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How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites

Vince Waelti (K9TSU) on March 8, 2012
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Being only a technician level amateur radio operator, I’ll be honest when I can say that I wanted to try something a little less “ordinary” than VHF/UHF simplex, or repeaters.

Being licensed at fourteen, and still fourteen, I wanted something that not many people can say that they do in their free time. I wanted that “dx” contact on one-forty-four megahertz simplex, which I did once, with a contact three hundred and fifty miles on five watts.

I started to think on the idea. I remember looking out my window and seeing a nice little three element two meter yagi on a portable mast outside. I thought “what can I do with that, there has to be something.”

I remembered being told all these stories of hams talking with other hams with amateur satellites. I began to research the topic. I had a dual band handheld, and a hand-tracking yagi, and I even had the software to track them from when I was trying to QSO with NA1SS on the International Space Station.

I found the three FM satellites that I wanted to work, AO27, AO51, and SO50. I began to re-solder the connections on that antenna, and get the frequencies written down. I wanted my first pass to be a good, workable one. At that time, I didn’t even know that I should be worrying about elevation. I just knew that the bird, AO51, which is no longer with us, was going roughly from South to North-West. I ran outside quickly with the beam in the “vertical” position (at that time I didn’t know how to correctly polarize the antenna for satellites) outside, and sure enough, I heard calls from the “zero land”. I didn’t exactly know what to do, so I listened to exchanges go on. I heard Cuba, to Alaska, and far between. I wanted very badly to talk, but it suddenly faded out. A few seconds later, it came back, which was probably due to my lack of following the satellite’s polarization as it spun four hundred miles above me with my antenna. I never had an exchange that day, but I soon did.

The next day after coming home from school early, I heard AO51 on the stock handheld antenna. I ran inside, plugged in the yagi, and ran outside with the tape recorder. I threw out my old call, “KC9TSU EN52”. No response. I thought to myself “let’s try this,” and then said “KC9TSU handheld EN52.” I was amazed that people were clearing out to give a “handheld” station more airtime. I had two contacts that day, before the bird faded below the horizon. I exchanged with two stations on the East Coast.

I am only getting my feet wet with amateur satellites in low Earth Orbit. I’ve so far been working the FM birds since late November, 2011. I’ve experimented with two antennas. My WB2HOL Tape Measure Yagi and a three element solid-wire yagi.

I’m no expert, by any means, but I’ve found out a few things that make a difference. You need to keep the squelch all the way off! I ignored this at first, but you hear the carrier before the bird, so it does make a difference.

I’ve also decided to actually track the satellite. Sometimes I would get so excited by my contacts, that I would forget to keep moving my antenna. I wondered why I wasn’t hearing it anymore, but I moved the antenna a little, and there it was, again.

Doppler makes a difference! I was once told by a ham “Doppler doesn’t make a difference”. Well, maybe on the two meter side, not so much, but on the seventy-centimeter downlink, it is a huge difference. I found it best to start ten kilohertz up from the downlink at the beginning of the pass, and ten kilohertz down at the end.

Polarization, polarization, polarization! Polarization is key. When the satellite is just barely coming over the horizon, I keep my antenna at forty-five degrees polarized, since I don’t know what orientation the satellite’s antenna is as it tumbles above me. Once I acquire the signal, I adjust my polarization on my yagi, and continue to follow it, until I lose it over the horizon.

Also, make sure you use a tape recorder! I once had fifteen contacts on an eight degree pass! All you have to do is remember someone’s call to return, but when you go to log, it’s right on the tape, waiting for you. I recommend taping a piece of thin foam over the mic to keep out wind noise.

Call sign identifiers! If you are outside of your gird square, or away from home, be “stroke portable!” If you are on that handheld, like me, say “handheld!” You would be amazed by how friendly the amateur radio satellite community is when they hear special identifiers. People seem to always want to get that handheld, mobile, or portable station, so say it!

I’ve also been told that a full duplex handheld works best, so you can hear yourself on the downlink. Mine is semi duplex, so I can’t hear myself, but that is why you ask your ham radio buddies who are on the other end for the recording! I post all my recordings on my website for people to find.

There are a lot of interesting, and fun, things to do with our beloved hobby of amateur radio, and if you haven’t given amateur satellites a try, go for it! It’s just a “glorified repeater”, but the fun of it is, you are talking via a repeater traveling at speeds of twelve thousand miles per hour, four hundred miles above the earth. Like I said, I am new to this mode of communication through ham radio, but enjoying it greatly! I started off frustrated because I would read the compass backward, and have the yagi pointing the wrong way, now I don’t even look at compass degrees, just the “rough” direction. Good luck to anyone who tries communication via terrestrial based repeaters!

