N5DUX's Satellite Guide
Equipment | Setup | Tracking Satellites | Gridsquares | FM Sats | Linear Sats | Awards | Links
N5DUX operating CAS-4B from grid EL28
at Surfside Beach, TX
On this page, I want to share my setup for making ham radio contacts via satellite. My setup is not elaborate and I've only been making QSOs since April 2022.
I recommend any ham just getting into satellites to start out on the FM satellites. They're much easier to work and has fewer hardware requirements making it cheaper to do. Start with FM satellites first before moving into linear satellites.
I started with FM satellites
using just a handheld handi-talkie radio (HT), an Arrow antenna, and the website Heavens Above
. There weren't any other good tracking websites that I knew of at the time and it was the pre-iPhone days so there were no great apps to help track multiple satellites. At the time, I lived across from a wide open field so I had few (no) obscructions from horizon to horizon.
With that modest setup, I was able to make satellite QSOs easily and have used that same exact HT and Arrow for almost 20 years now.
I've moved 3 times since then, taking my HT and Arrow with me. I've even used that simple HT and Arrow setup to operate as W1AW from the ARRL parking lot a number of times.
In July 2021 at the encouragement of Sean, KX9X, I began assembling the components listed below to get into linear transponder satellites. These are more involved than FM satellites, but the fundamentals are all the same.
A chance encounter with Tom, KB5FHK, and Patrick, WD9WEK, at Orlando Hamcation gave me the last push needed to finally get on the air.
- FM satellites: Icom IC-T90A HT
- this is just what I started with. It's not the best nor do I know anyone else using this particular HT.
- any dual-band, dual-VFO HT capable of "split" operation will work. You'll also want to be able to easily adjust the frequency (like this one's knob allows for)
- again, it's not an endorsement. This was an HT I received for Christmas from my folks about 9 months after I first got my license.
- Linear satellites: two Yaesu 817ND radios
- okay, this is an endorsement. While they are hard to find, the all-band, all-mode joy of the 817 makes it super easy to configure for the birds. The newer 818 is just as capable.
- plenty of others are using newer radios (like the 818), but if you can find some 817s at a good price, go for it!
- Arrow II antenna - 146/437-10WBP
- I opted for the split boom to make travel easier.
- If you're only doing FM or using just one radio, you'll want the duplexer.
- If you're doing two radios, you can skip the duplexer.
- Portable Zero "Dual Escort" 817 frame
- not all that necessary. A lot of portable ops are using 3D printed rails to keep their radios together.
- Bioenno 1209A (9Ah) LiFePO4 battery
- Heil Proset headset (with Yaesu adapter from DXE)
- Mini-Circuits BLP-200 Low Pass Filter to prevent desense on the VHF (2m) side
- Mini-Circuits BHP-400+ High Pass Filter to prevent desense on the UHF (70cm) side
- This is completely optional. Some say it isn't necessary, I kinda tend to agree. I just like knowing I have 2 "brick walls" between the signals on each side. I haven't noticed enough of a difference to advocate for others to get this one.
- Two BNC 5' lengths of ABR-240UF from ABR Industries
- custom, high quality cables and they're not that far from my home QTH!
- one marked with red heat-shrink on the ends, one marked with blue (easy to tell which is connected to which radio at a glance)
- Amazon Basics Large DSLR camera bag kinda popular among the dual-Yaesu ops.
- Sony ICD-PX370 digital vocie recorder
- this allows clear recording of each pass so I don't have to write down callsigns/gridsquares when making contacts.
- I like this model because it has USB file transfer built in. (No cable) It also has 3.5mm audio input and the built-in mic.
- some have pointed out the audio passthru function of this particular recorder. (So you could forego the splitter listed below.)
- PowerPole Adapter for 817 radios - one for each
- simple, effective. Makes power management that much easier. Worth it.
- Homebrew PowerPole Y-splitter to go from battery to each radio
- 6 PowerPole connectors (3 red, 3 black), 3 pieces of heatshrink, 2 8"-9" 14awg lengths of power cable
- No-name 3.5mm audio splitter off Amazon
- nothing special here. Any splitter will do. I even looked at Five Below to see if they had something on hand for this.
- this allows me to connect my headphones and audio recorder to the radio (and, presumably, a speaker out if I ever have someone wanting to watch/listen)
- No-name short 3.5mm audio cables off Amazon to connect splitter
- this isn't all that necessary, but I liked having the 90° bend where it comes out of the radio so there's less chance of the connector breaking one day.
- 90° RJ45 pigtail/extension off Amazon
- why not? Since the audio is coming out at a 90° bend, why put pressure on the mic adapter? Totally not necessary. But, when ordering, pay attention to which way the 90° bend goes.
A peek in the bag of my setup
Connecting it all together
- First step for me was to remove the internal rechargable batteries from the 817 radios. My plan was to not use them, so to save weight I removed them entirely.
- I then attached the PowerPole power adapters to the radios. In my opinion, this is a must have for any 817 owner regardless of use. It just makes sense.
- Next step was to mount the 817 radios on the Portable Zero rails. Like I said above, many others are using 3D printed ones. I only discovered that after I'd purchased mine. (Some ops don't even use rails at all.)
