Amateur Satellite Communications


I got an email this weekend from my friend, Steve Roberts of Microship fame. Steve once told me, ‘There is glory in using inappropriate technology’, which describes the ham radio community in many ways. I think many hams share the desire to use technology in unusual or novel ways and often times, that means engaging in an activity simply for the experience, not for its practicality. Satellite communications definitely fall into that category. In the days where nearly everyone has a cell phone or Internet access, using a satellite to talk with them is just, well, ‘over the top’.

Steve had a few questions for me about satellites. It turned into an email exchange which left me clearing out the cobwebs in my brain to think back a few years ago when I was active in amateur satellites. I never did get into the complicated elliptical orbit birds with linear transponders, just the low-earth-orbiting FM satellites which are a lot of fun and relatively easy to use.

A few years back, we were on a cruise ship to Alaska and I pulled out a cross-polarized, dual-band Yagi antenna and started chatting to hams in the lower 48 states and needless to say, it got some attention, mostly in the form of strange looks ;-). It also caught the attention of a writer from Wired magazine who thought it would make a good side bar article. I’ve also been known to throw the setup in the LongEZ and activate a few rare grid squares.

Enough time had passed that I have almost forgotten how to ‘work a bird’, as they say in ham radio parlance, so I had to consult my web page on the matter. It’s amazing how web pages get stale and out of date so quickly and I found myself fixing broken or outdated links and getting caught up on the current state of FM satellites. I even pulled out my radio, antenna, and tracking program with the expectation that I might hear some activity. However, many things have changed in the meantime and I’m going to have to reprogram the radio’s frequencies because several of the old birds have died and new ones are taking their places. I look forward to making a few contacts on recently launched SO-50 and AO-51 satellites in the next week or two. I was amazed to find that AO-27 is still alive, although at a much reduced schedule than a few years ago. It’s been in operation since 1993, which must be twice its expected life.

Blog by Hugh Hewitt


I am reading a book entitled ‘Blog‘ by Hugh Hewitt. It’s a good book, primarily focused on blogging from a political standpoint and how it’s affecting mainstream media. One of the ironies is that Hugh’s own website, although it is organized like a blog, appears to be hand-edited HTML. Blogging software includes important features now such as permanent links, comments, XML feeds, and archiving. Whenever I visit a blog website, I am always curious to see what tool is being used, such as Blogger, Movable Type, WordPress, MyST, etc., but when I looked at Hugh’s source, there didn’t appear to be any of that. I supposed he might just send the text to some smart webmaster who figures out how to add the links and insert it into the mix. I use FrontPage to edit my main web pages, but that would be very tedious for maintaining a blog, especially if I tried to do the archiving, XML feed, comment fields, and permanent linking manually.

I find personal blogs can be somewhat like the Christmas letters I get each year. I really like reading those letters, even though they are not personalized, because they help me to keep abreast of what’s happening in someone else’s life. Usually, they mention the places they’ve traveled, events they attended, job changes, accomplishments, graduations, and other personal topics. Phil Greenspun sent out a few Christmas letters that were very funny in 1990 and 1991, but apparently gave up the practice. His letters were a sort of self-deprecating satire on the narcissism involved of sending those letters. I guess there is something narcissistic about sending out letters that read almost like press releases, but I still like getting them. At least with blogs, people can always ‘opt out’ if you’re boring or annoying them ;-). I noticed that Phil maintains a blog now, so perhaps there’s not as much need to keep people apprised of his exploits with a yearly letter.

Another reason to maintain a blog is to beome a ‘thought leader’ on a topic. My friend Jack Krupansky is a thought leader on the topic of software agents, and recently started 5 blogs on various topics. I suppose if you have a company, or are establishing yourself as an authority, a blog dedicated to a particular subject matter is a good way to keep people coming back to you for your advice. Uncensored blogging strikes fear into the hearts of PR departments which like to scrub everything before it gets released to the public, but it’s hard to sound genuine in those types of postings. It comes across sounding much more like a press release than what the person really thinks. GM is starting to blog (and podcast too!), and if they can do it, how much longer will it be before the rest of the Fortune 500 follow suit? Warren Buffet doesn’t blog, per se, but his annual letters to shareholders have the same ‘flavor’ of a blog entry, full of humor, good information, and no pesky PR department’s censoring imprint on them. I guess when you’re one of the richest men in the world and have held your current position for 40 years, you don’t have to ask permission from others about what information you can share.

