Ham radio put another satellite in orbit, the FOX-1A. Not many groups have the long-term hacking credentials of hams. Their tradition extends back to the first days of radio communications, which puts the group well over a century old. This newest satellite launched in the early hours of October 8th and, after deployment, was heard later the same day. Anyone with the ability to listen on the 2m band can hear FOX-1A. Those licensed as hams will be able to communicate using a 70cm transmitter while listening on 2m.
This satellite is using the cube-sat format and ‘ride sharing’ through a program offered by NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Twelve other nano-satellites rode along with the FOX-1A. These 10 cm cubes are used for commercial, educational, and non-profit projects. The purpose of today’s satellites covered not only ham radio but educating students in satellite construction, land management by American Indian tribes, and space to ground laser communication. Yeah, what’s cooler than space lasers? Video about the FOX-1A after the break.
Although the distance these balloons have travelled is quite remarkable, the interesting part is how [David] is tracking the balloons. Cell phones obviously won’t work over the Atlantic, and satellite transmitters are expensive, so he used a low-cost transmitter that was programmed to broadcast using a variety of Ham radio signals. The most effective seems to be WSPRnet (the Weak Signal Propagation Network), a system used by Hams to see how far low strength signals will go. This system relies on Hams leaving their receivers on and running software that uploads the received signals to a central server.
By cleverly encoding information such as height and position into this signal, he was able to turn this worldwide network into a tracking network that would report the balloon’s position pretty much anywhere on the globe. [David] is continuing to launch balloons: his latest went up on the 24th of September and travelled over 4300km (2600 miles) before the signal was lost over the Atlantic.
Construction crews tearing up the street to lay new internet fiber optic cable created a unique opportunity for [Bastian Bloessl]. The workers brought two mobile traffic lights to help keep the road safe while they worked. [Bastian] had heard that these lights use the 2 meter band radios, so he grabbed his RTL-SDR USB stick and started hacking. Mobile traffic lights are becoming more common in Europe. They can be controlled by a clock, traffic volume via an on-board camera, wire or radio. They also transmit status data, which is what [Bastian] was hoping to receive.
A quick scan with GQRX revealed a strong signal on 170.760 MHz. Using baudline and audacity, [Bastian] was able to determine that Audio Frequency Shift Keying was used to modulate the data. He created a simple receiver chain in GNU radio, and was greeted with a solid data stream from the lights. By watching the lights and looking at the data frames, [Bastian] was able to determine which bits contained the current light status. A quickly knocked up web interface allowed him to display the traffic light status in real-time.
It’s a bit scary that the data was sent in plaintext, however this is just status data. We hope that any command data is sent encrypted through a more secure channel.
[Carl] just found a yet another use for the RTL-SDR. He’s been decoding Inmarsat STD-C EGC messages with it. Inmarsat is a British satellite telecommunications company. They provide communications all over the world to places that do not have a reliable terrestrial communications network. STD-C is a text message communications channel used mostly by maritime operators. This channel contains Enhanced Group Call (EGC) messages which include information such as search and rescue, coast guard, weather, and more.
Not much equipment is required for this, just the RTL-SDR dongle, an antenna, a computer, and the cables to hook them all up together. Once all of the gear was collected, [Carl] used an Android app called Satellite AR to locate his nearest Inmarsat satellite. Since these satellites are geostationary, he won’t have to move his antenna once it’s pointed in the right direction.
As far as antennas go, [Carl] recommends a dish or helix antenna. If you don’t want to fork over the money for something that fancy, he also explains how you can modify a $10 GPS antenna to work for this purpose. He admits that it’s not the best antenna for this, but it will get the job done. A typical GPS antenna will be tuned for 1575 MHz and will contain a band pass filter that prevents the antenna from picking up signals 1-2MHz away from that frequency.
To remove the filter, the plastic case must first be removed. Then a metal reflector needs to be removed from the bottom of the antenna using a soldering iron. The actual antenna circuit is hiding under the reflector. The filter is typically the largest component on the board. After desoldering, the IN and OUT pads are bridged together. The whole thing can then be put back together for use with this project.
Once everything was hooked up and the antenna was pointed in the right place, the audio output from the dongle was piped into the SDR# tuner software. After tuning to the correct frequency and setting all of the audio parameters, the audio was then decoded with another program called tdma-demo.exe. If everything is tuned just right, the software will be able to decode the audio signal and it will start to display messages. [Carl] posted some interesting examples including a couple of pirate warnings.
We’ve reported on “space” balloons before. Heck, some of us have even launched a few. Usually they go way up in the air, take some cool pictures, and land within driving (and retrieving) distance the same afternoon. You get often amazing photos and bragging rights that you took them for the low, low price of a really big helium balloon and a fill.
But what if you shrunk everything down? Over the last few years, [Andy, VK3YT] has been launching ever smaller and lighter balloons with very low power ham radio payloads. So no camera and no photos, but the payback is that he’s launching payloads that weigh around thirteen grams complete with GPS, radio, solar cell, and batteries. They can stay up for weeks and go really far. We’d love to see some construction details beyond the minimalistic “Solar powered party balloon, 25mW TX”. But that about sums it up.
We capped off day-2 of the Hamvention with an unexpected rain shower, and some arcing back in the hotel room. Historically, Saturday is the best attended day of the show. As normally, we spent most of the day outside in the flea market. One of our friends allowed us to use his AN/GRC-9 army surplus radio to check into one of the nets. The radio was powered by hand-crank. Later, we attended a forum on the construction of HF antennas for camping trips, and obtained parts for our project back in the room. More about that later? Overall, a great day.
This year Scott Pastor (KC8KBK) and I will be covering Hamvention for Hackaday. We plan to provide one update after each day of Hamvention summarizing the day’s events. We hope to see you in Dayton next week!