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Amateur radio hardware is reasonably expensive. Are there any real scientific benefits for universities to build these stations (assuming the don't have a satellite in orbit)? I know there's some clever science that can be done with a ground station - but if it's already been done why are so many universities jumping on this now?

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Many universities might be on the cheap spaceflight waiting list and might be building their own CubeSats or similar microsatellites that could potentially fly on the cheap as secondary payloads, but so far weren't as lucky yet. Such waiting lists can stretch for many years.

So they would want to be prepared and with a ground team having some hands-on experience with the tracking and communications equipment when some space launch provider is ready to accept their payload and launch vehicle integration can finally begin. There is also a lot of the paperwork involved, including getting FCC license for radio frequencies used, and with actual equipment on premise, both the satellite and the radio equipment needed to communicate with it, you can test and optimize radio link between them and the software that runs it. If this means changing frequencies, you'll have to go back to the FCC again. All this takes time and requires having actual equipment that will be later used. It would also be the time to certify your ground crew, secure and manage access to equipment, and organize any other of your project's support activities, if any of that is a requirement.

All of this needs to happen before an actual launch and later having your satellite in Earth's orbit or beyond. If your team also competes for some challenge, there's also going to be a lot of other terms and conditions that your team will try to adhere to the best they can and manage their way through the selection process. Of course, having on premise equipment early can also help promote university's capabilities and give potential sponsors from the industry ample time to help finance, provide, build and test any equipment and facilities, and they can use that for their own promotional purposes, too.

If there is any point to having an amateur satellite ground station without even having any ambitions to launch, that I wouldn't know. Perhaps through cooperation with other colleges and being able to organize interesting STEM-related workshops (that might be government sponsored), there would still be some point to having such facilities. And if you receive them as a donation, then why not?

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  • $\begingroup$ I was specifically interested in what can be done without a satellite, but confirmation that there's not a great deal is good! $\endgroup$ – ThePlanMan Dec 25 '14 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ @FraserOfSmeg They could do some limited radio science with amateur class equipment and perhaps quick relativity experiments using existing orbital satellites. HAM radio stations could also communicate with the ISS, but nothing of it would be anything in particular. I'd say that having hands-on experience is more valuable than a few sophomore class experiments they could do. Plus, you don't really require complete ground stations for those. A few hundred bucks second-hand equipment would do just as well. Now, if they have software-defined radio equipment, that's a whole different ballgame ;) $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Dec 25 '14 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ SDR seems to be the big thing these days; does it really open up a lot more space communications science? $\endgroup$ – ThePlanMan Dec 25 '14 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ @FraserOfSmeg Yes, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project is a good recent example where they used SDR to replace original equipment that was somehow misplaced by NASA. But its true advantage is IMHO in consolidation of multiple expensive, discrete pieces of radio comms equipment for one that can do all of it. It's kinda like future-proofing your radio comms facilities. $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Dec 25 '14 at 20:08

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