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Satellite Communications

A fun 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.

Working the satellites does not require any expensive investments in equipment, and
can be done using a regular 2m/440 HT and a small hand held antenna. It can also be enjoyed by Technician class licenses.

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. 

The International Space Station (ISS) also has a repeater onboard that hams can use, but occasionally, if you’re lucky, the astronauts turn on their radios to make contact directly with hams on the ground.

Real Time Satellite Tracking



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), single 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 geo-synchronous 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 a HEO(geo-synchronous) amateur satellite, none are currently operational in that orbit.

Operation recommendations 

  • 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. 
  • If it's a repeater/transponder, listen to the downlink as you're transmitting - check that you can hear yourself. Some people use two separate HTs or simultaneous transmit/recieve or a scanner as a reciever

Popular amateur radio satellites 

These are currently working satellites, with uplink and downlink on UHF and/or VHF. 

Tracking ham radio satellites 


Links for more information

  • Work Ham Sats with your HT (PDF Tutorial)
  • Catching Satellites On Ham Radio
  • ISS Fan Club
  • Video - How to work amateur satellites with your handheld(HT) 

    How to work amateur radio satellites