ARISS Antennas installed on Columbus

October 20, 2007

A few days ago, two ARISS antennas were installed on the European Space Laboratory Columbus. The module will be delivered to the International Space Station by a nearby Shuttle mission. From the beginning, there will be Amateur Radio antennas on the European segment of the ISS.

All this started five years ago, when the ARISS-Europe chairman took the initiative to submit a request for amateur radio facilities on the Columbus module to Mr Jörg Feustel-Büechl, ESA Director of Manned Spaceflight and Microgravity:

“The ARISS international working group provides the many organizational and operational services needed to insure successful educational school contacts. All these activities are offered, free of charge, by volunteering amateur radio operators of the different countries involved.

ARISS, especially the European team, wishes to gain access to the Columbus module. An amateur radio station on European territory in space would considerably enhance amateur radio research in Europe and contribute to orient talented students to space related careers. Considering the freely offered expertise of the volunteering amateurs involved in such a project, the return ratio would be most favourable.

No amateur radio activity is possible without access to one or more antennas affixed outside the module. This involves the disposal of coaxial feedthroughs to access the antennas”.

Following this request, the Columbus management convened a meeting at the EADS offices in Bremen , Germany . EADS is the main contractor for the Columbus project. This meeting took place February 19 th, 2003 with representatives of ESA, EADS and ARISS. ARISS was represented by Gaston Bertels, ON4WF, ARISS-Europe chairman, and Danny Orban, ON4AOD, developer of patch antennas. When asked where we would like to have the antennas installed, we said “On the nadir of Columbus , facing the Earth”. Impossible: Columbus will fly in a Shuttle bay and not enough room is left for antennas. “But what about patch antennas?” That seemed feasible, but the weight should be very low. Finally, it was agreed to work on UHF, L-band and S-band antennas, VHF being too large to accommodate on the Meteorite Debris Panels (MDP) which protect Columbus ’ hull.

Another issue was how to get coaxial feed lines from inside Columbus to the nadir. No feedthroughs existed. Finally, ESA’s management decided to install an eightfold feedthrough fixture on the port cone of Columbus and to support the cost. An element of the cone was dismounted and sent to Alenia Spazio in Italy , where the fixture was installed.

Also in 2003, Danny Orban ON4AOD submitted plans for VHF, UHF, L-band and S-band antennas. December 2003, the VHF patch antenna was abandoned, being too large and too heavy. In 2004 Danny, who was very busy developing his microwave business overseas, wished to be discharged of his task. Dr Pawel Kabacik, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Telecommunications and Acoustics of Wroclaw University of Technology in Poland , who had developed the patch antennas for the SSETI project, accepted the development of the ARISS antennas.

Meanwhile an agreement was reached between ESA and ARISS: ARISS was to support the cost of the antennas development and manufacturing as well as 50.000 euro of the installation cost. ESA was willing to support the remainder of the installation cost, estimated well over 100.000 euro. Consequently, a funding campaign was launched by ARISS-Europe, gathering donations for the Columbus project.

June 25 th, 2005 a contract was signed between Wroclaw University and UBA, the Belgian Royal Amateur Radio Society, bearing development and construction of combined L/S-band patch antennas. UHF was abandoned by lack of funding. The University was to build two flight antennas, two spare antennas and an engineering antenna. Indeed, ESA/EADS had decided to install two identical antennas on two different Meteorite Debris Panels. If one panel was to be removed in space for inspection, that antenna would probably be lost. The contract amounted to 47.000 euro. The UBA would pay the bill and recover the expense with donations gathered by AMSAT Belgium.

July 19 th, 2005 a meeting was convened at ESTEC, Noordwijk in the Netherlands , where ESA, EADS, Alenia Spazio, Pawel Kabacik and Gaston Bertels finalized and signed an Interface Control Document detailing the tasks of each party involved.

November 17 th, 2005 and December 15 th, 2005 meetings were convened at EADS, Bremen . Oliver Amend, DG6BCE represented ARISS. Pawel Kabacik presented the L/S-band engineering model ARISS 1. Two coaxial cables had been installed between the feedthroughs on the port cone and the MDP’s on the nadir. Meanwhile, ESA had accepted to support the installation cost totally, for ARISS had not been able to collect enough donations to cover their part. Early in 2006, five L/S-band antennas were manufactured: ARISS 21-22-23-24-25.

June 12 th, 2006 AMSAT Belgium signed a contract with Wroclaw University for qualification tests (3.000 euro). The mechanical vibration tests were very severe (49G at 2kHz) with regard to extreme acoustical vibrations produced by the Shuttle boosters during launch. The antennas failed.

March 15 th, 2007 UBA signed a contract with Wroclaw University (18.000 euro) for the development and manufacturing of modified L/S-band antennas: ARISS 31-32-33-34-35. One of these antennas, ARISS 31, was exposed in the Exhibition Ham Radio a European Resource set up in the European Parliament, Brussels by the EUROCOM working group of the International Amateur Radio Union. The antennas were successfully submitted to vibrations tests, but failed thermal/vacuum tests (several cycles -100°C / + 120°C in vacuum chamber).

August 14 th, 2007 UBA signed an Annex to the Wroclaw contract (additional 18.000 euro) for the development and manufacturing of 2 flight antennas and 1 qualification antenna with different materials.

September 25 th, 2007 ARISS 41-42-43 antennas were successfully submitted to vibrations tests in Germany and ESA decided installation on Columbus .

October 9 th and 10 th ,2007 ARISS 41 and ARISS 43 were installed on Columbus in the high bay of the Kennedy Space Center . October 12 th the electrical properties of cables and antennas have been tested and validated.

In the week of October 15, qualification antenna ARISS 42 was successfully submitted to thermal tests in vacuum chamber in the Netherlands .

ARISS 42 will also be submitted to detailed efficiency tests to determine the precise electromagnetic characteristics of the antennas.

Since September 2005, the Columbus working group has met 17 times per teleconference. These meetings will now intensify in order to finalize the project for the onboard ARISS equipment. The intention is to build a wideband transponder, L-band uplink, S-band downlink. Moreover, digital ATV is also thought of. Anyway, among many other aspects, equipment volume, weight, power consumption and heat budget are to be discussed with ESA and EADS.

We are very grateful to Mr Bernardo Patti, ESA’s Columbus project manager, as well as to ESA’s Education Programme leaders Sylvie Ijsselstein and formerly Elena Grifoni, who supported the ARISS project. Many thanks also to the ESA, EADS and Alenia engineers for their efficient guidance. Special thanks and congratulations to Dr Pawel Kabacik and his team who developed the ARISS antennas and used Polish research funds for this purpose.

Very special thanks to all the donators whose support made possible this unique achievement.

Not all the bills are paid. The funding campaign continues.


Gaston Bertels – ON4WF
ARISS-Europe chairman