How To Receive Pictures From Spaaace!

The International Space Station, or ISS, has been in orbit in its various forms now for almost twenty years. During that time many of us will have stood outside on a clear night and seen it pass overhead, as the largest man-made object in space it is clearly visible without a telescope.

Most ISS-watchers will know that the station carries a number of amateur radio payloads. There are voice contacts when for example astronauts talk to schools, there are digital modes, and sometimes as is happening at the moment for passes within range of Moscow (on Feb. 14, 11:25-16:30 UTC) the station transmits slow scan television, or SSTV.

You might think that receiving SSTV would be hard work and require expensive equipment, but given the advent of ubiquitous mobile and tablet computing alongside dirt-cheap RTL-SDRs it is now surprisingly accessible. An Android phone can run the SDRTouch software defined radio app as well as the Robot36 SSTV decoder, and given a suitable antenna the pictures can be received and decoded relatively easily. The radio must receive 145.8MHz wideband FM and the decoder must be set to the PD120 PD180 mode (Thanks [M5AKA] for the update), and here at least the apps are run on separate Android devices. It is possible to receive the signal using extremely basic antennas, but for best results something with a little gain should be used. The antenna of choice here is a handheld [HB9CV] 2-element beam.

A failed grab from a 2014 transmission, proving that Hackaday scribes don't always get perfect results.
A failed grab from a 2015 transmission, proving that Hackaday scribes don’t always get perfect results.

You can find when the station is due to pass over you from any of a number of ISS tracker sites, and you can keep up to date with ISS SSTV activity on the ARISS news page. Then all you have to do is stand out in the open with your receiver and computing devices running and ready, and point your antenna at the position of the station as it passes over. If you are lucky you’ll hear the tones of the SSTV transmission and a picture will be decoded, if not you may receive a garbled mess. Fortunately grabs of other people’s received pictures are posted online, so you can take a look at what you missed if you don’t quite succeed.

Even if you don’t live within range of a pass, it’s always worth seeing if a Web SDR somewhere is in range. For example this Russian one for the current transmissions.

In that you are using off-the-shelf hardware and software you might complain there is little in the way of an elite hack about pulling in a picture from the ISS. But wait a minute — you just received a picture from an orbiting space station. Do that in front of a kid, and see their interest in technology come alive!

24 thoughts on “How To Receive Pictures From Spaaace!

  1. But the ARISS BBS is still the coolest BBS still left, some portable packet radio gear and careful timing and you can log in and leave a message. I always imagined it as a way to keep up email with a few friends if Lucifers Hammer ever happened, and I didn’t want to use HF or WSJT e-m-e..

    1. Artnez you are spot on, in the interests of accuracy, I read this article and explained the intricate details to my home schooled sons of 11 and 14, the replies I got were, “you know you can see it sometimes, without a telescope, its closer than the moon! And look at this, ( much clicking of computer keys) Mars, videos of Mars on YouTube” I left defeated.

  2. Amateur radio is a struggling hobby, in the days of instant global communication the “thrill” of making a contact to space or around the globe is overshadowed by the precision and speed of the internet.
    Google has removed the wonder of the world around us – want to know something? Just google it and you have the answer in a blink of an eye in text, pictures and video.

    Are we amateur operators flogging a dead horse so to speak. I’ve been a radio operator for 0.75 of my life. Amateur radio didn’t start out because it was just another thing to do but it WAS cutting edge, you could do things your next door neighbor/school friends/work colleagues COULDNT do. Now it’s just a curiosity.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are loads of very smart people doing amazing things in the various fields but they don’t APPEAR to the outside world to be any different to what any 12year old can do on their mobile phone.

    1. “Amateur radio is a struggling hobby… there are loads of very smart people doing amazing things in the various fields but they don’t APPEAR to the outside world to be any different to what any 12year old can do on their mobile phone.”

      I could not disagree more.

      Show me a 12-year-old with a mobile phone who can bounce a signal off the moon with their mobile phone. (I know 3 amateur radio operators– personally– who have done so). Or, send a signal around with world to another ham, with nothing but a handheld, battery-powered transceiver (e.g. Elecraft KX2) and a piece of copper wire thrown over a wooden fence or a tree limb.

      The proverbial 12-year old with his mobile phone is totally dependent on millions of dollars’ worth of bulky but invisible infrastructure, from grid power, to cell towers, to fiber backbone, to the carriers’ computers that route the calls worldwide.

      What infrastructure do two HF ham radio operators need to talk around the world? The ionosphere, a sun-powered, naturally-occurring layer in the atmosphere, their transceivers (potentially solar-charged), a hank of copper wire, and the gumption to try. In other words, NO infrastructure at all.

      When all the infrastructure is blown down, blown up, swept away in a flood, or even EMP’d, we amateurs will still be communicating with one another. The proverbial 12-year-old with his mobile phone is just going to be suffering internet withdraw.

      BTW, I’ve been a ham operator for 36 of my 50 years.

