An amateur radio satellite is a little like a repeater in space, a station that relays signal over a broad territory because of the height of the transmitter.
A number of Radio Amateur satellites have been launched, operated, and reached end of life. A number of them are still usable, some even multiple times a day. There are new ones under development, particularly through AMSAT.
Amateur radio satellites will vary by the bands they use/make available modes, and orbital characteristics.
Modes of operation
Typical configurations include uplink communications (signals TO the satellite) being on separate bands from downlink communications (signals FROM the satellite). This is done to achieve isolation between the signals, as is done on earth by separating a repeater’s receive and transmit frequencies.
The modes a satellite operates in will vary by design and in some cases can be changed by control stations. Common modes include FM (voice), sideband (voice), and digital.
Some digital-capable satellites may operate in a “store and forward” mode instead of immediately reflecting or repeating what they “hear”. A store-and-forward configuration offers the (perhaps multiple) retransmission of the data either for a number of times, at a certain time, or when the satellites approximate position reaches a certain area or range.
So far, AMSAT-originated amateur radio satellites have been active in two orbit configurations known as HEO (High Earth Orbit) and LEO (Low Earth Orbit). Generally speaking, HEO’s are geosynchronous or geo-stationary, that is they seem to stay in the same position with respect to an earth-based observer’s viewpoint. LEO’s will have relatively rapid “passes” that will appear as if they come from different directions and at varying times. This appearance is because both of their orbital paths and earth’s rotation. Note that while there’s been much interest in placing an HEO amateur satellite, none so far is operational.
- Don’t overload the receiver. Satellites are short on power – often their solar-panels are damaged, facing the wrong way, batteries are not working properly, etc. This means that they don’t transmit a lot of power. If it’s a transponder, and you blast it with lots of power, you’ll affect other stations working through it.
- Take account of the Doppler effect: When the satellite is rising (and coming towards you), it will be (roughly) 2-5kHz above its nominal frequency. As it gets right overhead, it will be on frequency, and as it “goes down” towards the horizon, it will be 2-5 kHz lower.
- Generally, you adjust the receive frequency, and not the transmit frequency to compensate for the Doppler shift. (Not sure where I learned this – is it right?)
- If it’s a repeater/transponder, listen to the downlink as you’re transmitting – check that you can hear yourself
Popular amateur radio satellites
These are currently working satellites, with uplink and downlink on UHF and/or VHF.
- ISS The International Space Station
- AO51 AO-51, also called “Echo”
- VO52 Hamsat, from AmsatIndia
- SO50 Saudi Oscar 50
- FO29 Fuji Oscar
Tracking ham radio satellites
- Live OSCAR status page – gives reports of when satellites were last heard from operators, by KD5QGR
- J-Track from NASA
- Real-time satellite tracking from N2YO
- AMSAT Predict