Listening To The ISS On The Cheap

Like any hobby, amateur radio has no upper bounds on what you can spend getting geared up. Shacks worth tens of thousands of dollars are easy to come by, and we’ll venture a guess that there are hams out there pushing six figures with their investment in equipment. But hands down, the most expensive amateur radio station ever has to be the one aboard the  International Space Station.

So what do you need to talk to a $100 billion space station? As it turns out, about $60 worth of stuff will do, as [saveitforparts] shows us in the video below. The cross-band repeater on the ISS transmits in the 70-cm ham band, meaning all that’s needed to listen in on the proceedings is a simple “handy talkie” transceiver like the $25-ish Baofeng shown. Tuning it to the 437.800-MHz downlink frequency with even a simple whip antenna should get you some reception when the ISS passes over.

In our experience, the stock Baofeng antenna isn’t up to the job, so something better like the Nagoya shown in the video is needed. Better still is a three-element Yagi tuned down slightly with the help of a NanoVNA; coupled with data on when the ISS will be within line-of-sight, picking up the near-constant stream of retransmissions from the station as Earth-based hams work it should be a snap — even though [saveitforparts] only listened to the downlink frequency here, for just a bit more of an investment it’s also possible for licensed hams to uplink to the ISS on 145.900 MHz.

For those who want a slightly higher level of difficulty, [saveitforparts] also has some tips on automating tracking with an old motorized mount for CCTV cameras. Pitchfork notwithstanding, it’s not the best antenna tracker, but it has promise, and we’re eager to see how it pans out — sorry. But in general, the barrier to entry for getting into space communications is so low that you could easily make this a weekend project. We’ve been discussing this and other projects on the new #ham-shack channel over on the Hackaday Discord. You should pop over there and check it out — we’d be happy to see you there.

Thanks to [Stephen Walters] for the tip.

36 thoughts on “Listening To The ISS On The Cheap

  1. Man, I would have rather taken that $100 Billion of useless space junk, and put it toward the national debt. Would have gotten allot more use of the money that way, than that useless space station.

    1. Sigh. $100 billion is a drop in the $32 trillion bucket that is the U.S. debt (actually about 0.3%) and that $100 billion didn’t end up in outer space … it ended up in citizen salaries and (via corporate earnings) their 401(k)’s. I think it would be fitting to deprive you personally of every benefit and discovery that has come about due to the space program.

          1. Ah but that’s just your average politician; the type specified was a “decent” one! LOL

            N.B. @Hackaday, I’ve rewritten this fairly innocuous comment three times now. Please don’t censor it *again*

    2. That is a very, very naive and uninformed way of looking at government spending. Government spending is a *good* thing. That’s money that went back out, paying for engineering, paying businesses, etc.

      It’s also negligible in terms of national debt — national debt is not at all like your checkbook or even like your business accounting. There’s not really any reason to “balance the budget” for nations.

      1. $2T – It’s for convincing rotten people that their stupid ambitions might not be worth the risk.

        $60 is for building a cheap rig to listen for the space station. I know this community could come up with a fantastic satellite tracking gimbal too, probably by recycling some 3D printer parts.

      1. “In addition to contributions from the U.S., other nations are contributing to the project. They include Russia, Canada, Japan, Brazil, and eleven participating member countries of the European Space Agency.”

    3. Ha yeah we should just pay all our money to China and the Rothschilds instead of using it to further technology and exploration.

      Don’t even think about looking for that money under the couch or like in war coffers or plain corruption or politicized entitlements. Nope it has to come from the people who are trying to advance the human race. Why do you think that paying a creditor would give you “allot” more money?

    4. Paying a nation’s debt is equivalent to lighting money on fire. The money stops moving through the economy and ceases being a benefit. If you balance a budget and maintain that for decades then the terms of your outstanding bonds expire and you reduce the national debt and get those interest payments down. The was the Treasury and bond market works is substantially different from a household income and it is better to think of the macroeconomic implications rather than reaching towards lower debt, lower interest payments, lower taxes, etc.

      As for government spending, there is good and bad spending. When spending yields material gains, infrastructure that supports commerce, scientific discoveries, or any other public benefit. Then that’s likely money well spent. I would categorize ISS and other space programs as important scientific infrastructure that helps make the US a central hub in science and education. Access to space is drawing students to Universities, as are Earth-based science programs such as particle physics. Additionally our space programs are important to the aerospace industry.

