Ham picks up signal from China’s Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter

An amateur ham radio operator announced on February 10th that he has been able to pick up a radio transmission from China’s Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter.

As reported on Spaceweather.com, Canadian radio amateur Scott Tilley, VE7TIL, has snagged another signal from deep space. His latest conquest has been to copy the signal from China’s Tianwen-1 (pronounced “tee-EN-ven”) probe, which went into orbit around Mars on February 10. Tilley told Spaceweather.com that the probe’s X-band signal was “loud and audible.”

“It was a treasure hunt,” Tilley told Spaceweather.com. He explained that while the spacecraft did post its frequency with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), it was too vague for precise tuning (X band is between 8 GHz and 12 GHz).

What makes this detection especially interesting is that it indicates the possibility that in the somewhat near future some ham might actually be able to win the Elser-Mathes Cup. According to this article [pdf] from the national ham radio magazine QST, by the late 1920s there was a desire to create a new challenge for hams, as by then they had managed to devise methods for communicating across the entire globe.

Amid this disillusionment, [Colonel Fred Johnson Elser] visited ARRL [the national ham radio organization] and had the pleasure of meeting League co-founder and first president Hiram Percy Maxim, whose many interests included Mars. Elser reported that Maxim even owned a globe of the planet, with all of its known features demarcated.

Elser returned to his home in Manila and befriended Stanley Mathes, a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy who had been stationed in the Philippines. Based on their shared belief that Amateur Radio technology would improve at a prodigious rate, Elser and Mathes devised an award for the most ambitious Amateur Radio contact they could imagine. In honor of Hiram Percy Maxim’s love of the Red Planet, Elser and Mathes established the Elser-Mathes Cup, to be awarded for the “First Amateur Radio Two-Way Communication Earth & Mars.”

That cup has remained unclaimed since it was established in 1929, more than ninety years. The detection by Tilley above using ham equipment suggests that a winner might soon be able to lay claim to the cup. However,

Fred Elser and Stanley Mathes stipulated that the contact must be two-way, and that the transmission on the Mars end of the contact cannot be generated by a “robot.” Until we can put a ham on Mars, the Elser-Mathes Cup will go unclaimed.

As almost all astronauts are also hams, all that must happen is for an astronaut to get to Mars, land, and communicate back to Earth using ham equipment. While this will not happen soon, the possibility it will happen in the not-too-distant future is finally becoming a reality. Stay tuned.

Hat tip to ham Don Huddler N4RRT.