Make: Projects

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna

Tune in to space with a homemade yagi antenna.

  • By
  • Time Required: 1-2 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate


yagi antenna

One of my favorite things to do is talk with other ham radio operators through satellites or the International Space Station (ISS). To do this, I stand on a rooftop and tune a handheld multiband radio while tracing the orbit of a satellite or the ISS with my homemade yagi antenna.

Orbiting satellites such as AO-51, SO-50, and AO-27 act as repeaters, relaying signals from low-power transceivers like mine back to hams elsewhere on the planet. So if you know where to aim the antenna, you can communicate around the world via space. The ISS also has a repeater, and occasionally, when we’re lucky, the astronauts themselves exchange transmissions to communicate with hams on the ground.

To listen to these signals from space, you don’t have to be a licensed ham radio operator, or even stand on the roof. You can do it in your own backyard with an off-the-shelf UHF FM radio. The whip antenna on the radio might let you hear satellites and the ISS, but you’ll get far better reception by making your own yagi antenna, which takes about an hour and costs less than $25 (not including the cost of your radio) using materials from your local hardware store.

If you do have a ham radio license and a UHF/VHF transceiver, you can upgrade this antenna with VHF elements so that it can both send and receive transmissions.

A yagi antenna has three types of elements, consisting of metal rods of varying lengths and quantities. The driven element is a dipole antenna that’s connected to the radio and receives the signal, just like a whip antenna. The reflector is positioned behind the driven element, where it acts as a mirror by bouncing signals from the satellite forward to the driven element. Directors are one or more rods that act like a lens, focusing the incoming signal onto the driven element. Both the reflector and the directors improve reception from whatever direction the antenna points.

The antenna design I use comes from Kent Britain’s (WA5VJB) “Cheap Antennas for Low Earth Orbit” (available at, which is a great reference for building many different types of yagi antennas.


Step #1: Measure and drill the wooden beam.

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna
  • Use a pencil and ruler to draw a centerline down one long side of the wooden beam.
  • Then measure and mark hole locations on the centerline (except holes d and e) at the following intervals: hole a 1" from one end; hole b 6 1/2" from a; hole c 6 3/4" from b; holes d and e 2 3/4" from c, 5/8" apart and equidistant from the centerline; and hole f 2 1/2" from d and e.
  • Drill 1/8" holes completely through the beam at each point.
  • Be careful when drilling d and e not to blow out the sides of the beam.

Step #2: Measure and cut the brass rod.

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna
  • Use a marker and ruler to mark 5 pieces of brass rod at the following lengths: 21", 13 1/2", 12 1/2", 12 1/4", and 11 3/4".
  • Secure the rod in a vise, cut to the measured lengths using a hacksaw, and file the ends so they’re no longer sharp and dangerous.
  • To make the driven element, place the 21" rod in the vise, mark it 13" from one end, center the mark on the broomstick, then bend it 180° around so it’s J-shaped.
  • Trim the rod so it measures 13" from one end to the center of the 3/4" curve, and 7" from the other end to the center of the curve.

Step #3: Assemble the rods in the beam.

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna
  • Insert the 11 3/4" element into hole a, the 12 1/4" element into b, the 12 1/2" element into c, the J-shaped (driven) element into d and e, and the 13 1/2" element into f.
  • Center all the elements, and secure them in place with hot glue.

Step #4: Prepare the coaxial cable.

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna
  • To prepare the coaxial cable, cut off one of its connectors and strip 3" of outer insulation off that end, being careful not to cut the wires.
  • Separate the outer wires, twist them to one side, and strip 2" of insulation off the inner wire.

Step #5: Connect the coax cable.

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna
  • Connect the coax cable to the 2 parts of the driven element near where they enter the wooden beam.
  • Wrap the cable’s inner wire around the short leg of the J, and the twisted outer wires around the long leg.
  • Solder the wires in place.

Step #6: Secure the coax cable.

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna
  • Secure the coax cable with a couple of zip ties.
  • Your antenna is done!

Step #7: Figure out where to point your antenna.

