Satellite Tracking By Shining A Laser Into Space

[Shingo Hisakawa] sent in a tip for a for a neat little box called the Levistone that tracks the Internation Space Station with a laser. His video log goes though all the steps for this great little project.

[Shingo] originally planned to pull orbital data down from NORAD and send that to an ArduinoBT board with ethernet, GPS and compass modules. In the original plan, the Arduino would do the orbit calculations and point the laser using a few servos. There wasn’t much success with making an Arduino do all the work, so the an Android phone stood in for the GPS, compass and connection to the web. The duty of calculating the location of the ISS using GPS and orbital elements was moved onto the Amazon EC2 cloud. The final product looks great, even if it’s impossible to record the beam for the video.

With the ability to calculate the azimuth and elevation of the ISS from any point in the world, [Shingo] came up with SightSpaceStation, a neat mashup of his data and Google Maps. There are also iOS and Android apps for a nice piece of work in augmented reality. It’s a great project that would really compliment the ISS desk lamp we covered a few days ago.

36 thoughts on “Satellite Tracking By Shining A Laser Into Space

  1. GOD more overpriced arduinos. It wasn’t even really used! Why would this guy even buy one if he could get his phone to do everything?
    Not smart! And even dumber when the FBI comes knocking at the door searching for ground to air missile launchers when a plane flies over his laser!

  2. The aircraft+laser pointer issue is a gray area
    with this device.

    Wording of the new proposed ban, specifically
    states “aiming at an aircraft”.

    One could proffer the argument, that this device
    is not deliberately targeting an aircraft.

    I believe one needs to acquire FAA permission
    when doing outdoor laser shows. Presumably if
    the same procedures were followed (Form 7140-1)
    that would be sufficient “CYA”.

  3. in the US it is illegal to shine a laser into the sky if it is above 5mw. Even if there are no aircraft present. The only way around this is to get a variance from the FAA.

    This also depends on your location and distance from an airport. In the US airspace is designated a class which is represented through the letters A-G. Class A being high traffic locations, such as near an airport. Class G being low traffic areas, such as a suburb that is 20+ nautical miles from an airport.

    so to answer your question Henrik, technically you can be arrested. But you should be good if you can automate it to shut down when a plane is overhead. Possibly using a flight tracking service with a python script to parse the data.

  4. Not sure I understand the point of shining a laser at the ISS. What he should do instead is use this to point a telescope at the ISS, perhaps with a web/IP camera to capture the video. On a clear night he can then verify just how accurate his system is if it tracks correctly.

  5. @TheCreator

    Class A Airspace starts at 18,000 ft MSL and extends to 60,000 ft MSL in most (if not all, but I imagine there are at least a couple permanent exceptions) areas over the United States. The airspace near the largest airports in the US is Class B. In most areas, Class E airspace extends up from around 1000 ft AGL to the bottom of the Class A airspace. D, C, and B are generally areas around airports, extending to the surface and covering areas of interest to the airport that the airspace is made for. G is near the surface and over some untowered airports.

    I’m not aware of any airspace classified as Class F.

  6. cue the ITAR
    cue the pool stick
    cue the cue ball
    cue the …
    cue my comment.
    the extra info in the comments may help others understand the laws and regulations that are associated with this type of project. the more info you have the better the understanding of what you are doing. not to mention that i learned something that i did not intend to learn but glade i did.
    cue the end of comment.

  7. They sell lasers that are used as astronomical aids. They work a lot better than the vague finger pointing and “it’s right of that little bright star” comments.

    My guess is that this is used to show people present where to look into the sky to see the ISS.

  8. What would be a good project is to align this laser along the sight of a telescope and feed the collection optics into a photodiode with a bandpass filter in front off it. Then raster scan the heavens until some backscatter is measured from some distant object, simultaneously logging time and orbital data. Then see if your event corresponds with a known satellite trajectory or flight. If so, that’s really cool. If not, assume it is NOT a spy satellite, but just some crazy bird and then promptly forget about the issue.

    Also, I wonder about the wavelength dependence of the legalities involved with shining a laser into space. An IR laser certainly wouldn’t dazzle airline pilots and couldn’t be present long enough to heat up an eyeball. hmmm…

  9. @Ren.

    No, if people would follow the link to his video on youtube they’d know he’s not in the USA. They could also follow it and check his youtube profile which confirms he’s not in the USA.

    Wonders of modern technology eh?

  10. If the whole point is to give a visual aid on where to look, just use a 5mw laser and a cheap fog machine, or better yet, make an Android app that uses the camera and the accelerometer to give you a visual of what it is you’re looking for.

  11. the purpose is to point out where to look for the satellite – laser pointers are great for this. Yes hobby servos are fine, you’re not trying to HIT the space station, just point at it. Aligning the thing seems tricky though – i’m not sure how that works.

    I’m definitely building one of these, I can find the ISS no problem, brightest thing in the sky and all that, but I’d like to be able to find some of the lesser lights and iridium flares.

  12. Uh Huston? My be time to send a fresh crew up here. We all all swear we sell these faint lights from the surface following us… From the start my assumption is that this was a visual aid to help locate the position satellites that should be visible to the naked eye, and other night sky features as well. This project is what it is. None of of us us are required to duplicate it, or if we should chooses to duplicate the idea, you are free to use not use an arduino. There’s a lot going on, I’m not surprised the phone couldn’t do it all.

  13. @ jay

    I saw after i posted that i included A-G Class airspace. I am aware that there is no F class. Should have clarified in my post.

    I was just going off information i read in a different forum, which was obviously falsely constructed. Given the wealth of information you presented it is safe to say that you know more about aviation codes than i do. I am no expert in this field. pretty much just wingin it.

  14. Great hack Shingo, I love this kind of thing. It takes what is to hand and makes them do something new and interesting. There’s woodwork, motors, android, arduino and lasers – awesome :-)
    and for those who don’t see the point; such a lack of imagination is disappointing of HAD readers. It’s something I would expect of troll-haters.
    I wish I lived near Akihabara. I’m so jealous every time I see an NHK documentary or YouTube vid that features it.
    Good information in the comments on lasers and planes. In the UK it’s certainly a no-no to point at a plane and devices to track-back such events are used by airlines and the ploice, but having said that lasers are routinely used by starwatchers and a point sweeping for a fraction of a second across a plane would be both unlikely and ignored.

  15. Wonder if the rules also apply to a laser mounted on an aircraft or balloon?

    If not then this plus a low power (i.e. 1mW+) VCSEL harvested from a defunct laser mouse might be a valuable way to send data from a weather balloon to a ground station using a polarity differential method to distinguish detected signal from ambient light.

    Inspired by the optical SETI work here.


    Hmm, there seems to be a lack of bare VCSELs on sale, but you can buy used optical mice for not much $.

    BTW should have said *polarisation differential* i.e. use two or more sensors with 45 degree offsets so that if one senses a higher signal than the other it will register a change when the sensors are connected to a common mode amplifier.

    I have used these as part of my university course, they can generate massive common mode rejection and can routinely handle tiny signals from EEG or ECG etc.
    You can make them using discrete op-amps if you have to, the high speed CMOS ones are best.

  17. My first thought when I read this was “didn’t the US just pass a law fining people who shine lasers at aircraft $11000, intentional or not?”

    But still, it’s pretty cool nevertheless, using a laser to track an object that distant. I don’t think some people appreciate how far a laser beam can really travel.

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