Military Satellite Goes Civilian

Space may be the final frontier, but that doesn’t mean we all get to explore it. Except, perhaps by radio, as the US Air Force has just demobbed a satellite and handed it over to the public to use. FalconSAT-3 was built and used by students at the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) as part of their training, then launched into orbit in 2007. It’s still going 10 years later, but the USAFA is building and launching more satellites, so they don’t need FalconSAT-3. Rather than trash it, they have turned off the military bits and and are allowing radio amateurs to use it.

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A Fully Featured, Fifty Dollar QRP Radio

QRP radio operators try to get maximum range out of minimal power. This term comes from the QRP Q-code, which means “reduce power.” For years, people have built some very low-cost radios for this purpose. Perhaps the best known QRP kit is the Pixie, which can be found for less than $3 on eBay.

The QCX is a new DIY QRP radio kit from QRP Labs. Unlike the Pixie, it has a long list of features. The QCX operates on the 80, 60, 40, 30, 20, or 17 meter bands at up to 5W output power. The display provides tuning information, an S-meter, and a CW decoder. An on-board microswitch functions as a basic Morse key, and external Iambic or straight keys are also supported. An optional GPS can be used as a frequency reference.

The radio is based around the Silicon Labs Si5351A Clock Generator, a PLL chip with three clock outputs ranging from 2.5 kHz to 200 MHz. The system is controlled by an Atmel ATmega328P.

Demand for the kit has been quite high, and unfortunately you’ll have to wait for one. However, you can put down your $49 and learn Morse code while waiting for it to ship. While the project does not appear to be open source, the assembly instructions [PDF warning] provide a full schematic.

Satellite Tracking With Friends

If you’re in the mood to track satellites, it’s a relatively simple task to look up one of a multitude of websites that can give you a list of satellites visible from your location. However, if you’re interested in using satellites to communicate with far-flung friends, you might be interested in this multi-point satellite tracker.

[Stephen Downward VA1QLE] developed the tracker to make it easier to figure out which satellites would be simultaneously visible to people at different locations on the Earth’s surface. This is useful for amateur radio, as signals can be passed through satellites with ham gear onboard (such as NO-44), or users can even chat over defunct military satellites.

[Stephen] claims the algorithm is inefficient, but calculations are made in a matter of a few seconds, so we’re not complaining. While it was originally designed for just two stations, it works with a near-infinite number of points. [Stephen] recommends verifying the tracks with another tool once calculated to ensure accuracy. The tool is accessible here, and the code is up on GitHub for your perusal.

Perhaps now you need a cost-effective satellite-tracking antenna? [Paul] has you covered.

A Ham Radio Go-Box Packed with Functionality

“When all else fails, there’s ham radio.” With Hurricane Harvey just wrapping up, and Irma queued up to clobber Florida this weekend, hams are gearing up to pitch in with disaster communications for areas that won’t have any communications infrastructure left. And the perfect thing for the ham on the go is this ham shack in a box.

Go-boxes, as they are known, have been a staple of amateur radio field operations for as long as there have been hams. The go-box that [Fuzz (KC3JGB)] came up with is absolutely packed with goodies that would make it a perfect EmComm platform. The video tour below is all we have to go on, but we can see a tri-band transceiver, an RTL-SDR dongle and a Raspberry Pi with a TFT screen for tracking satellites. The Pi and SDR might also be part of a NOAA satellite receiver like the one [Fuzz] describes in a separate video; such a setup would be very valuable in natural disaster responses. Everything is powered by a 12-volt battery which can be charged from a small solar panel.

[Fuzz] is ready for action, and while we genuinely hope he and other hams won’t be needed in Florida, it doesn’t seem likely at this point. You can read more about the public service face of ham radio, or about an even more capable go-box.

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Wearable Foxhunt Transmitter for Conventions

Amateur radio operator [KE4FOX] wanted to build his own 2M fox hunt transmitter for use at conventions. It would be contained in a 1020 Pelican micro case and attached to a person who would walk around transmitting a signal, leaving the hams to track down the fox. The project uses a DRA818 VHF/UHF transceiver plugged into a low-pass filter combined with a hardware DTMF decoder, all controlled by an ATmega328P and powered by a 11.2 mAh battery.

