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Postcards from space

R. Garriott via ARISS / MAREX
An image sent via

amateur radio shows a

Soyuz craft in space.

More than 2,000 electronic postcards have been received from the international space station during video-game millionaire Richard Garriott's weeklong visit - thanks to extraterrestrial messaging systems that were built by amateurs, for amateurs (and astronauts).

The SpaceCam1 and VC-H1 systems - developed by the MAREX ham-radio group and Amateur Radio on the International Space Station - use the space station's amateur-radio rig to scan and send TV-like images back down to Earth. They follow up on slow-scan TV experiments that go back to Russia's Mir space station, and even earlier.

When you think of ham radio, you usually think of someone hunched over a microphone, sending their voice around the world. And that still plays a big role in the work carried on by Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, also known as ARISS. Sure, astronauts have high-tech videoconferencing tools and even Internet linkups nowadays, but ham radio provides an extra backup channel as well as a recreational means to interact with hobbyists and schoolchildren.

Ham radio can also be used to send data, and that's where the slow-scan TV experiments come in.

Here's an e-mail message from MAREX's Miles Mann about SpaceCam1's latest success:

"I have an unusual hobby. I build educational projects for the Russian space program. So far, the Russians have let me build and fly four different projects in space. Three projects went onto the Russian space station Mir, and my latest project is on the international space station.  The new project is called SpaceCam1.

"The project is simple.  Send JPG images from the international space station to Earth via amateur radio.  Use a common amateur radio frequency and let everyone see the images using free decoding software. The project worked!

"Last weekend, on October 12, ISS commander Sergei Volkov activated my project and began sending images down to Earth.  The next day, when Richard Garriott arrived on ISS, he began using the SpaceCam1 and related SSTV hardware to send images down to Earth.  We have received over 1500 JPG images from ISS in 1 week.

"What makes this interesting [is that] it was designed and built by a handful of volunteer amateur-radio operators and then delivered to Russia to be used on ISS.

"Today, thousands of shortwave-listeners and amateur-radio stations around the world are seeing live JPG images coming down from ISS.

"Richard Garriott has also been using the amateur-radio station on ISS to talk to people all around the world."

The MAREX-MG Web site offers a selection of images sent from the international space station..

ARISS International Chairman Frank Bauer provided the latest information on his group's project, the VC-H1 Visual Communicator. He said the use of SpaceCam1 has been limited because it "has some issues with it that keeps the radio transmitting when no image is being downlinked":

"That is why the ARISS team worked with Richard Garriott to fly the VC-H1 and we got it certified for flight in record speed.  Another item that changes history a bit is that the first experimentation of SSTV in space did not occur on Mir a decade ago.  It occurred in July 1985 (two decades ago) on the STS-51F space shuttle mission by Tony England, W0ORE.  Tony, the second ham radio operator in space, was a good friend and colleague of Owen Garriott, Richard Garriott's father.  And the SSTV system flew on the shuttle several missions in the early 1990s and was very popular.  Actually, on one flight the morning newspaper was uplinked to the crew via SSTV!

"To date, we have received over 2,000 images from ham radio operators around the world that have captured the SSTV downlinks from ISS and posted them to the ARISS SSTV Gallery.  And we have a volunteer team that has been working 24/7 during Richard's flight to sort these images and provide the 'best of the best.'  These can be seen on ...

"Also, the ARISS team has provided an SSTV blog. ... This site has lots of information on the SSTV operations, particularly during Richard's flight.  And we will continue to update it when Mike Fincke uses the SSTV system."

To keep posted on Garriott's trip back to Earth, which is scheduled to take place Thursday night, keep a watch on our space news section.

I'm in the midst of a trip myself - a trek that includes stopovers at the Fermilab particle-physics facility in Illinois and at Stanford University in California for the CASW New Horizons in Science seminar. I'll also be spending a little personal time in Iowa.

Over the next week, postings to the log will be dependent on time, bandwidth and news developments. Don't be surprised if I send a postcard myself every once in a while - if not from the space frontier, then at least from the science frontier.

This posting was originally published on Oct. 21, and has been corrected and updated to reflect additional information from Frank Bauer about ARISS' work in slow-scan TV.