Serious DX: The Deep Space Network

Humanity has been a spacefaring species for barely sixty years now. In that brief time, we’ve fairly mastered the business of putting objects into orbit around the Earth, and done so with such gusto that a cloud of both useful and useless objects now surrounds us. Communicating with satellites in Earth orbit is almost trivial; your phone is probably listening to at least half a dozen geosynchronous GPS birds right now, and any ham radio operator can chat with the astronauts aboard the ISS with nothing more that a $30 handy-talkie and a homemade antenna.

But once our spacecraft get much beyond geosynchronous orbit, communications get a little dicier. The inverse square law and the limited power budget available to most interplanetary craft exact a toll on how much RF energy can be sent back home. And yet the science of these missions demands a reliable connection with enough bandwidth to both control the spacecraft and to retrieve its precious cargo of data. That requires a powerful radio network with some mighty big ears, but as we’ll see, NASA isn’t the only one listening to what’s happening out in deep space. Continue reading “Serious DX: The Deep Space Network”

Old Rabbit Ears Optimized for Weather Satellite Downlink

Communicating with a satellite seems like something that should take a lot of equipment. A fancy antenna and racks full of receivers, filters, and amplifiers would seem to be the entry-level suite of gear. But listening to a weather satellite with an old pair of rabbit ears and an SDR dongle? That’s a thing too.

There was a time when a pair of rabbit ears accompanied every new TV. Those days are gone, but [Thomas Cholakov (N1SPY)] managed to find one of the old TV dipoles in his garage, complete with 300-ohm twinlead and spade connectors. He put it to work listening to a NOAA weather satellite on 137 MHz by configuring it in a horizontal V-dipole arrangement. The antenna legs are spread about 120° apart and adjusted to about 20.5 inches (52 cm) length each. The length makes the antenna resonant at the right frequency, the vee shape makes the radiation pattern nearly circular, and the horizontal polarization excludes signals from the nearby FM broadcast band and directs the pattern skyward. [Thomas] doesn’t mention how he matched the antenna’s impedance to the SDR, but there appears to be some sort of balun in the video below. The satellite signal is decoded and displayed in real time with surprisingly good results.

Itching to listen to satellites but don’t have any rabbit ears? No problem — just go find a cooking pot and get to it.

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Gecko Feet in Space

Space is a mess, and the sad truth is, we made it that way. Most satellites that have been lofted into Earth orbit didn’t have a plan for retiring them, and those dead hulks, along with the various bits of jetsam in the form of shrouds, fairings, and at least one astronaut’s glove, are becoming a problem.

A mission intended to clean up space junk would be fantastically expensive, but money isn’t the only problem. It turns out that it’s really hard to grab objects in space unless they were specifically designed to be grabbed. Suction cups won’t work in the vacuum of space, not everything up there is ferromagnetic, and mechanical grippers would have to deal with a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and textures.

But now news comes from Stanford University of a dry adhesive based on the same principle a gecko uses to walk up a wall. Gecko feet have microscopic flaps that stick to surfaces because of Van der Waals forces. [Mark Cutkosky] and his team’s adhesive works similarly, adhering to surfaces only when applied in a certain direction. This is an advantage over traditional pressure-sensitive adhesives; the force needed to apply them would cause the object to float away in space. The Stanford grippers have been tested on the “vomit comet” and aboard the ISS.

We can think of tons of terrestrial applications for this adhesive, including the obvious wall-walking robots. The Stanford team also lists landing pads for drones that would let then perch in odd locations, which we find intriguing.

Need to get up to speed on more mundane adhesive? Check out our guide to sticky stuff for the shop.

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An Antenna that Really Cooks–Really

[9A4OV] set up a receiver using the HackRF board and an LNA that can receive the NOAA 19 satellite. Of course, a receiver needs an antenna, and he made one using a cooking pot. The antenna isn’t ideal – at least indoors – but it does work. He’s hoping to tweak it to get better reception. You can see videos of the antenna and the resulting reception, below.

The satellite is sending High-Resolution Picture Transmission (HRPT) data which provides a higher image quality than Automatic Picture Transmission (APT). APT is at 137 MHz, but HRPT is at 1698 MHz and typically requires a better receiver and antenna system.

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Junkyard Dish Mount Tracks Weather Satellites

There’s a magnificent constellation of spacecraft in orbit around Earth right now, many sending useful data back down to the surface in the clear, ready to be exploited. Trouble is, it often takes specialized equipment that can be a real budget buster. But with a well-stocked scrap bin, a few strategic eBay purchases, and a little elbow grease, a powered azimuth-elevation satellite dish mount can become affordable.

The satellites of interest for [devnulling]’s efforts are NOAA’s Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES), a system of low-Earth orbit weather birds. [devnulling] is particularly interested in direct reception of high-definition images from the satellites’ L-band downlink. The mount he came up with to track satellites during lengthy downloads is a tour de force of junkyard build skills.

The azimuth axis rotates on a rear wheel bearing from a Chevy, the elevation axis uses cheap pillow blocks, and the frame is welded from scrap angle iron and tubing. A NEMA-23 stepper with 15:1 gearhead rotates the azimuth while a 36″ linear actuator takes care of elevation. The mount has yet to be tested in the wind; we worry that sail area presented by the dish might cause problems. Here’s hoping the mount is as stout as it seems, and we’ll look forward to a follow-up.

It would work for us, but a 4-foot dish slewing around in the back yard might not be everyone’s taste in lawn appurtenances. If that’s you and you still want to get your weather data right from the source, try using an SDR dongle and chunk of wire.

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Lost Moon Found: The Satellite That Came Back to Life

The late 1950s and early 1960s were a tumultuous time in world history. The Cold War between the East and the West was in full-swing, driving the new fields of nuclear weapons and space exploration and giving the period its dual monikers of “Atomic Age” and “Space Age.”

Changes in these fields often went hand in glove, with developments in one requiring responses in the other. In 1958, the US conducted nuclear tests in the Pacific that effectively destroyed the ionosphere over the test site and shut down high-frequency communications to places like Hawaii and New Zealand. The strategic implications of this were clear, and the US began looking for ways for the military to reduce its reliance on HF communications and ionospheric skip by using space-based assets to communicate at much higher frequencies.

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Portable Classroom Upgrade: Smaller, Cheaper, Faster

[Eric] at MkMe Lab has a dream: to build a cheap, portable system that provides the electronic infrastructure needed to educate kids anywhere in the world. He’s been working on the system for quite a while, and has recently managed to shrink the suitcase-sized system down to a cheaper, smaller form-factor.

The last time we discussed [Eric]’s EduCase project was as part of his Hackaday Prize 2016 entry. There was a lot of skepticism from our readers on the goals of the project, but whatever you think of [Eric]’s motivation, the fact remains that the build is pretty cool. The previous version of the EduCase relied on a Ku-band downlink to receive content from Outernet, and as such needed to stuff a large antenna into the box. That dictated a case in the carry-on luggage size range. The current EduCase is a much slimmed-down affair that relies on an L-band link from the Inmarsat satellites, with a much smaller patch antenna. A low-noise amp and SDR receiver complete the downlink, and a Raspberry Pi provides the UI. [Eric]’s build is just a prototype at this point, but we’re looking forward to seeing everything stuffed into that small Pelican case.

Yes, Outernet is curated content, and so it’s not at all the same experience as the web. But for the right use case, this little package might just do the job. And with a BOM that rings up at $100, the price is right for experimenting.

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