The pursuit of The Elser-Mathes Cup

The story of the Elser-Mathes Cup may be familiar to many of you. For those of you who are not in the know, you can get all the details from the article by Fred Johnson Elser, W6FB/W70X, in the November 1969 issue of QST. To summarize, the establishment of the Elser-Mathes Cup in 1929 was directly inspired by the leaps and bounds up to that point in radio technology combined with Hiram Percey Maxim’s fascination with the planet Mars. The cup is to be awarded in recognition of the first amateur radio two-way communication between Earth and Mars. I would bet that the cup’s initial establishment was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Although Fred Johnson Elser’s QST article, on the tail of the success of Apollo 11, gave the cups existence and purpose a good deal more veracity.

How close are we to finally awarding the Elser-Mathes Cup? Lets look at some recent milestones:

Earth-Moon-Earth Bounce
In January 1953, Ross Bateman, W4AO, and Bill Smith, W3GKP successfully bounced at 2M signal off the Moon.

Signal reception of Voyager 1

On March 31, 2006, German radio amateurs successfully received transmissions from Voyager 1 which was already well outside the Solar System (~7,436,464,581 miles away from Earth).

Earth-Venus-Earth Bounce

On March 25, 2009, German radio amateurs achieved another first by bouncing a 2.4 GHz CW signal off of Venus – which at its closest point to Earth is a mere 24,000,000 miles away and 162,000,000 miles at its furthest.

Earth-Mars-Earth Bounce?
Mike Brink, ZR6BRI, has definitely done his homework to show the feasibility of radio amateurs bouncing a signal off of Mars (which has a distance from Earth that varies from 36,000,000 miles to 250,000,000 miles).

However, bouncing a signal off of Mars will not win The Elser-Mathes Cup. The amateur contact must be two-way.

Could the Mars Science Labratory (Curiosity) fulfill the role as the second party of an amateur QSO?

Curisoity does have UHF communication capability. One of Curiosity’s antennas is nicknamed “Big Mouth” and is used to send large data sets to one of three orbiters around Mars: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (which will probably do most of the work), Mars Odyssey Orbiter, or the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter. The orbiter then relays the data via the Deep Space Network (DSN) back on Earth using X-Band.

“Big Ear” is Curiosity’s high-gain, directional X-Band antenna that can be used to communicate directly with the DSN on Earth. “Little Ear” is an omni-directional, X-Band antenna that is designed to be used primarily to receive low data rate transmissions from the DSN.

Putting aside the fact that Curiosity’s X-Band frequencies are outside the authorized US amateur frequency allocation and given the German amateurs success with Voyager and Venus – amateur communication with Curiosity looks possible (but probably not with my Arrow II antenna).

So, if it is possible for Joe Amateur (along with a heap load of expensive gear) to have a QSO with Curiosity – what would prevent the actual hacking of Curiosity?

Damon Poeter’s August 9th article “How to Hack NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover” takes a look at this proposition. Mr. Poeter all but dismisses the possibility of a private citizen contacting Curoisty and instead focuses at actually hacking through NASA’s control system. Then on August 10th, Mr. Poeter submits “Unknown Actor Soliciting Partners for Mars Rover Hack”. Now, possibily, there are individuals who are actually trying to hack their way through NASA by soliciting help in determining what frequencies are used to communicate with the orbiters above Mars.

Here on an IT secuirty forum, a question is asked concerning the secuirty of Curiosity. One of the responses is from a former controller who is somewhat familiar with NASA’s general communications protocal with spacecraft and identifies the transmission of bogus communications to Curiosity as a possibility. Although the post’s author identifies that the capability to conduct such an act would have to be another country (…. and everyone loves pointing the finger at China).

It is easy to forget that radio amateurs have been intercepting space communications for sometime, with Sputnik’s signal on 20.007 MHz and Apollo 11 communications being primary examples.

All this being said, I think The Elser-Mathes Cup will continue to gather dust for a bit longer.

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  1. [...] at Spinning & Grinning, AD7MI wrote an amazing blog post about the Elser-Mathes Cup — apparently an award created to celebrate the first amateur QSO between Earth and [...]