At the time, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the California Institute of Technology, at Pasadena, was a research lab for the U.S. Army. A month after the Sputnik launch, the Army asked JPL to develop a satellite with a science package and communications system. The result was a tiny, 20-lb. spacecraft named Explorer 1.
JPL and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, at Huntsville, Alabama, blasted the satellite to space on one of the Army's Redstone rockets from the missile test center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 31, 1958. That historic flight of the first U.S. satellite to orbit the Earth launched the nation into the Cold War space race and led to the establishment of the civilian space agency NASA. Today, JPL is a space research center for NASA.
Hams get involved. Amateur radio operators around the world – excited by the beep-beep-beep radio signal they overheard coming down from Sputnik – willing accepted an invitation to tune in Explorer's radio signals. One of the thousands of ham stations searching for signals from space was operated by JPL ham radio operators at the nearby Los Angeles County Sheriff's substation in Temple City, California. More about Explorer Explorer
Some radio amateurs had a bright idea. Hams know all about radio communication. If the government can build a communications satellite, why can't we?
The first amateur radio satellite. A California group of Amateur Radio operators, calling itself Project OSCAR, built the first Amateur Radio satellite in 1961. Since then, the majority of hamsats have been called OSCAR.
Project OSCAR built the first four hamsats. Then AMSAT was founded in 1969. AMSAT's first flight was OSCAR-5 built by Australian students.
All of the high-tech OSCARs have been financed through donations of time, hardware and cash from hams in the United States, Germany, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Russia, France, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, South Korea, Finland, Israel, Mexico, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and other nations.
OSCAR. AMSAT satellites are called OSCAR, for Orbital Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio. The number of OSCARs reached a total of 50 satellites in 2002.
Numbers in the OSCAR series are assigned by AMSAT after a satellite has been launched successfully and operated on Amateur Radio frequencies.
For example, two OSCARs launched to space in December 2002 were a German hamsat designated AATiS OSCAR-49 (AO-49) — AATiS is a German group promoting Amateur Radio in schools — and a Saudi Arabian hamsat labeled Saudi OSCAR-50 (SO-50).
Radiosputnik. In addition to the OSCARs, over the years USSR and Russian hams have built and operated 20 separately numbered amateur satellites called Radiosputnik, or RS for short. Three USSR hamsats were called Iskra, which is Russian for "spark."
British Amateur Radio satellites, built at the University of Surrey, have been known as UoSAT. Japanese hamsats have been called Fuji, which is Japanese for "wisteria."
In addition, a handful of Amateur Radio related satellites also have been launched over the years by other groups around the world. The Amateur Radio OSCAR communication and science satellites are not the same as the U.S. Navy series of Oscar navigation satellites. Amateur Radio satellites are referred to informally as hamsats.
Flourishing. The number of Amateur Radio satellites has been mushrooming:
- Only four were orbited in all of the 1960s.
- Six went to space in the 1970s.
- Seventeen amateur radio and amateur-related satellites were launched in the 1980s.
- Two dozen amateur radio and amateur-related satellites were launched in the 1990s.
- More than a dozen have been launched since the turn of the century.