      1. I totally agree with you, BUT it is how it APPEARS to an outsider.

        We try and “sell” the destination (we can talk to people on the other side of the world) but its the “journey” (we can do it without the infrastructure) is where the fun is.

        I love this stuff, receiving a grainy image from the ISS or a Cube sat or what ever – even just hearing the CW beacon of a amateur sattelite or balloon is awesome. Not because of the content but because I appreciate the complexities involved in making it all happen.

        1. I got interested in Radio Signals by watching a youtube video on Ghost Stations or Number Stations repeating old jaunty tunes and then having a man or woman speaking numbers in various languages and then returning to the jaunty tune. Unfortunately while they are great to listen to until we have stronger computers to brute force them (not likely since each transmission uses a 1 time conversion table known as a one time pad, Cuba got busted infiltrating the WASP network with a spy because they used the same code for every transmission. It isn’t about the technology there is still mysteries from WWII and the Cold War that are unanswered, broadcasts still running like UVB-76 or The Buzzer

      2. Talking to someone on the other side of the world ? They can do that on their phone, with much better sound, and even with video. The fact that you can also do it in shitty quality is no reason to get excited. Before people had running water in their homes (requiring huge infrastructure!), they had to go to the town square and fill a bucket from a well. Would you get excited about that ?

    2. Why so much focus on how it appears to an outsider? Ok, I get that one might want to encourage others to join the hobby and/or do more science and technology type things but that is still happening today. It was only ever going to happen with a certain percentage of the population so why does it matter what the rest think anyway? There are more homebrewers than ever and they are sharing their designs and the tricks that they learn via the internet. There are more people making satellite or moon bounce contacts. There are more parts and better tools available. It’s a good time to be alive and into this stuff.

      Sure, I hear the ‘I could do that with a cellphone argument’ but that’s not really true is it? I see three sides to ham radio. There’s the emergency prep stuff it isn’t really my thing but it’s very important to some people. There’s the do it yourself, know you technology part which cellphones can’t even touch, that’s more my favorite part. Then there is the social aspect.

      To compare ham radio to a cellphone you can only really look at the social aspect. You can’t legally build your own cellphone and they don’t work when the tower falls down or loses it’s power. But is it a replacement for the social part? You can call someone with a radio, you can call someone with a cellphone easier. But.. do you meet someone new on a cellphone? Can you have a round table with 2 or more friends at the same time with a cellphone? Can you use your cellphone to see which friends currently are not busy, available to talk and/or hang out without calling or texting each one and disturbing them individually the way you can just call out on a repeater? (assuming your friends can all listen on the same repeater)

      Cellphone, ham radio… Both are great for what they are good for but I hardly see how the use cases even overlap!

      As for a struggling hobby… I’m not convinced. First off, here in the US anyway there are more license holders than ever. I do realize that the percentage who actually use their licenses is probably lower but was it ever really all that high? There still seems to pretty much always be some sort of activity on at least one band that I can find.

      The only real struggle I see is in getting outsiders to see the difference between radio and a cellphone but oh well.. I’m thinking the people who can’t see that are the ones who never would have gotten involved anyway.

      1. “But.. do you meet someone new on a cellphone? Can you have a round table with 2 or more friends at the same time with a cellphone? Can you use your cellphone to see which friends currently are not busy, available to talk and/or hang out without calling or texting each one and disturbing them individually the way you can just call out on a repeater”

        Yes, yes, yes to all of your questions. Just use one of the many social media apps.

        1. You might have a point about meeting someone new. Do you and your friends keep a social media app open all the time though? I could keep a receiver on all day easy but how’s your battery life when you are running an internet app?

  3. Honestly,
    The biggest reason that I personally haven’t started to move into ham radio is the fact that there are a bunch of self described “old guys” who are incredibly hostile if you make any mistake and waste “their airtime”, yet will talk for hours in useless codes and shorthand and make it incredibly difficult to get a word in edgewise on a repeater.

    There is no new blood, because (at least in my area) it isn’t the technical barriers, it is the hoops, obscure unwritten rules, and traditions that don’t really have a place anymore. It doesn’t seem to be the technology that needs to change, there is plenty of innovation and interesting things to do, it is the human barrier that needs to change.

    1. I’m old, yes (50), but like many hams I know in the US, Canada and abroad, I am welcoming to “new blood”, and I want the new people to enjoy the hobby and make a contribution as I have. Yes, there is an on-air etiquette, but that is easily learned, even out of a book or on the Web. Come on in, and, as we hams say 73! (best regards).

      1. I am 50 as well and, unfortunately, I have to agree with Canuckfire. I wanted to get into HAM a couple of times – when I was 17, when I was 31 and a couple of years back again, mainly because I had some contacts on the other side of the world that proudly used their “signatures”.
        Every single time – living in different cities respectively – I was completely put off by the high horsed, self-centered attitude of the “masters of their craft”. I have not yet experienced a personal, warm, cooperative, “curious” (in a cooperative, positive way) behavior of those old dogs ever. They want to preserve, they want to get applause for their achievements and they do NOT want to deal with newcomers.

