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Polies make a ham radio call.
Photo Credit: Nick Powell
South Pole ham radio operators, from left, Nick Powell, Henry Malgrem and Skip Withrow in the ham room at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Ham radio has been in continual use at the South Pole and elsewhere in Antarctica for more than 50 years. Antarctic hams have even been in contact with the International Space Station.

Modern day hams

Radio communications still thrill in the age of e-mail and Facebook

Antarctic hams have met the space age.

While the thrill of hearing a loved one’s voice in the United States long ago vanished due to the ability of placing direct phone calls, Antarctic hams still get excited about opportunities to talk to members on the International Space Station (ISS) External U.S. government site.

Several transmissions have been made over the years between the ISS and Palmer Station External U.S. government site, the only U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site station far enough north to fall within range of the space station’s flight path.

“During the winter of 2004, we made contact with astronaut Mike Fincke from Palmer,” recalls Palmer ham Chuck Kimball, who works as a satellite communications technician at the station.

“We made comparisons about life at Palmer and on the space station. Ironically, I had arrived at Palmer in April and was staying until October, which was the exact same timeframe Fincke was to be on the ISS. [See the news story External Non-U.S. government site on the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) External Non-U.S. government site Web site.]

“In December 2005, we made two contacts with the ISS Commander Bill McArthur,” he adds. “I told him that the pass would be slightly shorter due to our horizon being blocked by the glacier north of Palmer. Bill’s response about how foreign our environment sounded really struck me when you consider it was being said by a person 200 miles above the Earth at the time. It was a great reminder of how privileged we are to get to spend time in Antarctica.” [See the news story External Non-U.S. government site on the ARRL Web site.]

Both Fincke and McArthur were able to “work all continents” by ham, something all hams strive for. The International Amateur Radio Union’s Worked All Continents award does not require contact with Antarctica, so actually being able to tag it is a feather in the ham’s cap.

According to the American Radio Relay League, two other ISS astronauts had made an earlier contact with Palmer, in 1992.

“Ham has been pretty much continuously active at Palmer since the station was built in the mid-1960s,” Kimball says. “Twenty-four-hour satellite access only arrived at Palmer in September 2002, and with it, full-time telephone access to the U.S. So ham phone patches were a regular part of life at Palmer until a few years ago. If there is someone like me on station working, we’ll continue to operate for fun during our off hours.”

If talking to the ISS is cool, then rigging up a moon bounce has to be a stroke of genius. A few years ago, a McMurdo wintering ham constructed a make-shift antenna to aim a 200-watt radio signal at the moon, bouncing the signal back to Earth to make contacts.

Antarctic Call Signs

Decades ago, when the U.S. Navy provided most of the logistical support for the USAP, the FCC assigned a range of call signs for Navy Antarctic ham radios: KC4USA through KC4USZ. McMurdo Station still uses KC4USV.

In 1959, the FCC assigned new sign blocks for Antarctica, which fall within the alphabet range from KC4AAA through KC4AAF. South Pole uses KC4AAA and Palmer uses KC4AAC. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) maintains a Web page that accesses the FCC call sign data base or visit the FCC web site page External U.S. government site directly. 

Recent elimination of the Morse code licensing requirement has simplified licensing and led to greater interest in the hobby and more operators. ARRL has information on how to obtain a license and related materials.

Call signs are a matter of public record and can be accessed at www.qrz.com External Non-U.S. government site.

McMurdo Station External U.S. government site hamming has had its share of difficulties in recent years. “When I got to McMurdo my first season, in 1999, ham radio was prohibited,” wrote Mike Poole, who works in supply at McMurdo, in a recent e-mail. “Some of the scientists were concerned that radio use would interfere with sensitive radio listening experiments conducted here. Since they were on the amateur 6-meter band, we asked for and received permission to reactivate ham radio as long as we did not transmit on the same band.

“We initially used a folded wire dipole,” he explains. “The center was on a pole on the building. The ends of the antenna were attached to ropes that we tied to various structures we could find. But the ropes were in the way of vehicles, so were eventually taken down. We eventually got a large tri-band antenna on a tower along with a 500-watt amplifier. We’ve been in business ever since.”

Long-distance propagation is somewhat dependent on an 11-year sunspot cycle, according to Poole. He remembers that the 2001-02 season was particularly good for communication, when anyone with a small radio could reach the station.

“We were extremely popular,” Poole says. “For most hams, it’s an exciting thing to make contact with Antarctica. Since then the solar cycle has been at its low point and comms have been next to nothing. Then we had a bad winter storm a few years ago that damaged the antenna.

McMurdo received a new radio, amplifier and antenna this year, so the hams are back on the air. McMurdo hams are usually surfing the airwaves on Saturday stateside time. McMurdo and South Pole stations operate in the same time zone as New Zealand, which is on GMT+12.

Just because Palmer gets the astronauts and McMurdo does moon bounces, does not mean Pole hams have boring interactions. The South Pole is every ham’s dream contact.

Nick Powell, a satellite systems engineer for Raytheon Co., recently returned from his ninth austral summer trip to South Pole External U.S. government site.

“Ham radio in the U.S. Antarctic Program today has turned to a more traditional recreational activity,” he explains. “When South Pole starts calling ‘CQ’ [ham shorthand for ‘Hello, World!’] and radio conditions are good, word spreads quickly through ham radio Web sites that South Pole is on the air.

“Before you know it, a large ‘pile-up’ of stations forms, all responding with the hope they will talk to the Pole,” he adds. “Sometimes so many call, it sounds like noise, and skill is needed to pick out call signs. Everyone wants to contact one of the rarest, most highly sought ham radio stations in the world and receive the QSL card [shorthand for ‘received and understood’) confirming that contact.”

Powell says Pole hams have made contact with stations on every continent and the majority of islands around the world. “It’s a pleasure to share their excitement in talking with South Pole, one of the most remote places on Earth. Sometimes our contacts are especially interesting, like the times we talked with winter-overs from the ’60s, or the time I talked with one of the original engineers on Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose aircraft.

“Just the other day I had an interesting contact with Francois Bergez (F8DVD) of France. He is involved in French Arctic research and helps establish summer research camps on ice flows in the Arctic. We discussed various matters associated with Arctic and Antarctic living and research.

“All in all, operating a ham radio station at the bottom of the world is the most unique experience I’ll ever have in this hobby, and I am honored to have had that opportunity.”

Vladimir Papitashvili of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs (NSF OPP) External U.S. government site used the ham radio as a hobby during his youth growing up in the former Soviet Union. Working first with an amateur radio club at age 14, he then received his license while attending university, and continued hamming during his early career in Yakutsk, Siberia.

“That was an exciting time. Can you imagine freely contacting people around the world in the days before the Internet?” he asks. Papitashvili moved away from ham radio operation in the 1970s, but has recently renewed his interest while working at the South Pole during the austral summers.

Program manager for the Antarctic Aeronomy and Astrophysics Program External U.S. government site, Papitashvili credits Powell and Helmut Spieler with his renewed interest. “Helmut is a scientist for the South Pole Telescope External Non-U.S. government site, a project funded by the NSF, so how could I resist not joining him and Nick in the station’s ham radio room?”

Papitashvili is now considering taking the license exam so he can resume hamming from his home in Maryland.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs