How To Receive Pictures From Spaaace!

The International Space Station, or ISS, has been in orbit in its various forms now for almost twenty years. During that time many of us will have stood outside on a clear night and seen it pass overhead, as the largest man-made object in space it is clearly visible without a telescope.

Most ISS-watchers will know that the station carries a number of amateur radio payloads. There are voice contacts when for example astronauts talk to schools, there are digital modes, and sometimes as is happening at the moment for passes within range of Moscow (on Feb. 14, 11:25-16:30 UTC) the station transmits slow scan television, or SSTV.

You might think that receiving SSTV would be hard work and require expensive equipment, but given the advent of ubiquitous mobile and tablet computing alongside dirt-cheap RTL-SDRs it is now surprisingly accessible. An Android phone can run the SDRTouch software defined radio app as well as the Robot36 SSTV decoder, and given a suitable antenna the pictures can be received and decoded relatively easily. The radio must receive 145.8MHz wideband FM and the decoder must be set to the PD120 PD180 mode (Thanks [M5AKA] for the update), and here at least the apps are run on separate Android devices. It is possible to receive the signal using extremely basic antennas, but for best results something with a little gain should be used. The antenna of choice here is a handheld [HB9CV] 2-element beam.

A failed grab from a 2014 transmission, proving that Hackaday scribes don't always get perfect results.
A failed grab from a 2015 transmission, proving that Hackaday scribes don’t always get perfect results.

You can find when the station is due to pass over you from any of a number of ISS tracker sites, and you can keep up to date with ISS SSTV activity on the ARISS news page. Then all you have to do is stand out in the open with your receiver and computing devices running and ready, and point your antenna at the position of the station as it passes over. If you are lucky you’ll hear the tones of the SSTV transmission and a picture will be decoded, if not you may receive a garbled mess. Fortunately grabs of other people’s received pictures are posted online, so you can take a look at what you missed if you don’t quite succeed.

Even if you don’t live within range of a pass, it’s always worth seeing if a Web SDR somewhere is in range. For example this Russian one for the current transmissions.

In that you are using off-the-shelf hardware and software you might complain there is little in the way of an elite hack about pulling in a picture from the ISS. But wait a minute — you just received a picture from an orbiting space station. Do that in front of a kid, and see their interest in technology come alive!

Baofeng Handy Talkie Meets GNU Radio

There was a time when just about every ham had a pricey VHF or UHF transceiver in their vehicle or on their belt. It was great to talk to friends while driving. You could even make phone calls from anywhere thanks to automatic phone patches. In 1980 cell phones were uncommon, so making a call from your car was sure to get attention.

Today, ham radio gear isn’t as pricey thanks to a flood of imports from companies like Baofeng, Jingtong, and Anytone. While a handheld transceiver is more of an impulse buy, you don’t hear as much chat and phone calls, thanks to the widespread adoption of cell phones. Maybe that’s why [Bastian] had bought a cheap Baofeng radio but never used it.

He was working on a traffic light project and wanted to send an RF signal when the light changes. He realized the Baofeng radio was cheap and cheerful solution. He only needed a way to have the PC generate an audio signal to feed the radio. His answer was to design a UDP packet to audio flow graph in GNU Radio. GNU Radio then feeds the Baofeng. The radio’s built-in VOX function handles transmit switching. You can see a video demonstration, below.

Continue reading “Baofeng Handy Talkie Meets GNU Radio”

Ham Radio Trips Circuit Breakers

Arc-fault circuit breakers are a boon for household electrical safety. The garden-variety home electrical fire is usually started by the heat coming from a faulty wire arcing over. But as any radio enthusiast knows, sparks also give off broadband radio noise. Arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCI) are special circuit breakers that listen for this noise in the power line and trip when they hear it. The problem is that they can be so sensitive that they cut out needlessly. Check out the amusing video below the break.

Our friend [Martin] moved into a new house, and discovered that he could flip the breakers by transmitting on the 20-meter band. “All the lights in the place went out and my rig switched over to battery. I thought it was strange as I was certainly drawing less than 20 A. I reset the breakers and keyed up again. I reset the breakers again and did a [expletive] Google search.” Continue reading “Ham Radio Trips Circuit Breakers”

The Poynting Vector Antenna

Radio amateurs are inventive people, and though not all of them choose to follow it there is a healthy culture of buildng radio equipment among them. In particular the field of antennas is where you’ll find a lot of their work, because the barrier to entry can be as low as the cost of a reel of wire.

Over the years a number of innovative antenna designs have come from radio amateurs’ experimentation, and it’s one of the more recent we’d like to share with you today following a [Southgate ARC] story about a book describing its theory (Here’s an Amazon link to the book itself). The Poynting Vector antenna has been one of those novel designs on the fringes for a while now, it has been variously described as the “Super-T”, or the “flute”. Its party piece is tiny dimensions, a fraction of the size of a conventional dipole, and it achieves that by the interaction between a magnetic field across the plates of a capacitor in a tuned circuit and the electric field between a very short pair of dipole radiators. The trade-off is that it has an extremely high Q and thus a narrow bandwidth, and since its feeder can become part of its resonant circuit it is notoriously difficult to match to a transmitter. [Alan MacDonald, VE3TET] and [Paul Birke, VE3PVB] have a detailed page on the development of their Poynting antenna which takes the reader through the details of its theory and the development of their practical version.

