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Cambie students connect with international space station (video & photos)

Setting up the communication system was the Richmond Amateur Radio Club
Cambie space exploration
Grade 12 Cambie student Nica Gatchalian and Kishore Nair of the Richmond Amateur Radio Club prepare to connect with the international space station at Cambie secondary on March 13, 2014.

On Thursday morning Richmond high school students boldly went where they had never gone before - outer space.

Well, kind of.

Students from Cambie secondary school, along with their teachers, partnered with the American Radio Relay League to have their school become just the fourth in the province to host the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station event. Setting up the communication system was the Richmond Amateur Radio Club.

The stage was set. Almost as if to be expected Star Trek's theme song blared over the gymnasium speakers and at about 10:05 a.m. about 1,500 students from across the school district bore witness to verbal communication with International Space Station commander Koichi Wakata, a Japanese engineer and veteran astronaut, who is fulfilling the role that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield once did in 2013.

The space station orbits the earth 15.5 times a day at an average speed of 27,600 km/h. The radio club and students had but a mere seven minutes to make contact and ask questions as the station flew 400 kilometres above northern British Columbia and the Arctic.

Grade 12 Cambie student Nica Gatchalian was tasked to make contact with the space station.

"November Alpha One Sierra Sierra this is Victor Echo 7 Romeo Alpha Romeo, do you copy? Over," she repeated several times before finally making contact.

"Good morning H.J. Cambie secondary. Over," declared Wakata.


The first few questions went off without a hitch. Wakata described what space was like and told students that several years of training are required to become an astronaut. As the questions went on, however, it became more difficult to hear Wakata's answers.

As the space station headed toward Russia the moment that took a year of planning was over. The fact the students made contact pleased Cambie science teacher Karen Ibbott.

"What I'm happy to see is how much it means to our students and staff and our community. When I thought of this a year ago I never thought that it would become such a wonderful production," said Ibbott.

Five other schools visited Cambie and several others watched the event on a webcast.

Contact with Wakata wasn't possible without the technical savvy of the radio club.

A large antenna was placed on the school's roof and connected to a radio transmitter, which relayed the signal to computers in the gym. Rotation of the antenna to track the moving station was controlled from the computers as large screens in the gym projected the flight path of the space station over the Pacific Ocean. A backup system was also put in place in case the primary system failed.

Urey Chan, director of the radio club, said it was one of the most challenging endeavours the club undertook.

"The club is used to putting up antennas to talk to people across continents but never in outer space. Also, tracking the moving space station is a big challenge," said Chan.

While most of the answers didn't come through clearly the students appeared to enjoy themselves. Several NASA videos were shown an hour prior to the contact.

"We put a lot of work into this. We put together a robot to simulate the Canadarm and we worked on two videos," said Grade 12 Cambie student Richard Marohn.

Richmond MP Alice Wong took the stage first to introduce the event whilst making claim that she herself was a Trekkie.

Pat Malaviarachchi, a senior systems engineer at McDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), a satellite communications company based in Richmond, also spoke to students.

"Science and math. We need these things more than ever," to achieve goals such as this, said Malaviarachchi, who intrigued a captivated audience in explaining how satellites operate.

"I wanted to know what drove them to become an astronaut," said Grade 12 Cambie student Janice Callangan.