Signals from space - Annapolis Royal students learn amateur radio for June launch

Published on May 28, 2017

Al Penney and Abigail Bonnington work on a radio transmitter hooked up to a tiny camera. It stopped working and they’re trying to figure out why. It has to be fixed or replaced by sometime in June when the camera will be part of a package slung below a balloon and launched from the Annapolis West Education Centre’s soccer field. The camera will send live TV from 30 or 40 kilometres up.

©Lawrence Powell

ANNAPOLIS ROYAL - Al Penney can bounce radio signals off the moon, but right now he’s working with high school students who want to send live video back to Earth from the edge of space.

Annapolis West Education Centre student Abigail Bonnington holds a video camera hardly bigger than a sugar cube. It’s attached to a small transmitter that will send signal to a laptop.

It stopped working and now Penney and Bonnington are troubleshooting. It has to be operational or replaced by sometime in June when the Annapolis Royal Space Agency launches its second ‘package’ deep into the stratosphere – 30 or 40 kilometres up.

Penney is with the Annapolis Valley Amateur Radio Club and has been working with the students since the fall.

“I was approached by them to see if amateur radio had any part to play in their balloon project, and of course it does,” said Penney. “We can provide location information, pictures, telemetry – things like that – live TV picture. And the ground search team can use radio to keep in touch and coordinate searching for the balloon.”

It was Bonnington, a space agency veteran, who got in touch with the ham radio club and asked for help.

“So we came down and gave them the talk on amateur radio and they were suitably impressed and decided it would be nice to work together,” said Penney.

The Project

Finn Hafting and Griffin Batt attached components to the space package using an adhesive compound.

©Lawrence Powell

While Bonnington and Penney work on the transmitter, ARSA members Finn Hafting and Griffin Batt use an adhesive to attach components to the inside of the small Styrofoam box that will be lifted by the large balloon. GoPro cameras will be attached to the outside. Erich Gennette works on a GPS data logger – a small Arduino Nano board.

Teacher Derick Smith goes from workstation to workstation as they pull the project together. The trick is to get the analogue radio signal back to Earth, convert it to digital, and live-stream it in real time on Facebook or YouTube.

So ham radio is the new thing in this year’s project. With no cell signal or any type of WiFi up in space, radio signal is the only thing that works to send live TV back to Earth. Or as Penney says: “A live video camera connected to a transmitter that will operate the amateur radio bands and will transmit a picture back to mission control here. Live TV – from the edge of space.”

Penney was impressed with the students and their eagerness to learn.

“We gave them a presentation on amateur radio, what it’s all about,” said Penney. “A bunch of them decided that they’d like to try that. We’re not finished the course yet. It’s still ongoing, but I’m really impressed at how quickly they pick things up and how it sticks with them.”

Ham Radio

A test of the live TV signal was successful. This shows video sent via radio signal to a laptop computer.

©Lawrence Powell

“When we first decided that we wanted to have the live radio feed for this year we were looking at different sources and people who could help us with that,” said Bonnington. “And then I came across Annapolis Valley Amateur Radio Club. I emailed Al and he emailed back and said he’d be delighted to help us – and we’d need a licensed person to help with the legal side of it. You have to have someone who’s licensed in order to operate that.”

Penney also asked if they’d be interested in obtaining their amateur radio license as well.

“I said yes, I’m interested,” said Bonnington, “and I asked Jeff, and Finn, and Griffin said they were as well.”

Even several community members joined the training course.

“The radio course is a lot more content than I thought it would be,” Bonnington said, “but it has been interesting. It’s definitely challenging. We tried to fit it in with all of our schedules. We don’t think we’re going to finish it this year, so we’re hoping to continue it next year. I’m going to do some studying over the summer.”

Global Hobby

Erich Gennette works on a GPS data logger – a small Arduino Nano board.

©Lawrence Powell

Penney said there are about two million amateur radio operators around the world.

“They communicate with each other using a variety of old fashioned and ultra modern techniques – everything from Morse code to voice-to-digital techniques – in fact they-re using cutting-edge technology in a lot of areas,” he said. “They’ve got amateur radio satellites in orbit – had them in orbit since 1961. Sputnik went up in 1957 -- so within four years we had our own satellite up. We bounce signals off the moon, we reflect them off the trails of meteors. We do all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily easy but we do them to prove that we can do them.”

Ham radio operators can even talk with astronauts on the International Space Station. And if all other forms of global communication went down because of an electromagnetic pulse incident – solar flare, nuclear explosion, or EMP weapon – amateur radio would still work.

Right now, that amateur radio will send signal back from the Annapolis Royal Space Agency’s package is enough for the AWEC students.

Abigail Bonnington and Al Penney with the top of the space package to which an antenna has been attached. Penney’s Annapolis Valley Amateur Radio Club is playing a big part in the Annapolis Royal Space Agency’s balloon launch this year.

©Lawrence Powell