  2. For me $60 is about 7-8 days worth of basic food, not very good but enough to survive without starving. Given current economic condition of my country and bleak future prospects I’d rather not waste a cent. (By bleak prospects I mean autumn elections will likely be rigged in favor of currently ruling far-right party; by 2025 Poland will exit by itself or be kicked out of EU and NATO.)

    This is the time to invest in survival and self-defense gear, not chinese toy radios.

    1. For your, Poland’s and the EU’s sake I wish the non-(far)-right majority(?) all the best – as in PiS not winning the next election.

      Greetings from a neighbour where the current politics aren’t “that far” right/conservative “yet” (but it doesn’t look to good either). :-/

      1. Speaking of, take a look at Reticulum.

        Also, demonstrating an interest in, and willingness to engage with, such projects could potentially help you get a job with a better salary?

    2. This blog post is not about You, Poland, how to spend 60$, what can you buy for 60$, NATO, UE, political state of EU, survival, self defense or what time it is? But it is a great opportunity for you to comment on how cool this hack is because can be “hacked” to fit your disaster scenario.

  3. Wow this comments section took an unexpected turn.

    I got into ham radio to use orbiting repeaters and it’s been a real gas. The Russians sometimes do surprise slow scan tv transmissions too which are really fun. One of my highlights was waiting for an SSTV transmission and hearing, in a very Russian accent, “merry Christmas”. They didn’t return my call but for that moment I “talked” to a cosmonaut. And most of the astronauts are hams and do scheduled sessions with school kids. And on and on. It is soooo a Very Good Thing.

    1. Cool, that’s almost like in the good old days of MIR.
      Back then, SSTV pictures from the crew and the orbit were sent down via ham radio.

      MIR had a very advanced SSTV system for its time. I *think* it was an integrated/modular system consisting of a portable TV or video monitor, an TSC-70P and Kenwood TM-V7E (?).
      A video camera also was installed, of course.
      About three identical systems were created or so I read, maybe ISS still uses that?

      Back then, they used Robot 36 which was among the quickest (roughly 36 seconds) and most complicated SSTV modes.

      Nowadays, ISS uses PD-120 mode which has four times the pixels, resolution wise.
      It can be nicely decoded by MultiMode on Macintosh, for example. 🙂

  4. When it first went up and was occupied back in the early 2000’s, I made a contact from my car with a cheap dual-band mobile at 5 watts. Sadly, doing so nowadays(as far as the Western crews go) in North America is extremely rare unless you are operation for a school or other educational institution and participate in the NASA outreach program set up for this purpose.

    From what I understand the other national crews are more active and “accessible” on an individual level, but they often restrict their operating to times during the orbit when they are in proximity to their countries of origin in Europe and Asia.

  5. The simplistic approach.
    I already have the mentioned Baofeng for other Ham ops. I have a radio scanner. So the cost of either is already been covered. I also have all the needed antennas, but for fun, let’s say I build one to listen. I have solid 12, and 10 gauge wire, as well as some leftover pieces of wood and PVC pipe. Either can be used for the beam antenna using the aforementioned wire. If I’m not transmitting (using a scanner), I can make a simple 3-4 element beam, and don’t even need to fiddle with a matching network.
    So, in keeping with the original article, look into monitoring astronauts and cosmonauts via the cheap way. If you want to talk, it’s still cheap and easy.
    I gathered this article was to help folks listen to or contact the ISS inexpensively, and nothing to do with the cost of the station itself.
    If you are concerned about the cost, get a job in finance with NASA, or run for an elected office. Maybe YOU can be the one who develops a way to build and launch spacecraft for free.
    Many NEVER realize the advancements made in our lives by the technology that comes from the various space programs from around the World. If there was something developed that would save your child’s life, to me, that would far outweigh the cost of the program. I would be happy WITH you that your child gets a normal life, heavy on LIFE.

  6. I can beat this, I bought a 2W handy off eBay for £12. The only reason I haven’t had a contact via the ISS is that some Italian guy hogs the repeater with (probably) 200W and 20dBi on top, while it’s passing overhead.


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