[KE4FOX] also etched his own PCB, using the PCB toner transfer method, folding a sheet of transfer paper around the board to align both layers. Then he etched the board using cupric chloride. When assembling the board he realized he had made a terrible error, assuming the transceiver module’s pins went in the top layer when in fact they should have gone in the bottom layer. He solved this by soldering in the module in upside down.

He dropped the project into the 1020 and installed an SMA antenna. After he assembled the project he found out that the level shifter he used on the Arduino’s 5 V data didn’t work as expected and it was stuck at a single frequency. Something to work on for V2!

We publish a large number of amateur radio posts here on Hackaday, including fox hunting with Raspberry Pi and how to make a TDOA directional antenna.

[thanks, that Kat!]

Don’t Miss Watching this Solar Eclipse High Altitude Balloon Online

[Dan Julio] let us know about an exciting project that he and his team are working on at the Solid State Depot Makerspace in Boulder: the Solar Eclipse High Altitude Balloon. Weighing in at 1 kg and bristling with a variety of cameras, the balloon aims to catch whatever images are able to be had during the solar eclipse. The balloon’s position should be trackable on the web during its flight, and some downloaded images should be available as well. Links for all of that are available from the project’s page.

High altitude balloons are getting more common as a platform for gathering data and doing experiments; an embedded data recorder for balloons was even an entry for the 2016 Hackaday Prize.

If all goes well and the balloon is able to be recovered, better images and video will follow. If not, then at least a post-mortem of what the team thinks went wrong will be posted. Launch time in Wyoming is approximately 10:40 am Mountain Time (UTC -07:00) Mountain Daylight Time (UTC -06:00) on Aug 21 2017, so set your alarm!

Amateur Radio Just Isn’t Exciting

As ARRL president, [Rick Roderick, K5UR] spends a significant amount of time proselytising the hobby. He has a standard talk about amateur radio that involves tales gleaned from his many decades as a licence holder, and features QSL cards from rare DX contacts to show how radio amateurs talk all over the world.

He’s delivered this talk countless times, and is used to a good reception from audiences impressed with what can be done with radio. But when he delivered it to a group of young people, as Southgate ARC reports, he was surprised to see a lack of interest from his audience, to whom DX or contesting just don’t cut it when they have grown up with the pervasive Internet. Writing in the 2016 ARRL Annual Report, he said:

“Change generally doesn’t come easy to us. But when I looked out at that group of young faces and saw their disinterest in traditional ham pursuits, I realized that I had to change. We have to change. It won’t come easy, but it’s essential that we get to work on it now.”

If you were to profile a typical group of radio amateurs, it would not be difficult to see why [K5UR] found himself in this position. It might be an unflattering portrait for some amateurs, but it’s fair to say that amateur radio is a hobby pursued predominantly by older more well-off men with the means to spend thousands of dollars on commercial radios. It is also fair to say that this is hardly a prospect that would energize all but the most dedicated of youthful radio enthusiasts. This is not a new phenomenon, where this is being written it was definitely the case back in the days when they were issuing G7 callsigns, for instance.

Were Hackaday to find ourselves in the position of advising the ARRL on such matters, we’d probably suggest a return to the roots of amateur radio, a time in the early 20th century when it was the technology that mattered rather than the collecting of DXCC entities or grid squares, and an amateur had first to build their own equipment rather than simply order a shiny radio before they could make a contact. Give a room full of kids a kit-building session, have them make a little radio. And lobby for construction to be an integral part of the licensing process, it is very sad indeed that where this is being written at least, the lowest tier of amateur radio licence precludes home-made radio equipment. Given all that, why should it be a surprise that for kids, amateur radio just isn’t exciting?

We’ve shown you some fantastic amateur radio builds over the years. If you have a youngster with an interest in radio, show them a BitX transceiver, or the world of QRP.

Header image: enixii. [CC BY 2.0]. We hope these snoozing kids aren’t in the middle of a lecture on amateur radio.