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ERAU to link Volusia County middle schoolers with International Space Station astronauts

Planning is underway for a 10-minute chat nearly a year from now that could inspire some students for a lifetime.

Next spring, some Volusia County middle school students may get the chance to talk with an International Space Station crew member using amateur radio, officials at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University say.

ERAU, in turn, has been in contact with Volusia County Schools to determine which schools at what grade levels will be involved. Jim Gregory, dean of the ERAU College of Engineering, said he anticipates some 500 students from different middle schools will have a hand in the linkup, likely in spring 2024.

Earth-to-space meetups

ARISS-USA, an organization also known as Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, organizes meetups between students and astronauts in space using radio waves and selected Embry-Riddle as one of the schools it will work with for the 2023-2024 school year.

Eleven schools and host organizations won the opportunity to chat with astronauts aboard the ISS in a competitive process conducted by ARISS-USA. Those schools must now demonstrate that their ham radio equipment will work.

"The whole idea is to inspire young people to pursue technical fields in the areas of space and radio communications," Gregory said. "Some students will get to talk to an astronaut. Surrounding that keystone event, we'll have STEM outreach activities throughout the school year leading up to that."

ERAU students will be involved, too

ERAU students, primarily those involved in the Amateur Radio and STEM Outreach clubs, will visit classrooms across Volusia County throughout the school year to excite and prepare students with hands-on radio communications and labs related to STEM − science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

For students such as Paul Bartolemea, Amateur Radio Club president, the opportunity to make two-way contact with the ISS is unique and provides experience working with different equipment and software. He anticipates it will attract students to the clubs.

"It's also a spectacular opportunity for learning, experience and teaching," Bartolemea said in a university report. “The look on the students’ faces when they get a chance to talk on the rig will be reward enough.”

Nicole Stott, an Embry-Riddle alumnus and former NASA astronaut, has agreed to take part in the program on the day of the linkup. So in addition to students getting to talk with an astronaut in space, they'll also get to talk in person with one on Earth.

Making contact with the space station

ERAU is working with a Volusia County Schools administrator and will have three teachers attend a workshop later this month to help them develop educational materials they can use in their classroom in the months leading up to the linkup.

“We have more interest from Volusia teachers than we have spaces in this workshop. Later this summer, we’re hoping to host more,” Gregory said.

ERAU has landed a $5,000 grant from the Hunter Foundation to help pay for buses to transport students to the Daytona Beach campus as part of their engagement.

Because of the physics of radio waves and the ISS orbit, the linkup will only be possible for about 10 minutes. The frequency the ERAU team will use to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere will be about 140 megahertz, higher than FM, which is about 100 megahertz, Gregory said.

“We have some directional antennas that point the radio signal. We’ll be pointing these antennas at the space station and tracking it as it goes overhead,” he said.

The space station travels at more than 17,000 mph, so it will only be reachable from one horizon to the other for about 10 minutes.


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