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Radio hams pick up Mars rover Curiosity's signals

German enthusiasts collaborate with NASA

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Amateur radio enthusiasts using a restored dish antenna in Germany say they have successfully picked up telemetry from NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, now outward bound for Mars carrying a one-ton nuclear powered robot rover named Curiosity towards a date with destiny in the Elysium Planitia.

Volunteer space-tech enthusiast collective AMSAT was chuffed to announce over the weekend that member James Miller (callsign G3RUH) was able to remotely train the group's large dish antenna at Bochum in Germany onto the right piece of sky to pick up X-band telemetry from the speeding MSL, which took off successfully from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 1502 GMT on Saturday and shortly thereafter separated from the Centaur upper stage to begin its long coast to the red planet.

According to the AMSATers (aided by Google Translate):

As early as 7 hours after the start against MSL 21:45 UTC was the first time from Europe to observe and accurately at the expected time, the X-band telemetry was successfully received by AMSAT-DL team in Bochum. The signal was a spin-modulation of + - 3.5 Hz and a period of receiving about 30 seconds (about 2 revolutions / minute). The distance had increased to 112.000 km. Presumably this was the first reception of MSL outside the official network of the NASA DSN [Deep Space Network].

For reception of MSL James Miller has G3RUH remotely tracking and the receiving computer and reconfigure the system has automatically received at the rising MSL in Bochum. No one had to be physically on site.

The Bochum dish had previously fallen into disrepair and disuse after its protective radome collapsed in 1999, but it was restored by volunteer efforts and is now used in various projects by AMSAT. It has previously achieved rather more difficult radio taks, in fact, successfully tuning in to orbiter spacecraft circling Venus and Mars - and even to the far-flung Voyager probes on the very fringes of the solar system.

These successes have proven that the Bochum dish can be of use in space exploration, furnishing another station which can receive data from spacecraft when other dishes around the world are facing away from them. NASA has opened channels of communication with AMSAT on the internet, allowing the enthusiasts to send in such data and download sky coordinates to help them receive it.

The AMSATers have higher ambitions than this, however, and are working hard on their own Mars mission. ®

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