“Coming to you live from the planet Saturn…”

Voyager cassette

When Adam Kimbrough found an old cassette tape in a desk drawer during his freshman year in 2017, he had no idea it would take him back in time to 1981 and through space to Saturn.

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It happened on an October afternoon in NC State’s amateur radio station in Daniels Hall. The “Ham Shack” (as in ham radio) was one of Kimbrough’s new hangout spots. He had earned his first amateur radio license as a high school freshman in Richmond, Virginia, and when he came to NC State, he wasted no time in finding the campus station—W4ATC (Whiskey 4 Alpha Tango Charlie).

He had been rummaging around in the station when he laid hands on the cassette. Its label read “Voyager II Saturn 8/81.” Kimbrough popped it in a player and discovered a recording of an August 1981 broadcast from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). JPL was sharing news of the Voyager 2 spacecraft to amateur radio listeners. Someone at the Ham Shack must have recorded it 36 years earlier.

Voyager cassette

Kimbrough guessed—and hoped—that there would also be astronomical images on the tape. Ham radio operators can broadcast audio signals in a format called SSTV (slow scan television) that those listening can convert into images. “Back then you had to have a separate box called a Robot transceiver,” Kimbrough says, “and a separate monitor to display it. Nowadays, we’d use a laptop and software.”

NC State University Libraries podcast with Adam Kimbrough, who found a lost recording of the Voyager spacecraft on a cassette in the university’s ham radio station.

Kimbrough needed to convert the recording into a digital format to decode these signals and see the images, so he headed to Hill Library to convert the tape to MP3s in a Music Booth in the Digital Media Lab. Soon, Kimbrough was listening to the voices of two radio operators from JPL’s W6VIO station explaining Voyager 2’s approach to Saturn and the photos it had taken. Then the voices stopped and a series of beeps began—the SSTV image data.

“At one point the operator sent an image that they had just received from Voyager 2 in real time,” Kimbrough says. “That was really cool.”

The next day Kimbrough used MultiScan 3B software on his laptop to convert audio into images. The future engineer had taken a cassette twice his own age—magnetic tape gathering dust in a drawer—and extracted Saturn.

Saturn via SSTV

But Kimbrough’s curiosity about the tape wasn’t completely satisfied. Had he gone to all this trouble, fun as it was, just to produce an MP3 file that was already available on the web? On JPL’s website he found highlight reels of the 1981 broadcasts, but not the unedited transmission he now had on his laptop. Kimbrough was pleased to know the cassette from the Ham Shack was not just an analog copy of existing web content, but a unique find.

A few days later, the story of Kimbrough’s use of the Hill Library found its way to Digital Media Librarian Jason Evans Groth. Evans Groth helps design the infrastructure—the rooms, equipment, software, and support—that enables users to digitize old analog technologies.

“Enabling folks to take something and transform it from, essentially, a thing taking up space in a drawer into a history lesson that connects cassette decks to Saturn, audio to video, the past to the present, is exactly why the Libraries provides media spaces,” Evans Groth says.

When Evans Groth invited Kimbrough back to the Digital Media Lab to talk about his experience, they shared some laughs about the librarian’s familiarity with 1980s cassette tapes vs. the 18-year-old’s lack thereof. Kimbrough admitted that he wasn’t sure at first how to handle the cassette. His first concern had been the fear that simply rewinding it would break it.

Evans Groth asked Kimbrough how he became interested in ham radio. What drew a 21st-century young man to a 20th-century technology?

Kimbrough responded that he was a hiker. “Ham radio has applications in the outdoors,” he said. “It’s more effective than cell phones. Amateur radio is entirely self-reliant. All you need is a battery, a transceiver, and a wire, and you can communicate with anyone as close or as far as you want. You can make contacts with just 5 watts, which is pretty amazing.”

To reach people in disaster areas, Morse code on a ham radio has a narrow bandwidth signal that operates at very low power. Compare that efficiency with contemporary communication technologies powered by electrical grids, towers, cables, and vast networks.

Adam Kimbrough in the Ham Shack

Kimbrough’s interest in these uses of ham radio led him to get a license at age 15, for the VHF and UHF bands (local and regional communications). He joined an amateur radio club in Richmond, made friends with fellow enthusiasts, and got licensed for the HF bands. “Then I could communicate with other continents, which was super fun,” he says.

Soon after Kimbrough arrived at NC State and joined W4ATC, he entered the station into a School Club Roundup competition sponsored by a national association for amateur radio. Schools across the country—from elementary schools up to colleges—competed to see who could make the most contacts over 24 total hours (6 hours maximum per day).

“It’s a quick exchange,” Kimbrough says. “You say your call sign, you give them a signal report, and then you’re out, and then it’s the next person. I made 300-plus contacts. I went all out.” Kimbrough single-handedly won fourth place in the colleges/universities category.

Related content in the Libraries' Rare and Unique Digital Collections:
Ham radio QSL cards from Student Amateur Radio Society Records

In the summer of 2018, Kimbrough’s enthusiasm for amateur radio secured him a temporary position at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO) Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro, New Mexico. He applied for the position and, after not hearing back, used his ham radio contacts to follow up.

“I messaged one of my ham radio friends, who I’ve actually never met,” Kimbrough says. “Just a guy I know online who’s quite popular in the ham radio community because he’s got a podcast, a YouTube channel, things like that.”

Kimbrough’s friend was Sterling Coffee—call sign N0SSC who also blogs at N0SSC.com—who had had the same position at the VLA a few years earlier. Coffee nudged the VLA staff on Kimbrough’s behalf, and they offered Kimbrough the position.

The door of the Ham Shack

While ham radio operators are largely unfamiliar with the specific kinds of frequencies the VLA uses, a love of broadcasting and a curiosity about making far-away connections made him the ideal candidate for this position as well as a research position in the fall of 2017 at NC State.

“I really got to start using instruments like oscilloscopes and vector network analyzers, perform field tests, and I got to coordinate with units of measurements appropriate with [radio frequencies],” Kimbrough says. “But ham radio does give you a perspective on how these radio waves are workings and how to watch for interference.”

Kimbrough explained that the VLA has 28 radio telescope dish antennas at a 7,000-foot elevation in a dry landscape with little cloud cover, which all makes receiving signals from space easier. In June 2018, during a large power outage at the site, Kimbrough was working to prevent radio frequency interference from nearby towers, people’s phones, or satellites from affecting the antennas.

“If you have an interest in something just go out there and do whatever it is that interests you and other people may follow and you may inspire some other people,” says Kimbrough, who, despite loving his time at NC State, transferred to Virginia Tech. “Use your resources, anything you can get your hands on, and take advantage of it.” Kimbrough currently is a member of the Virginia Tech Amateur Radio Association (K4KDJ) after a six-month stint as a co-op student at the Very Large Array at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico.

As Kimbrough finished his first conversation with Evans Groth in October of 2017, he noted the serendipity of spending time thinking about Voyager 2’s visit to Saturn. Saturn had just a few weeks before been in the news again, when the Cassini spacecraft ended its mission with a death plunge into the ringed planet.

Voyager 2, meanwhile, has been busy since it left Saturn in 1981. It visited Uranus and Neptune and is now almost 11 billion miles from Earth, at the very edge of the solar system. It carries another old analog technology, a 12-inch, gold-plated, copper phonograph record containing sounds and images of life and culture on Earth.

Should any aliens find that golden disc and want to digitize it, Evans Groth notes that the Libraries’ digital media spaces are available to them. In the meantime, the NC State community can borrow and listen to terrestrial copies, which can be borrowed from the Libraries and listened to in those same spaces.

Written on Jun 05, 2019