Vincent Waelti, K9TSU

Member Comments:
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How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by KC4AF on March 8, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Very good and informative article. Thanks for sharing. 73, Bob KC4AF
How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by K3LUE on March 8, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Good writing. I was into the sats when AO10 and AO13 were alive. I lived in a condo and had to give up the 4 ele beans etc. Sats required only small antennas that could be mounted on our enclosed deck.
I always enjoyed the point-to-point contact without repeaters and of course, the sats are still repeaters. At the moment, it was a workable option though. For me, it was more fun than the "low flyers" that gave only a few minutes of talk time. The higher orbits gave us hours of usable time. Phase 3D I think it was called gave us all hope of the "ultimate" sat. If proved to be much, much less due to several problems that arose with orbits, possible propulsion explosions etc. With the demise of 10 and 13, hopes dwindled for those of us that enjoyed other than the low orbit sats. I ended up pulling down the antennas, selling the FT 736, the preamps etc. It was fun for me while it lasted but I still always enjoyed looking up at an antenna and knowing that out there was a station I just talked to without help of a repeater.
It's great that many enjoy the sats. It's basically a low cost, low profile way of operating and just one more bit of proof that this hobby has something for everyone and everyone's interest. Keep at it and most of all, enjoy ham radio.
How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by K2WO on March 8, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Vince, thanks for sharing your experiences with the LEO satellites. It's a well-written, well thought-out article. It's great to have young hams like yourself in this great hobby and even better having you share the fun you are having with others. Great job!
RE: How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by K9MHZ on March 8, 2012 Mail this to a friend!

Use this interest as a springboard for your future. Not many young people would have the aptitude or desire to involve themselves something like this, so continue your new-found passion, but don't stagnate at just the hobby level. Explore programs at different universities that will prepare you for a career that you will truly enjoy....few things in life are as satisfying.

Great narrative!

Brad, K9MHZ

How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by N6JSX on March 8, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
I got my hopes up and started building my SAT station for AO-40, to become very disappointed quickly. Just after the AO-40 (12/2000) failure I also saw the HAM SAT market (antennas/radios) take a dive; discontinue with no replacements of FT-767/FT-736/726, TS-790, etc. In the recent few years the SAT radio market has slowly began to return; TS-2000/IC-9100/etc, but the SAT antenna market is still very meager. "SAT Friendly" HT's are Yaesu VX-7 & Wouxon KG-UV series.

Since AO-40, I've been slowly building my SAT base station acquiring older used antennas KLM/Hy-gain OSCAR beams & radios (TS-790/FT-787GX).

I try to keep up to date in SAT OPs and share info/knowledge at my Yahoo Group HAM-SATs:
I maintain a simple 'Voice SAT OPs' one page data sheet to DL upon joining. Group open to ALL!

Today, the two operational FM SATs are SO-50 & AO-27 (AO-51 & ARISSsat are history). ISS repeater is never activated and there is no HAM schedule in talking to ISS crew. They are working right now to restore HO-67 FM radio to operation.

The ISS OPs window is only about 7 minutes per pass (about half of the other FM LEO SATs).

Next year FOX-1 will fly a new basic FM SAT. FOX-1 will have a unique feature 'Zombie' mode (if the batteries/controller fail and the SAT has solar energy the radio will remain working). FOX-1 orbit will provide a near 10yr life span before de-orbit.

FOX-2 is on the design easel for 2015 flight.

Kuby, N6JSX /8, MS-EET
FOX-1 Design Team member
RE: How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by W6SDM on March 8, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Great article. Very well written. I have been in amateur radio since 1966 and I actually learned something from you.


RE: How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by KW4JX on March 8, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Thank you for this article written in direct style. It encourages me to try the satellites after 52 years of operating point to point.
RE: How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by K9MHZ on March 9, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
>>>>by N6JSX on March 8, 2012 I got my hopes up and started building my SAT station for AO-40, to become very disappointed quickly. Just after the AO-40 (12/2000) failure I also saw the HAM SAT market (antennas/radios) take a dive; discontinue with no replacements of FT-767/FT-736/726, TS-790, etc.<<<<

What about the Icom IC-910H?

RE: How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by WA6MJE on March 9, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Vince. I started in ham radio when I was 13, 53 years ago and am still learning new things. I enjoyed my first experience with satellites as you did. Recently, I discovered you can now do earth-moon-earth communication on 2 meters with a single yagi antenna and a hundred or so watts. Maybe you might want to try this next. There are inexpensive brick type amplifiers for your handheld and ways to home brew the yagi. You will need the free JT65 software on a basic computer. You will be able to make contact with the big guns, mostly in Europe. Have fun.

73s. Rene
How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by K9TSU on March 9, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks everyone for the wonderful comments, they are appriciated! I composed a little bit more updated version and submitted it to QST magazine, so we'll see what happens!
How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by WB2OQQ on March 9, 2012 Mail this to a friend!

Very well written, if someone is considering amateur satellites, your story will convince them it's fun and simple, thank you for sharing.

73's Pete
How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by W2RS on March 9, 2012 Mail this to a friend!

Congratulations on a great article and on your success in operating through the FM satellites. Even without AO-51, there's still plenty of fun to be had through SO-50 and AO-27, as you well know.

I, too, got started in satellite work when I was 14, only it was 1957 and tracking Sputnik I. Now, 55 years later, I'm still here and operating through the birds.

