees is directly above the observer. Az. is the Azimuth, the cardinal direction of the satellite from the observer’s point of view.
4. Picking a good pass
Satellites orbit the Earth at all sorts of angles, some that are very close to the horizon and some that are directly overhead. It is much easier to hear a satellite that passes directly overhead. To find a good sat pass, check the Max. Altitude Alt. for a pass that is 45 or higher (the higher the better). In our example, the second pass at 7:28 looks like a good one since the Max. Altitude Alt. is 77. The first pass at 5:52 has a Max. Altitude Alt. of only 12 which is very close to the horizon and difficult to pick up.