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Cambie students to chat with International Space Station astronauts

Richmond Amateur Radio Club’s Kishore Nair (left), holding an egg beater-style antenna, is part of the team that will try to patch local students through to astronauts flying as much as 400 kilometres overhead on the International Space Station. Nair is joined by fellow club members Steven Uy, Charles Cohen, Jim Lavery, and Brian Summers, along with H.J. Cambie science teacher Karen Ibbott, Cambie student Janice Callangan, and vice-principal Erica Schmidt.  - Martin van den Hemel
Richmond Amateur Radio Club’s Kishore Nair (left), holding an egg beater-style antenna, is part of the team that will try to patch local students through to astronauts flying as much as 400 kilometres overhead on the International Space Station. Nair is joined by fellow club members Steven Uy, Charles Cohen, Jim Lavery, and Brian Summers, along with H.J. Cambie science teacher Karen Ibbott, Cambie student Janice Callangan, and vice-principal Erica Schmidt.
— image credit: Martin van den Hemel

A chance to chat with astronauts aboard the International Space Station doesn’t come along very often.

But a handful of students at H.J. Cambie Secondary hope to do precisely that this March, as the satellite whizzes by more than 300 kilometres overhead at speeds approaching 28,000 kilometres per hour—almost eight kilometres per second—for a brief six-minute communication window.

The opportunity comes courtesy Cambie science teacher Karen Ibbott—who made the successful application to the ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) program—and the technical expertise of the Richmond Amateur Radio Club, which is throwing its support, equipment and manpower behind the effort.

The local hobbyist radio club’s members were busy Wednesday camped outside Cambie’s brick walls, braving the downpour as they ran through the first of several mock exercises they plan for the coming weeks, setting up the antennas, rolling out cables, and connecting amplifiers with radios, computers and generators.

They want to work out all the bugs long before the big show, which is happening at a still-unconfirmed date in the first two weeks of March.

Wednesday’s exercise buoyed their confidence, though they did identify a couple of areas that could be improved, said Kishore Nair, a 10-year member of the club and an electronics technician with Seaspan Marine who does radio communication as both a profession and a hobby.

The March long-distance call to outer space will be near the culmination of a school-wide effort to make this an unforgettable teaching moment.

Cambie vice-principal Erica Schmidt said it presents a chance for students to become uniquely engaged in learning.

“It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity...It’s become a real cross-curricular experience for our school.”

Home economics, math, French, music and science teachers have come together to come up with ways to engage students well in advance of the event, she said.

In Karen Ibbott’s science class, talking about radio waves and the electromagnetic spectrum might normally get many eyes to glaze over.

But making those fundamental physics concepts real in the context of both space exploration and students’ everyday lives—like the science behind cellular phone and radio communication—will help make March’s event special.

The goal of the ARISS radio program is to spark an interest among students in the sciences, technology, engineering and math, while providing an educational opportunity for students, teachers and the general public.

Kishore Nair explained a few students will speak directly to at least one astronaut, through a radio that’s operated by a licensed local amateur operator, and connected to an antenna that will be set up by the local radio club’s members on Cambie Secondary’s roof. Guided by a computer and powered by a motor, the antennae will track the space station as it swiftly moves across the sky, from horizon to horizon, providing a direct means of communication.

Nair will have four computers lined up, side by side, each with its own operator, in the event a problem—such as the computer crashing at an inopportune time—is encountered. A secondary antenna, known as an egg beater, will serve as a backup to the main tracking antenna.

While Cambie students will be exclusively chatting with the astronauts through a secure uplink, anybody who’s dialed in to the right frequency will be able to listen in on the astronaut’s responses as they are transmitted back down to earth.

Two gymnasiums will be set up in the school to allow the entire student body at Cambie to listen in.

It’s still unclear whether students will get to see the astronauts as well as hear them via a video feed that could accompany the radio communication, Nair said.

Organizers at Cambie are eager to share their good fortune with the rest of the community, including other schools that may want to participate in some fashion, perhaps even have it simulcast in other schools or venues.

Richmond-based high-tech firm MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates has already jumped on board, and will be providing the keynote speech on the big day.

Also participating is Vancouver-based firm UrtheCast Corp., which is developing the world’s first near-live high-definition video feed of Earth from space in a joint initiative with Russia and the United Kingdom. It hopes to have two high-def cameras installed on the International Space Station later this month, according to a press release issued Tuesday.

Schmidt said that as the scope of the March event grows, so do the costs involved, including for the audio-visual component which carries a ticket price north of $10,000.

“We would love to see this event be something...that our whole community can participate in,” she said.

From the perspective of the amateur radio club members, putting their hobby knowledge into action presents an amazing and fun challenge.

“This is high on the cool factor,” said five-year club member Charles Cohen.

All are keen on the idea of kindling a broader interest in the amateur radio club (www.rarclub.ca), which has about 40 members. There are some 400 licenced amateur radio operators in Richmond, with equipment capable of reaching other people around the world.

During major natural disasters, the first communication often involves amateur radio operators, who play a critical role in ferrying information outside the region and to the rest of the world.

Said fellow club member Jim Lavery: “When the big one hits and the power goes off, all I need is a 12-volt battery and a piece of wire, and I’m in business.”

For those interested in participating in the International Space Station project, call Cambie Secondary at 604-668-6430. Anybody with technical radio questions, or who want to listen in, can e-mail the radio club at ve7rar@rac.ca for more information.

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