Tnx & 73,

Ray W2RS
How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by K5ML on March 10, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Hi Vince,

Thank you for a terrific, informative and very well written article. You are obviously a very intelligent young man. While I haven’t tried satellite communications, your article piqued my interest in giving it a try.

Like W2RS, my only brush with satellites came in 1957. That’s the year I became a ham at age 15 and the same year that the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space. A few years ago I wrote about my “15 minutes of fame” with Sputnik and you can read it here:

I also checked out your website and it’s very impressive. Reading about bright, young hams such as you gives my spirits a lift. I just wish there were many more like you. Speaking from experience, I would encourage you to continue developing your amateur radio and writing skills. Both have the potential to lead you to a great future. Congratulations on your achievements and may there be many more.

Mickey, K5ML

RE: How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by K6LCS on March 10, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Way to shoot! You definitely have the satellite "bug." Thanks for spreading it around!

Clint K6LCS
How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by KC6YFR on March 10, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Well done Vince. How refreshing to read a finely written article. I'm a retired high school English teacher. Keep up the good work. You've discovered the magic of radio.
RE: How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by WD9EWK on March 10, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
K9MHZ asked "What about the Icom IC-910H?" Icom discontinued it, and the IC-9100 took its place in Icom's lineup as an all-mode, satellite-ready transceiver (which also does HF and 6m, and optionally 23cm). It's the only new satellite-ready transceiver brought to the ham market since the demise of AO-40 in 2004. The IC-910H, and the Kenwood TS-2000 still in production, were both brought out around the time of AO-40's launch.

There are many other radios that can be pressed into service for satellite work. Sometimes in pairs, but for the FM satellites there are a bunch of 2m/70cm FM mobile radios and HTs that would work. For FM, I now use either an Icom IC-2820H mobile radio or a Kenwood TH-D72A HT. For the SSB/CW satellites, either a pair of FT-817NDs or one FT-817ND as my transmitter paired up with a receiver - either an Icom IC-R20 or the all-mode receiver in the Kenwood TH-F6A HT.



(nice article, Vince!)
RE: How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by K9MHZ on March 10, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Ummm.....I'm fully aware of the story behind the IC-910H, Patrick. In fact, I just sold mine in favor of the IC-9100.

He said that everything headed south after AO-40, and I was merely reminding him of the IC-910H.

How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by N4UFO on March 10, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Only satellite I have ever worked and still really miss is RS-12/13. It was a wonderful LEO bird that was most often configured as 15m up and 10m down. When propagation was open, yes, sometimes terrestrial stations in the uplink unknowningly QRMed the bird, but it also meant that stations far away could often work into it. On one pass over North America, I worked a station in Europe! And I remember one ham worked DXCC on that bird.

It burned up in a solar storm, never to be heard from again, but it is certainly not forgotten. I achieved my VUCC-Sat on that bird and got as far as 150 grid squares. I also worked the 48 CONUS states with 47 of then confirmed. I also used to hear regularly from dedicated users of that bird and ran a website and forum dedicated to helping make their first RS-12/13 QSO and to set up skeds.

And Hi to Ray, W2RS... you would have known me on the bird as AC5DK. What do you think of my 'far out' call now.

Keep up the good work encouraging and help others, Vince... I look forward to seeing your article in QST. =^D I never had much interest in the FM birds before, but you certainly have me curious... 73 es GL!

PS. I had a VHF ham friend that said I should try the OSCAR zero... aka, the moon. Yes, I would love to work JT65 EME some day.
How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by W2RS on March 11, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Hi Kevin,

Yep, your new call is definitely far out, and easy to remember. Vince is right: give AO-27 and SO-50 a try. They're fun!

As for EME, you'll want a bit more in the way of antennas, whether you go the JT65 route or what's still my favorite, CW. There's nothing like hearing your echoes coming back from the moon.


Ray W2RS
RE: How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by N6JSX on March 15, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Updated my one page quick "VoiceSAT" list for all.

Can DL VoiceSATs03-2012.PDF at:

Group is open to ALL! Lots of old/new SAT antenna manuals, SAT design info, and more in FILES & PHOTOS.

Kuby, N6JSX /8, MS-EET
FOX-1 Design Team member
How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by N0SSC on March 16, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Great article Vince! I got wind of yet another article (by Brad Smith) about your fondness of the birds that will be going in the ARRL youth column. Looks like you've really found your niche in the hobby.
How to Work the Amateur FM Satellites  
by KJ4KKI on March 31, 2012 Mail this to a friend!
Excellent article. I also use a recorder. I haven't done sats in a while, but after reading the article, I think I might just dust off my Arrow II. As you already know, for new users, is an excellent alternative to programs such as SatScape in that doesn't require any downloaded software or system requirements. Handy to have sometimes, as it can be loaded on any computer, regardless--such as using a friend's lap top, the motel lobby computer, etc. I hope that all new hams, and all of us for that matter, get to enjoy the thrill of squirting a bird. 73, Steve
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