There are astonishing things you can do with a network of sensors spread across the globe, all connected to the Internet. Thousands of people have already installed hardware to detect lightning and flightaware gives out subscriptions to their premium service to anyone who will listen in to airplane transponders and send data back to their servers. The folks behind SatNOGS, one of the five finalists for The Hackaday Prize are using this same crowdsourced data collection for something that is literally out of this world: listening to the ever-increasing number of amateur satellites orbiting the planet.
There are dozens of cubesats and other amateur satellites flying every year, and they have become an extremely popular way of experimenting in a space environment, giving some budding engineers an awesome project in school, and testing out some technologies that are just too weird for national space agencies. The problem with sending one of these birds up is getting the data back down; a satellite will pass above the horizon of a single location only a few times a day, and even then for only minutes at a time. The SatNOGS team hopes to change that by planting receivers all around the globe, connecting them to the Internet, and hopefully providing real-time telemetry from dozens of orbiting satellites.
[Pierros] from the SatNOGS team was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions for us about his entry to The Hackaday Prize. That’s below, right after their finalist video. Some of the SatNOGS team will also be at our Munich event where we announce the winner of the Prize.
Are you surprised over the success of your project so far? Distributed systems like yours are extremely valuable, but they're not as sexy to the casual observer as 3D printers and electric cars.
Initially we created the project as an open ground station to meet our own needs (as amateur satellite observers). Quickly though, it became apparent that many other people and communities would benefit from an open ground station network. Thus, the Network idea became core to the SatNOGS project early on. Since then, the focus has been on the global scale of it and the possibilities for the future it creates, for open ideals in satellite communications. Given the hackaday audience, we are not exactly surprised by the positive response we have been getting. Relying on community participation and feedback is always a recipe for success. That’s how strong and catalyzing projects grow and succeed.
Of all the finalists, yours is the only one whose ultimate success is a function of the network effect. Have there been many people offering to install the hardware and contribute to tracking satellites? How much would it cost for someone to build a minimal ground station?
The participation and interest we have been getting so far is impressive. We were actually pleasantly surprised by it. Our development processes are open (dev mailing list) and that enabled people to customize their versions (notably, the imperial one!). We already have 11 people from around the world building their own SatNOGS (from USA, Greece, Cyprus, Spain, UK. Netherlands, and Australia). Funny anecdote: A researcher stationed in Antarctica reached out to us for building a SatNOGS but we haven’t been able to figure out the logistics around it yet :) A fully operational SatNOGS Ground Station (complete with antennas, embedded pc, reception hardware and tripod) would cost just under 300 USD.
Besides putting ground stations in the middle of the ocean, what is the biggest challenge to getting to the goal of worldwide coverage of LEO and MSO amateur satellites? What was the biggest challenge in getting to where you are now?
Earth is not really temperate in its entirety. In order to achieve worldwide coverage, SatNOGS will have to cope with adverse environmental conditions, and that would be a big challenge for us moving forward. We have already touched briefly on the subject but we firmly believe that a global community with ideas and testing capacity will help us mitigate this issue.
The biggest challenge to get where we are now was navigating through the existing ecosystem, trying to abstract the best practices and re-utilize existing protocols to achieve ultimate modularity. We had to re-architect, re-write and re-design many of our initial ideas to get in the current state of optimal modularity and co-existence with the ecosystem.
Are there any amateur satellites that are relying on your project? Have you been in contact with any groups that would like to use SatNOGS for the majority of their mission?
Given that SatNOGS Network is still in deployment, we wouldn’t expect any satellite mission to rely solely on us at this phase. That been said, we had a couple of promising contacts with present and future missions (like LambdaSat) to accommodate their communication needs.
From your documentation, a 'parabolic antenna design is in the works.' A reasonable-sized dish is not easy to build. What's the story with that?
Our calculations show that given most satellites in LEO and MEO S-Band TX/RX properties we will be able to pick up signals reliably using a parabolic antenna that can fit on the current tracker setup. S-Band 2.4Ghz dishes are not really hard to build. Cross sections of the dish, cut in aluminum and then a wire mesh layer on top of it, is the current thinking we have. We are focusing on VHF and UHF bands for now, but will be experimenting with S-Band soon.
There are a few amateur satellites going up that will be working on much higher frequencies than what an RTL-SDR can support. Will you be expanding the SatNOGS network based on this?
For frequencies higher than 1 Ghz (like S, Ku, C or X Bands) we will be using a Downconverter coupled with a Low Noise Amplifier. Those LNB we are experimenting with have become increasingly cheap and configurable to meet our needs. Designing and building a LNB from scratch would be a nice challenge for the future too. Using the downconverters would bring the frequency down to RTL-SDR supported levels, expanding the functionality of SatNOGS.
Hypothetical, and we’re not going to hold you to whatever answer you give. You win the grand prize, a trip to space or about $200,000 USD. Which one to you take, and what is your reasoning for doing so? Since you're the only project in the finalists with a huge team, who gets the ride into space if you take that route?
A trip to space has been a childhood dream for most of us. Our love and fascination about space is what pushed us towards starting this project in the first place! It is hard to not take this into account when thinking about the prize :)
All things considered though, we are determined that investing $200K back to SatNOGS would have a tremendous impact on open source hardware, software and data in space. Opting in for the cash prize will give us the ability to fund enough SatNOGS Stations around the world to achieve global coverage, further the research for reliability and extension on other bands, and creating a solid community with tools and resources around the project. A successful SatNOGS project has the ability to revolutionize the way we think about space communications and how we design and utilize satellites. Such a possibility is beyond our wildest childhood dreams and that’s what we are shooting for.