In the roof space above the room in which this is being written there hangs a traditional dipole for the 20m amateur band. Though it is a very effective antenna given that it is made from a couple of pieces of wire and a ferrite core it takes most of the length of the space, and as we’re sure Hackaday readers with callsigns will agree a relatively tiny alternative is always very welcome.

If antennas are a mystery to you then we’d suggest you read an introduction to antenna basics to get you started.

Get On 10 GHz For 3 Euros

A frequent complaint you will hear about amateur radio is that it is a chequebook pursuit. Of course you can work the incredible DX if you spend $20k on a high-end radio, big antenna, and associated components. The reality is though that because it’s such a multi-faceted world there are many ways into it of which the operator with the shiny rig is taking only one.

On the commonly used HF and VHF bands at the lower end of the radio spectrum you will definitely find chequebook amateurs of the type described in the previous paragraph. But as you ascend into the microwave bands there are no shiny new radios on the market, so even the well-heeled licensee must plow their own furrow and build their own station.

You might think that this would remain a chequebook operation of a different type, as exotic microwave devices are not always cheap. But in fact these bands have a long history of extremely inexpensive construction, in which skilled design and construction as well as clever re-use of components from satellite TV systems and Doppler radar modules play a part. And it is a project following this path that is our subject today, for [Peter Knol, PA1SDB] has repurposed a modern Doppler radar module as a transmitter for the 10GHz or 3cm amateur band (Google Translate version of Dutch original). The best bit about [Peter]’s project is the price: these modules can be had for only three Euros.

Years ago a Doppler module would have used a Gunn diode in a waveguide cavity and small horn, usually with an adjacent mixer diode for receiving. Its modern equivalent uses a transistor oscillator on a PCB, with a dielectric resonator and a set of patch antennas. There is also a simple receiver on board, but since [Peter] is using a converted ten-Euro satellite LNB for that task, it is redundant.

He takes us through the process of adjusting the module’s frequency before showing us how to mount it at the prime focus of a parabolic antenna. FM modulation comes via a very old-fashioned transformer in the power feed. He then looks at fitting an SMA connector and using it for more advanced antenna set-ups, before experimenting with the attenuating properties of different substances. All in all this is a fascinating read if you are interested in simple microwave construction.

The result is not the most accomplished 10 GHz station in the world, but it performs adequately for its extremely low price given that he’s logged a 32 km contact with it.

Though we cover our fair share of amateur radio stories here at Hackaday it’s fair to say we haven’t seen many in the microwave bands. If however you think we’ve been remiss in this area, may we point you to our recent coverage of a microwave radio receiver made from diamond?

Via Southgate ARC.

Demystifying Amateur Radio Callsigns

Regular Hackaday readers will be familiar with our convention of putting the name, nickname, or handle of a person in square brackets. We do this to avoid ambiguity as sometimes names and particularly nicknames can take unfamiliar forms that might be confused with other entities referred to in the text. So for example you might see them around [Bart Simpson], or [El Barto]. and occasionally within those brackets you’ll also see a capitalised string of letters and numbers after a name. For example the electronic music pioneer [Bob Moog, K2AMH], which most of you will recognise as an amateur radio callsign.

Every licenced radio amateur is issued one by their country’s radio authority as a unique identifier, think of it as similar to a car licence plate. From within the amateur radio bubble those letters and numbers can convey a significant amount of information about where in the world its user is located, when they received their licence, and even what type of licence they hold, but to outsiders they remain a mysterious and seemingly random string. We’ll now attempt to shed some light on that information, so you too can look at a callsign in a Hackaday piece or anywhere else and have some idea as to its meaning.

Continue reading “Demystifying Amateur Radio Callsigns”

Five-Watt SDR Transceiver for Hams

The availability of cheap SDR hardware created a flourishing ecosystem for SDR software, but a lot of the hardware driving the revolution was still “cheap”. In the last few years, we’ve seen quality gear replacing the TV dongles in many setups, and down-converters designed for them to allow them to work on the ham bands.

But something that’s purpose-built might be a better option if ham radio, particularly the shortwave portion thereof, is your goal. First off, you might want to transmit, which none of the TV dongles allow. Then, you might want a bit of power. Finally, if you’re serious about short-wave, you care more about the audio quality than you do immense bandwidth, so you’re going to want some good filters on the receiving end to help you pull the signal out of all the noise.

rs-hfiq_block_diagram_featuredThe RS-HFIQ 5 W SDR transceiver might be for you. It’s up on Kickstarter right now, and it’s worth looking at if you want a fully open source (schematics, firmware, and software) shortwave SDR rig. It’s also compatible with various open frontends.

The single-board radio isn’t really a full SDR in our mind — it demodulates the radio signal and sends a 96 kHz IQ signal across to your computer’s soundcard where it gets sampled and fully decoded. The advantage of this is that purpose-built audio rate DACs have comparatively high resolution for the money, but the disadvantage is that you’re limited to 96 kHz of spectrum into the computer. That’s great for voice and code transmissions, but won’t cut it for high-bandwidth data or frequency hopping applications. But that’s a reasonable design tradeoff for a shortwave.

Still, an SDR like this is a far cry from how simple a shortwave radio can be. But if you’re looking to build up your own SDR-based shortwave setup, and you’d like to hack on the controls more than on the radio itself, this looks like a good start.