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Utah students use ham radio to connect with astronaut during eclipse

Sunday, 14 April 2024 19:08

Students connect with astronauts using amateur radio

The solar eclipse might not have been fully visible from Utah, but that didn’t stop a group of Tooele students from having an astronomical experience on Monday, when they interviewed an astronaut aboard the International Space Station as it passed over Utah.

Students in the Tooele County School District were able to communicate with Matthew Dominick, a NASA flight engineer on Expedition 71 on the space station, through the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program. The international program coordinates radio contact events for classrooms and communities to learn more about life in space and practice using communication and radio technologies.

Teachers and students gathered in Tooele’s Community Learning Center, which houses the district’s career and technical education programs. Members of the Logan-based Bridgerland Amateur Radio Club provided tech support for the event, which included constructing an antenna system on the center’s roof in order to connect to the space station.

The call started when the International Space Station was positioned above Utah, around 11:45 a.m. MDT. Clint Thomsen, the teacher who coordinated the event, switched on his radio and called out to the space station, which orbits around 250 miles above sea level. The crowd heard only static at first, but astronaut Dominick’s voice finally crackled through the auditorium’s sound system.

Students quizzed Dominick on his training to become an astronaut, the physical effects of being in space, how zero gravity would affect the flight of a paper airplane, what movie nights are like on the space station and whether there is a procedure in place for alien contact (Dominick said there isn’t).

Dominick also shared some interesting anecdotes from his life in space. One student asked what it was like to cry in zero gravity, and although Dominick reported he hadn’t yet had “a really good cry” in space, he said another astronaut had recently experienced something similar.

Chaston Williams, one of the students who spoke with Dominick, said one of the best parts of the experience was connecting with the astronauts over their shared interest in radio technology.

“It’s cool that they also have that hobby to do ham radio,” he said.

Williams explained that everyone in his cybersecurity class at the community learning center studied for a ham radio license exam, which prepared them to develop radio- and STEM-focused questions for Dominick.

Thomsen, who teaches a variety of computer classes at the center, said ham radio is a great way to teach students the principles of basic electronics and communications. He added that using radio for this event also allowed students to have a more unique, direct experience with astronauts.

“It’s personal to them,” he said. “They have a contact not through some sort of satellite network, not through some sort of big, complex broadcast environment, but talking directly to astronauts. I think that tangibility is great on so many levels for students.”

Bob Wood, a member of the Bridgerland Amateur Radio Club who assisted in the event, has enjoyed ham radio as a hobby for years. He said his favorite part of the event wasn’t the technical portion, but seeing students’ reactions to what technology could accomplish.

“It is so amazing to see what these kids now see in our communications,” he said. “They’ll look at a space career, they’ll look at a radio communications career, they’ll look at a computer career, and we have that influence on them.”

Wood said the club has set up their equipment for similar events in Utah and even received a request to do so in another state.

“This has been amazing, mainly because with this project, with the International Space Station, we can bring it to schools and watch the faces of the children as they see this communication with a man in space,” he said.

The event was made possible through a grant from the ARISS program, which coordinates similar opportunities across the globe. The program is managed by several international amateur radio organizations and space agencies and encourages students to explore careers in STEM. The program is currently accepting proposals from both formal and informal educational organizations to host their own amateur radio contact with the International Space Station.

Thomsen said the event was the culmination of nearly three years’ work, but that the effort was worth it because of how much the students enjoyed the event. His own daughter, Tater, was able to ask Dominick a question, and he said it was amazing as both a teacher and parent to see her experience.

“I had a hard time not just grabbing her and squeezing her and kissing her right there,” he said. “She has been interested in space for the longest time. She’s been to see launches, she’s been to all the various space centers and she absolutely loves space. So this was really, really, really neat for her, and it was super awesome for me to be here with her.”

Thomsen said one student, nearly in tears, told him she’d remember the day for the rest of her life.

“These kids will take this experience today, and maybe they’ll go into some related field, maybe some STEM field, maybe not,” Thomsen said. “But they’re definitely not going to forget it. It’s that passion for these things that we want to convey along with the knowledge to kids.”

“The other day a friend of mine had some chili pepper in her eye, so we took a drink bag, squirted water out and filled up her eye socket with water, and it stayed there,” Dominick said. “It doesn’t run down her face, it just stays in her eyeball. It’s kind of fun to see, so I would imagine tears would just well up and create a giant ball of water in your eyeball.”

Dominick encouraged the students to find their niche in space exploration and pursue subjects they love.

“If you find out what you’re passionate about, you’ll do a much better job at it,” he said. “If you go do something you love, at the end, you’ll be so much better at it ... and we need all kinds of people with all kinds of talents up here to (work) from a diversity of backgrounds to make it go farther.”




Last modified on Sunday, 14 April 2024 19:13
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