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.
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!
Since the discovery that some USB TV tuner dongles could be used to monitor radio waves across a huge amount of spectrum, the software-defined radio world has exploded with interest. The one limiting factor, though, has been that the dongles can only receive signals; they can’t transmit them. [Evariste Okcestbon, F5OEO] (if that is his real name! Ok c’est bon = Ok this is good) has written some software that will get you transmitting using SDR with only a Raspberry Pi and a wire.
There have been projects in the past that use a Pi to broadcast radio (PiFM), but this new software (RPiTX) takes it a couple steps further. Using just an appropriately-sized wire connected to one of the GPIO pins, the Raspberry Pi is capable of broadcasting using FM, AM, SSB, SSTV, or FSQ signals. This greatly increases the potential of this simple computer-turned-transmitter and anyone should be able to get a lot of use out of it. In the video demo below the break, [Evariste] records a wireless doorbell signal and then re-transmits it using just the Rasbperry Pi.
According to ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station), the ISS will be sending us images using slow-scan TV on April 11th in honor of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s birthday. Tune in and you’ll get to see 12 different commemorative images from space, and of course bragging rights that you directly received them with your radio setup.
For those who aren’t Ham radio types, slow-scan TV (SSTV) is a radio mode where the pixels in an image are sent by encoding the brightness and/or color as a tone, a lot like a modem, fax machine, or the data cassette tapes of yore.
The ISS uses PD-180 which is a color mode where each pixel’s red, green, and blue values are encoded in a pitch between 1500 and 2300 Hz. Each image takes just over three minutes to transmit, meaning you’ll have to track the ISS pretty well as it travels across the sky. But don’t fret, they send each message for around an hour, so you have a good chance to receive it. (We’ll be the first to admit that a frame rate of one frame in 187 seconds isn’t really “TV”, but that’s what they call it.)
SSTV’s use in the space program goes back even before the moon landing, but with modern software-defined radio setups, it all becomes a lot more convenient to receive. The ISS folks do this periodically as a service to the amateur radio community, so it’s a good time to try out your chops.
The Budapest hackerspace did some joint work with a local ham radio club and created an SSTV beacon housed inside a CCTV case that takes an image of its environment and transmits it using slow-scan television over ham bands.
As the title says, the build uses a Raspberry Pi to process the image taken from its camera and then transmits it over the air using a Ricofunk UHF transceiver with a main frequency of 433.425MHz. On the software side, PySSTV is used to convert images to frequency/time tuples, UNIXSSTV then creates the actual audio file and finally sox plays it. To avoid screwing up the Raspberry SD card, every part of the filsystem is either mounted in read-only mode (things like /home and /usr) or uses a ramdisk (things like /tmp and logs).
The plans, schematics and source code are available, so they hope that other hackerspaces will join the ranks!