Entconnect 2005


We had another successful Entconnect meeting in Denver this year thanks to all the hard work by John Gaudio. You can see me in the photo, one of several photos taken by Dave Shaver of Corepoint Health, looking at a project that Mark Pelletier and I are working on that is related to aircraft instrumentation. I’ll post about it later when we are further along. Entcon was originally started back around 1992 and was affiliated with Midnight Engineering magazine. This magazine was founded by William E. Gates, not to be confused with the Bill Gates of Microsoft, and focused on starting and running small companies, usually related to technology. Unfortunately, Midnight Engineering is no longer in print, but John and a loyal group of enthusiasts continued having the meetings and gave it a slightly different name, just to make sure we didn’t abscond with the original name of the meeting, Entcon.

I’ve been taking a young friend, Court Rye to Entconnect for the past several years. Court was a summer intern at HP and so I became somewhat of a mentor to him and invited him to Entcon in 2002 and we’ve been attending it ever since. Court is quite experienced in web design and he won a coveted door prize, a Gold blog site from Myst Technologies (a $3500 value) and so he’ll get a chance to learn about this impressive platform. This year, I also brought along Mark Pelletier, and he put together a great little display case for our project, and gave a nice presentation and demo of it.

There were about 25 people there, including about 5 or 6 who were attending for their very first time. The keynote speaker was Bill French, co-founder of MyST Technology. We also got to meet Bill’s son, Loren, and Bill’s dad, Gerry, who gave us a presentation on submarine development for the U.S. Navy, where he spent a 35-year career during the height of the Cold War and nuclear submarine development. It was great to get some feedback on our project from Loren since he is a very experienced pilot with virtually every rating imaginable.

It was good catching up with old friends and making some new ones and I very much look forward to going back next year.

Springtime in Colorado


It’s hard to believe that it was getting into the 50’s and 60’s for the past few weeks and today we’re getting snow. Even our cat’s pet squirrel is hiding in his nest, trying to keep warm. His sunflower seed feeder is covered with snow. We got about 4 inches last night, but the streets and sidewalks were still warm enough that I don’t think we’ll need to be shoveling any of it today. They are calling for several more days of cold weather though, before it gets back up into the 50’s. This is pretty typical for springtime Colorado. One day you’ll be walking around in short sleeves and the next day you could have blizzard conditions.

It was 22 years ago that I left home, my Penn State engineering degree in hand, to drive across the country and take my first job at HP in Fort Collins, CO. The trip started off easily enough, stopping in Columbus, OH the first night to visit a friend. The next day after a late start, I got as far as Kansas City. On the third day, I left Kansas City and noticed after about an hour that my arm was getting tired from holding the car on the road due to a persistent 30 mph crosswind. The temperature began dropping and it started to snow. Soon, the roads were getting very slippery and I began to see tractor trailers pulling over to put chains on their tires. I decided to pull into Colby, KS and see if I could get a hotel room. It’s a good thing I did, because they had closed I-70 at the Colorado border. I had to wait out the storm for 2 days in the little town of Colby, experiencing my first taste of how fast the weather can change out here in the west.

In some ways, it feels like an eternity since that trip across the country and in other ways, it seems like just yesterday. In the meantime, I’ve worked at all three HP facilities in Northern Colorado, and now I’m back at the place where I started in Fort Collins. HP’s Greeley Division shut its doors in 2002 and the property has been sitting idle ever since. The reason we bought our house in Greeley was so we’d avoid a long commute ;-). My commute was so short I could ride on a bicycle when the weather was nice.

For a period of 7 years we left Colorado and lived in Pennsylvania, but after being away for that time, we missed Colorado and decided to return. Things were growing here and opportunities abounded. Another 10 years have passed and the economy still seems pretty strong here if new construction is any indication, but the high tech economy is still flagging and just hanging on to a job is a challenge.

But I’m sure things will change. They always do so it’s best not to dwell on the negative. In fact, the sun is now starting to shine, I see patches of blue sky, and Mr. Squirrel has emerged from his nest to see what goodies lie beneath that pile of snow.