How to Eavesdrop on Astronauts

December 12, 2011

Over the past few weeks we’re published several excerpts from our very latest annual “Big John” publication, Uncle John’s 24-KARAT GOLD Bathroom Reader, a 544-page behemoth of mind-widening wonder. We brought you:

• Where Did DEFCON Come From?

• Killed By His Pet Monkeys

The Demon Core

• The Playboy Playmate Edonomic Indicator

Films Edited For Airlines

• and Obscure Fads of the 1960s: Piano Wrecking

Just to name a few.

Here’s one more. We think, we hope, you will like it.



The International Space Station is one of the wonders of our age, as large as a
football field and the third-brightest object in the sky after the sun and the
moon. Few of us will ever get to visit it, but you can listen in when
it’s passing overhead. It’s easier than you think.


On November 28, 1983, the space shuttle Columbia lifted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for a 10-day mission. It was the ninth shuttle mission, and not a particularly memorable one…unless you’re a fan of amateur “ham” radio: It was the first time that an astronaut, mission specialist Owen Garriott, brought a ham radio into space.

Whenever Garriott had some free time he’d point the radio’s antenna toward Earth and try to contact fellow ham operators on the ground. The radio was only a walkie-talkie tuned to ham radio frequencies, and it had just five watts of transmitting power—five percent of the power of a 100-watt bulb. Even so, Garriott was able to talk to more than 250 people, including some more than 1,000 miles away. An astronaut using a walkie-talkie to talk to people on the ground may not sound like a big deal, but it was the first time in history that ordinary citizens could talk to a person in space. Anyone with a ham radio license was welcome to try.

Today it’s easier than ever to talk to astronauts in space. The International Space Station has its own ham radio station, five times more powerful than Garriott’s walkie-talkie. All you need to talk to the ISS is a ham radio license, and all that takes is a passing score of 26 on the 35-question multiple-choice license exam.

But what if you don’t want to get a ham radio license? Listening to the astronauts is even easier than talking to them. No license is required: All you need is a radio or a police scanner that can tune to the 2-meter amateur radio band (144.00 MHz to 148.00 MHz). […]

The trickiest part to listening to the ISS is figuring out when it is passing through your part of the sky, because that’s the only time its transmissions can be heard at your location. The ISS orbits Earth every 91 minutes, and depending on where you live, it should pass overhead at least a few times a day.

Before the Internet, finding this information would have been difficult; today all you have to do is Google your way to any one of a number of satellite tracking websites, then enter your zip code to get a schedule of upcoming passes for your area. (NASA’s website lists only the passes when the ISS is likely to be visible in the sky.) It’s also possible to download satellite tracking software onto your computer and track the space station yourself. A schedule of ISS passes will contain the date, time, and length in minutes of each upcoming pass, plus its maximum elevation, or its highest point in the sky during the pass. If the ISS barely peeks over the horizon before dipping below it again, it will have a maximum elevation close to 0°. If it passes directly over your location, it will have a maximum elevation of 90°. […]

The astronauts on the International Space Station use the radio to talk to schoolkids and other civic groups through a program called Amateur Radio on the Space Station (ARISS) (for more on this, see page 338). The NASA website posts the dates of scheduled ARISS contacts; if there are any scheduled for your area, that’s a great time to listen in. It’s not uncommon for the astronauts to talk to individual hams before and after scheduled events, so tune in early and keep listening after the scheduled contact has ended.

The astronauts can also use the radio in their spare time, so it helps to try and figure out when that spare time is likely to occur. The ISS is usually on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which puts them eight hours ahead of the West Coast and five hours ahead of the East Coast. A typical ISS workday begins at 06:00 UTC, when the astronauts awaken from their night’s sleep. They start work at about 08:00, break for an hour lunch at 13:00 UTC, then continue working until about 19:30 UTC. They have two hours off until bedtime at 21:30. The astronauts are most likely to use the radio during their work breaks, before and after meals, and in the two hours before bedtime, so if after calculating the time difference between your location and UTC, you find a high-altitude pass of the ISS over your area at a time when the astronauts are likely to have some downtime, that is an excellent opportunity to listen for transmissions.



You can read the rest of “How to Eavesdrop on Astronauts,” as well as hundreds of other stories – in Uncle John’s 24-KARAT GOLD Bathroom Reader.

And you can get it at 30% off the usual price as part of our annual HOLIDAY SALE. (That’s 30% of ALL our books.)





• Past excerpts can be found by hitting “Excerpts” in the tags blow this post.