Some 18 months of hard work came down to just one chance for success Monday as four college students tested an ambitious project that pretty much everyone in their school thought was impossible – making contact with the International Space Station.
Operation First Contact involved beaming a signal from their class-project radio to the outpost orbiting about 440 kilometres above Earth. The Humber College students had only a 10-minute window to make contact with the station, which travels through space at nearly 28,000 kilometres an hour.
“NA1SS this is VA3JUV Humber College checking in for scheduled contact, do you copy?” 34-year-old Gino Cunti inquired as a crowded room of faculty, students and reporters held their collective breath.
The room was filled with nothing but static, followed by silence.
As the students’ hearts skipped a beat another attempt at contact was made and the barely audible voice of astronaut Sandra Magnus emerged through the crackling static.
“Hello, I have you a little bit weak. Can you try again?” Magnus responded as the room burst into applause.
The team of Cunti and Paul Je, both 34, of Toronto, Patrick Neelin, 25, of Welland, Ont., and 21-year-old Kevin Luong of Mississauga, Ont., pulled off what their teacher said had never been accomplished by students at the college level.
Je burst into tears when contact was made.
While school contacts with the space station are routinely made through the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program, many of those communications are made using a traditional ham radio.
“We had to build this system to NASA specifications … this isn’t one of your parents’ CB radios. It’s a much more complex device than that,” said teacher Mark Rector.
“The cabling, antennas, tracking systems and software was done by these guys and it’s an incredible feat of undertaking and technology.”
The project got off the ground about a year ago as the students looked for a way to apply knowledge gained from their radio communication courses.
“Somebody basically said, ‘Let’s talk to space,’ and we all kind of laughed, yeah, when cows fly,” said Neelin. “But we ended up saying maybe that’s not such a bad idea.”
They researched the idea and pitched to Rector, who was skeptical that they could pull it off but pushed them into giving it a try.
“They never stumbled, they just kept crossing the hurdles,” Rector said.
When they successfully got through to Magnus they peppered her with questions.
They were able to squeeze in 18 questions in all, including one about what Magnus would say about the experience of seeing Earth from space.
“Up here I’ve seen the world from a different viewpoint. I see it as a whole system, I don’t see it as a group of individual people or individual countries,” Magnus said.
“We are one huge group of people and we’re all in it together.”
The group will be honoured this fall by Canada’s Telecommunications Hall of Fame for a “really cool” achievement, said Steve McFarlane of the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program.
“They built their own transmitters, that’s a challenge in itself, but they also got it to work their first time. They only get one chance at it and they met that challenge,” he said.
“From a technological standpoint it’s very impressive because they didn’t use off the shelf equipment. To go ahead and build that stuff… that’s what’s impressive here.”
– The Canadian Press