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna
  • To use your antenna, you need to find out where to point it and what frequency to tune in to. To find a good satellite target, visit
  • To specify your location, select a Configuration option (map, database, or manual), plug in the necessary info, then click Submit. From your new location-specific homepage, select “All passes of the ISS” to track the International Space Station or “Radio amateur satellites” to track a ham radio repeater satellite.
  • On the Radio Amateur Satellites page, click on one of the radio satellites you want to track from the Satellite column (such as AO-Echo, aka AO-51; SaudiSat 1C, aka SO-50; or AO-27), then show its pass chart by selecting “Passes (all)” above the globe.
  • The pass chart lists all the satellite passes for the next few days. Each pass is listed by its times and locations in polar coordinates, for its start, maximum altitude, and end, with each pass typically taking about 10 minutes. The start and end points are defined as when the “bird” appears 10° above the horizon, and the maximum altitude (in degrees above the horizon) will vary. The azimuth for each location is listed in compass points.
  • Make sure your location is listed correctly on the chart, and pick a pass during which the satellite will come close to directly overhead. Look for max altitudes that are 45° or higher — the higher, the better. In the example here, the second pass, on July 17 at 3:50, looks good since its altitude reaches 75°, but the first pass, on July 16 at 16:55, only comes up to 18°, which is very close to the horizon and difficult to pick up.

Step #8: Find the frequency to tune in to.

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna
  • Next, find the frequency to tune in to. Satellite repeaters work with 2 different frequencies — an uplink and a downlink. You listen to signals received via the downlink. (If you wish to transmit, you’ll need to program in the uplink frequency as well.)
  • To find a radio satellite’s current frequencies, you have to refer to the authoritative web page for each individual satellite. Some references online, including AMSAT (, aggregate frequency information for multiple satellites, but these can be incorrect and you often need to dig deeper.
  • What you want is a current update or schedule with uplink and downlink frequencies, and this data is unfortunately not published in a standardized manner. With AO-51, for example, AMSAT’s top-level listing links to a page that shows all the frequencies the sat is capable of, but not which ones are currently active. For that, you must click through to the AO-51 Control Team News page at
  • For HO-68, to give another example, you need to click the Organization listing to CAMSAT (, an amateur satellite organization in China, where you’ll see the sat’s active frequencies listed under its former name, XW-1. In a pinch, you can always just Google the satellite’s name to find its authoritative source.

Step #9: Go out and listen!

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi AntennaListening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna
  • Once you’ve determined your target sat’s current downlink frequency (example: 436.7950MHz FM), tune your radio to that frequency, and you’re ready to go out and listen.
  • Aim your yagi antenna directly at the satellite, with the shortest rods (directors) closest to the satellite and the longest rod (the reflector) farthest away. When the pass starts, aim the yagi toward the satellite, then sweep it right and left slightly until you hear something. You can also move the antenna up and down slightly as you sweep right and left. Also try rotating the antenna by twisting your wrist, adjusting its polarity to receive a stronger signal.
  • If you’re using a whip antenna, hold it perpendicular to the satellite, and keep it perpendicular while you rotate it to get a clearer signal.

Step #10: Trace the path of the satellite's orbit.

Listening to Satellites with a Homemade Yagi Antenna
  • Trace the path of the satellite’s orbit according to the pass chart, so that at its maximum altitude and its end time, the antenna is pointed in the corresponding locations. In our example, the antenna should be pointed east at 75° above the horizon at 3:55, and south at 10° above the horizon at 4:00. It can be difficult trying to catch the satellites, and you may spend a lot of time not hearing anything. The best method is to move the antenna around in small side-to-side and up-and-down motions until you hear a bit of audio.
  • The Doppler effect makes the frequency vary by 0.010MHz, so as you trace the satellite’s path you’ll also need to twiddle the tuning a bit. Add 0.010MHz to your target frequency early in the pass, then gradually dial it down until it’s approximately 0.010MHz less than the listed downlink frequency by the end time.
  • The FM satellites repeat whatever they receive, so you’ll hear whoever’s signal is strongest. (Another type of satellite, linear transponders, can handle multiple conversations at once, but these are harder to use and require a more expensive single sideband, not FM, radio.)
  • Visit the [Topic|Ham_Radio|Ham Radio page] to learn about Hamspeak.
  • To learn more about how a yagi antenna works, watch Diana Eng’s MAKE video on directional antennas, aka “Seeing Radio Waves With a Light Bulb,” at

  • David (KK6GPM)

    Diana, hi, great article, I just got my technician license (KK6GPM) and a HT, can I transmit using this antenna?

    • noahw

      I am kk4utr and recently got my call sign. While you may still double check, I do not know of any restrictions on the kinds of antennas you can use, just where you can transmit. I have certainly never heard of any, and have been known to build any kind of antenna you can think of. In fact I know of many unlicensed people who still enjoy making antennas and listening, just not transmitting.One of the best parts of ham radio is making different antennas, from anything such as a simple dipole to an antenna made out of two geo-metros. So I am 110% sure you can use one, but as I am not a licensed lawyer if you have any doubts I would encourage you to check. Best of wishes as you enjoy the hobby,

  • Antenna Guy

    Why aren’t all the “rods” connect, if they aren’t connected how do they even help with picking up the signal?

