In a message to Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) team members, sponsors, and educational institutions, ARISS International President Frank Bauer, KA3HDO, outlined how ARISS is transforming its activities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our primary objective in these challenging times is to protect all students, faculty, astronauts, and our volunteer team in all we do,” Bauer said, noting the international scope of ARISS and the space station. “Each one of us, around the globe, is dealing with the COVID-19 virus in one way or another. Each area of the globe is unique in the virus spread as well as in the government policy to protect their people. And the situation in each location is changing rapidly.”
ARISS has postponed school/group contacts in Georgia, Tennessee, and California, as well as in South Africa and Romania. At least one school/group contact in the UK has been canceled altogether.
“ARISS needs to be prepared for a longer term effect — months,” Bauer said. “As a result, we have instituted an immediate response effort followed by a more strategic, longer term, initiative to protect all. ARISS leadership, working with a physician on the leadership team, is carefully reviewing all of our procedures in light of the evolving COVID-19 recommendations. We will continue to monitor the local and global situations and will modify our local and global planning as these situations change.”
Bauer said that over the short term, ARISS mentors will work with each school or organization in the ham radio contact queue “to determine the way forward.” He said ARISS would rely on local government COVID-19 policy for guidance in deciding whether to cancel or postpone a contact or to modify the contact schedule. “But in each case, we are encouraging all to put health and safety first. And each contact decision is being carefully scrutinized by the senior ARISS International leadership team,” he said.
Bauer said that several initiatives are in the works over the longer term “to transform how we interact with students and host educational institutions in light of COVID-19” by engaging with students and educational institutions virtually. One possibility, he said, is ARISS “virtual school” contacts, employing ARISS telebridge ground stations around the world to link individual students at home with audio and streaming video. Typically, telebridge stations serve as ground stations for ARISS contacts with schools not in the footprint of an ISS orbital pass. “ARISS plans to transition into this model in the next couple of weeks,” Bauer said.
ARISS also is planning several slow-scan television (SSTV) sessions, during which images from the ISS would be transmitted to at-home students. “These can be received directly, if a student has a radio, or indirectly, if a student connects to a remote station via internet or goes to the ARISS SSTV Gallery, where all downloaded images can be posted and reviewed,” Bauer explained.
Bauer characterized the ARISS long-term approach as “a huge pivot” for the organization, but said ARISS considers it “a great strategic move” going forward. “It should be noted that one reason we were allowed to set up ARISS on ISS was to help astronauts improve their psychological well-being by allowing them to freely talk to students, friends, and ham radio operators on the ground,” he said. “We are now at a juncture, with COVID-19, to help do the same for students — in other words, providing a psychological well-being STEM motivation to students, faculty, and the local community through ARISS on-orbit connections — virus free!”
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