        I don’t mind them having their hobby. But don’t expect me to give it another go. There are more worthwile trades in the world.

        Re: show getting a grainy picture to kids to sparcle their interest in technology – no, it doesn’t work that way (been there). We are humans. We depend on human interaction. It’s not about a grainy picture, it’s not about a picture from outer space either. We can download those from our IOT fridge, if we really need to. It’s about PEOPLE. If you find someone who can make that “get the picture” *fun*, then you spark something. If you can show that achieving something makes you feel good and gets you RESPECT from people around you, then you spark something.
        Downloading crappy pictures doesn’t kick anyone.

        1. Yup, still feels a heck of a lot like a private chatroom for dudes with $10,000+ worth of kit…. yah, you can discuss hardware, as long as it’s current and you just bought it for cash… don’t need any of those filthy constructor types fuzzing up the airwaves.

          Aside from actual broadcasters, it wouldn’t surprise me if “pro” radio users, actually in general use less expensive kit now than high end “amateur” stuff.

        2. Wow. I had nothing but a warm welcome and lots of friendly help when I got my license back in 2008 (and upgraded to General a few months later). It has been fun to talk to almost every state (I got Alaska and Hawaii very easily), Russia, Brazil, Italy. . .

          I have an HF rig I bought for $75 that can talk to the whole world. RW is wrong as well. I’ve heard lots and lots of talk about homebrewing gear and kit building. Y’all are just speaking out of ignorance.

  4. Those sneering at ham radio in the age of the Internet are missing a major point. It’s not just what is done—communicating from Point A to Point B. It’s doing that yourself, with gadgetry you set up yourself. It’s the difference between fixing a delicious meal yourself and dropping by MacDonalds. It’s the difference between roaming Europe on your own terms and going on a bus tour run by others.

    I saw that myself when I was active in mountain climbing. Being 13,000 feet up on a glacier, able to see a hundred miles in every direction and knowing that one mistake could get me killed, is infinitely better than watching a television documentary that attempts to portray that. Something that’s contrived and managed by others can never be as amazing as the direct experience.

    Besides, if you follow, you’ll find that a lot is going on, from preparing to assist in the California dam emergency to digital modes that can communicate below the noise level, and on to contacting the world from a mountain top. Even the Internet is being brought into play to track HF propagation using low power beacons.

    The costs have dropped dramatically if you’re not concerned about what the gear looks like. A BITX40, a 40-meter SSB transceiver, costs only $59. Assembled and put into your own case, it will let you talk to the world.

    Ten years ago, I might have agreed that ham radio was languishing. Not so now. It has never been more interesting.

  5. “Various forms of… you can’t get a kid interested in this today because…. internet… cellphones”

    Sure you can!

    First off.. start young. I’m not talking about tweens and teens here, let them get that old before introducing them to the more nuts & bolts side of technology and of course it’s going to be a nearly impossible task. You missed your chance!

    Second… explain what they have. That cellphone isn’t a magic box! The internet doesn’t get delivered by mystical fairies! Explain that the cellphone is a radio, just one where ‘how it works’ has been intentionally hidden from them. Explain cell towers, fiber optic cables, satellites, rocket launches and all that stuff. Explain money, explain monthly cellphone and internet bills, explain the billions of dollars that go into launching a satellite.

    Don’t think they will be interested in that? Don’t think they will be capable of understanding? Adults make that mistake and underestimate their kids all too often. Young children are information sponges. They are little blank slates recently dropped into the world, trying to figure out what it is and how they fit in it. Kids will listen and absorb information about anything. Just don’t plan too far ahead what you are going to teach them. They will ask questions. They will take the conversation down other paths. You will be side tracked but it’s ok, you can come back to where you left off tomorrow. The conversations I’ve had with my own daughter… we could go from robots to rockets to dinosaurs to genetics all in a single conversation… when she was 2!

    So, anyway.. the cool thing about your home iss receiver setup isn’t that it gets a picture from space. It’s the process. It’s the fact that it doesn’t rely on all that stuff. That billions dollar network the grown-ups built… here, you can do the same thing yourself using this.. It will get you a smile from them. They will learn something and they will want to do it again. Just don’t expect them to spend all day dwelling on that picture that they received. It’s just a picture, they can get others much easier. It was the process, the journey that counted. They can take another journey tomorrow. Now it’s over and time to go play.

    Still not convinced?

    Imagine the kid in 1957 that came in from an evening of looking at space through a telescope to turn on a radio and receive the first transmissions from Sputnik. Even decades before the internet he/she could have gone to a library and picked out a whole book full of pictures taken from telescopes far better than the kid could have even fit in the yard! That same radio could have received any number of radio programs that were far more interesting than a repeating beep beep from that spiky little russian metal ball. But what would have been interesting about any of that?!?!

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