    • rEGGIE

      Arh,,,,,,,, thats called a insulated boom!!!!!

      common stuff,,,,,,,,, antenna guy……..

    • rEGGIE

      Antenna guy……….. go off and read some books,,,,,,

      The So called “rods” are called directors,!

  • Robert Percefull

    Looks great, however you may want to mention how long to cut the brass rods.

  • John Scott

    Wow, really cool video. I just inherited a Ham rig and am working toward a license and have been burning up the gray cells trying to figure out how to set up a decent antenna inside my apartment….this vid is the best practical stuff I’ve seen while trying to break into this highly technical field, TX! :)

  • Douglas Xto

    Hi,am in Nakuru, kenya. I am not sure whether any of that receiver will work here. However,my interests are whether i can make a transmitter to get free high internet speeds n digital television. Please reply to me via my email. I enjoyed ur nice article

  • B. Greg Colburn

    You may mention that this Yagi design antenna is only good for TX/RX on the 440 Mhz band (70cm). Check your tuning before you solder your leads on the driven element if you plan to TX on this antenna or you could potentially damage your radio!!!! An additional antenna is typically required to TX on the 144 Mhz band (typically the uplink frequency). You could lengthen the boom slightly an add a 144 Mhz Dipole or J-pole behind the last element (440mhz reflector) and run that element to your 2 meter rig. Also you could subsitute this yagi for a properly tuned 2 Meter Yagi with 2-5 elements and tune the 2meter Yagi for good SWRs on both the 2m and 440 bands. A 144Mhz 1/2 wave dipole antenna is 1.5 waves on 440 and presents the 50 ohm resistance that most modern transcievers require for a good impendance match on both bands!

    Greg N3BYR
    Amateur Extra

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  • Jeff Burris

    thanks so much for this great closeup pro deal instruction set about something so exciting I’ve been seeing the murmurings of, and also for turning me on to Mr. Kent as well.
    My only question is, these shorter UHF rods for ~”70cm” or the 420MHz’s etc
    Currently (?) I only see data packet being used with that regarding the ISS, both up and down links voice both in the 2M band requiring the longer rods you mentioned for talking uplink to the ISS, apparently voice both frequencies are like 145-ishMHz’s, offset from each other accordingly but relatively nearby, not split band up to UHF:
    (From the ARISS):
    The following frequencies are currently used for Amateur Radio ISS contacts (QSOs): Voice and SSTV Downlink: 145.80 (Worldwide)
    Voice Uplink: 144.49 for ITU Regions 2 and 3 (The Americas, and the Pacific and Southern Asia)
    Voice Uplink: 145.20 for ITU Region 1 (Europe, Russia and Africa)
    VHF Packet Uplink and Downlink: 145.825 (Worldwide)
    UHF Packet Uplink and Downlink: 437.550
    UHF/VHF Repeater Uplink: 437.80
    UFH/VHF Repeater Downlink: 145.80

    “73’s”! ;P

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  • Mark

    Is this design suitable for tx and rx? If not, what modifications need to be done?
    Thank you.

  • MichaelM

    I just took my exam and waiting on my license. My question is the cables on the source you suggested didn’t look like the one you have. I don’t want to buy one and can’t solder to it. I found out some coax is next to impossible. Maybe because what I had was tv cable coax. What do I need to look out for as far as being able to solder them? I wish they all stated what the shield is made of.

    • rah1420

      Congrats on getting your license! You’ll need to strip the outer insulation and then separate the braid, which is a woven conductive cover to the internal insulation. The braid and the center conductor are both solderable. YouTube and Google both have countless examples of how to strip and solder coax. Rich/WC3T

      • MichaelM

        Being able to solder is not the issue. I’ve soldered everything from SMD to larger components. Thanks. But what I’m looking for is making sure I get the right cable that I can solder to. I had one I cut and removed the foil shielding and the braided shielding I was totally unable to solder to. Not sure what metal it was unless it was steel. So a waste of that cable and connector for anything. I just don’t want to spend the money on a cable if I’m going to possibly run into that again.

        • rah1420

          There I can’t help you. All the RG-58 that I’ve ever procured has been solderable.

          • MichaelM

            I contacted Universal Radio that the article listed. I was looking at either #4616 like the article said, but #5823 is lower loss. They said #5823 is copper braided. The 4616 is not. So I’m going with the 5823. Thanks