- Organizing the bag makes operation much smoother. For starters, I removed all the velcro dividers in the camera bag. I slid the radios into the bag and positioned one of the dividers snuggly up against the radios to hold them steady.
- Next was the battery. I slid it on the other side of the velcro divider and made sure the charging lead and the PowerPole lead were accessible. Perfect fit.
- At this point I took a length of red/black power cable and estimated the length of cable I'd need for a Y-splitter to provide power from the battery to both radios. After crimping/soldering the connectors on the splitter, I connected the PowerPoles and fished the splitter cable up between the two radios. I connected the splitter to the battery and turned on both radios for a test. Success! Power off and on to the next step...
- Initially I ran the audio cables down through the top of the bag. Consulting with KX9X, he said he'd made a small hole inside the bag to fit the cables through. I considered a few different locations for the hole, but ended up making a ~2" vertical cut in the from right side of the bag to pass between the main compartment and the zippered pounch on the side. I used a lighter to prevent any frayed threads - I considered some FrayCheck but figured a lighter would suffice.
- I connected the 90° audio cable to the speaker out on the "top" radio and the 90° RJ45 pigtail to the "bottom" radio. It truly doesn't matter which radio you use, I just settled on making the top my audio out and the bottom my audio in. (Top is my downlink, bottom is uplink - if that seems counterintuitive, maybe it is. You can fix it with your setup. :) I passed the cables through the hole into the zippered pounch on the right side and connected the splitter and the Heil adapter.
- This part was pretty straight forward. Just normal assembly of the Arrow II antenna.
- As stated earlier, if you're only doing FM satellites, get the Arrow duplexer built in. It comes with the feedline which terminates in a BNC male connector. Get a BNC female adapter for your HT's antenna port and you're in business!
- Once you've graduated to working linear satellites, you'll need some form of filter. The reason for this is because you'll be both transmitting and receiving signals in such close proximity, you need to get the two signals "walled off" from one another.
There are two easy ways to do this:
- Low Pass Filter: MiniCircuits makes the BLP-200 Low Pass Filter. This has BNC connectors on each end and goes in-line with the 2m element feedpoint on the Arrow.
- Diplexer: Another solution, which you may already have, is a 2m/70cm duplexer like those from Comet, MFJ, etc. You connect the input side to your radio/feedline, and then the 2m side to your 2m feedpoint. This works because a diplexer is essentially a low-pass/high-pass filter all in one. The drawback here is it's a tad more bulky than the MiniCircuits filter but the benefit is its power handling capability.
A note on power handling, MiniCircuits claims their filter is only rated for .5W - not the 5W coming out of the radio. Is it safe? MiniCircuits says that .5W rating is for out-of-band rejection. The pass-band does not have that same power limitation.
It's also worth noting that some radios, like the IC-910, feature independent connectors for each band. Such a radio would not need a filter since the radio handles that filtering itself.
- Because this filter setup takes the place of your duplexer, you'll need a couple of feedlines. One for VHF, one for UHF. Which radio they connect to depends on which mode your satellite of choice is using. Some are VHF up and UHF down, some are UHF up and VHF down. It just depends.
Which cable choice you go with is really up to you. RG-58 is a common choice and what the Arrow diplexer uses. Some ops prefer LMR240-UltraFlex, some say that's overkill for such a short run. As long as it's 50Ω and long enough to go from your radio to the antenna feedpoint (minimum of 4' in my opinion), you should be good to go.
Me? I got two 5' ABR240-UF from ABR Industries because they're kinda close to me.
There are many great resources from others that explain how to operate satellites. I'm going to break this into two sections FM and Linear. Once again, if you're just getting started start with FM satellites first
. Not only will you
have more success with FM, you'll also create less newbie-induced QRM for others on the linear. :)
As always, listen first
. With that, I mean if you have a directional antenna try tuning and tracking a satellite before fussing with transmitting to it. Just hearing the satellite is half the challenge. And starting out, hearing the satellite is
the challenge! So let's start there. Let's first look at how to find
To locate the satellite you're wanting to work, you need to be able to locate it in the sky relative to your position. There's several ways to do this. It's quick and easy these days.
There's a fair amount of information to unpack on the topic, so I parked it on its own page here: Tracking
Great! So you've got the equipment and you've got a tracking app. The first area to explore is FM satellites. These are much easier to work and are known as "easy-sats" for this reason.
This section ran a bit long, so I parked it on its own page here: FM Satellites
Alright, you've graduated from FM satellite operations and you can track and work FM satellites anytime you please - provided there's no major pileup on it (which, when is that?!)
You're ready to take the plunge and you've spent time (and money) assembling all the bits and pieces to get a functional full-duplex, portable VHF/UHF SSB station, time to get on the air. I've done a brain-dump of how I've managed to get on the air at this page: Linear Satellites
Once you've been on the air for a bit, you may be wondering "What now?".
provide the "thrill of the hunt" when working satellites.
There are several satellite awards you can earn such as Worked All States, VUCC, and even the grandaddy of them all: AMSAT Gridmaster. Are you up for it?
Here's a collection of all external links I've references in the text on this page and other pages here. I'm also including some links for more information that were not referenced in the text.
Need to take some pics!