Starlink Satellite Dish X-Rayed To Unlock RF Magic Inside

When [Kenneth Keiter] took apart his Starlink dish back in November, he did his best to explain the high-level functionality of the incredibly complex device in a video posted to his YouTube channel. It was a fascinating look at the equipment, but by his own admission, he wasn’t the right person to try and explain the nuances of how the phased array actually functioned. But he knew who could do the technology justice, which is why he shipped the dismembered dish over to [Shahriar Shahramian] of The Signal Path.

Don’t be surprised if you can’t quite wrap your head around his detailed analysis after your first viewing. You’ll probably have a few lingering questions after the second re-watch as well. But that’s OK, as [Shahriar] still has a few of his own. Even after cutting out a section of the dish and putting it under an X-ray, it’s still not completely clear how the SpaceX engineers managed to cram everything into such a tidy package. Though there seems to be no question that the $500 price for the early-access hardware is an absolute steal, all things considered.

The layered antenna works on multiple frequencies.

Most of the video is spent examining the stacked honeycomb construction of the phased antenna array, which as expected, holds a number of RF secrets if you know what to look for. Put simply, there’s no such thing as an insignificant detail to the trained eye. From the carefully sized injection molded spacer sheet that keeps the upper array a specific distance from the RF4-like radome, to the almost microscopic holes that have been bored through each floating patch to maintain equalized air pressure through the stack up, [Shahriar] picks up on fascinating details which might otherwise seem like arbitrary design decisions.

But a visual inspection will only get you so far. Eventually [Shahriar] has to cut out a slice of the PCB so he can fit it into the X-ray machine, but don’t feel too bad, the dish was long dead before he got his hands on it. While he hasn’t yet completed his full analysis, an initial examination indicates that each large IC and the eight chips surrounding it make up a 16 channel beam forming module. Each channel is further split into two RX and TX pairs, which provides the necessary right and left hand polarization. That said, he admits there’s some room for interpretation and that further work would be necessary before any hard conclusions could be made.

Between this RF analysis and the initial overview provided by [Kenneth], we’ve already learned a lot more about this device than many might have expected considering how rare and expensive the hardware is. While we admit it’s not immediately clear what kind of hijinks hardware hackers could get into once this device is fully understood, we’re certainly eager to find out.

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Indoor Antennas Worthy Of 007

Many ham radio operators now live where installing an outdoor antenna is all but impossible. It seems that homeowner’s associations are on the lookout for the non-conformity of the dreaded ham radio antenna. [Peter] can sympathize, and has a solution based on lessons of spycraft from the cold war.

[Peter] points out that spies like the [Krogers] needed to report British Navy secrets like the plans for a nuclear boomer sub to Russia but didn’t want to attract the attention of their neighbors. In this case, the transmitter itself was so well-hidden that it took MI5 nine days to find the first of them. Clearly, then, there wasn’t a giant antenna on the roof. If there had been, the authorities could simply follow the feedline to find the radio. A concealed spy antenna might be just the ticket for a deed-restricted ham radio station.

The antenna the [Kroger’s] used was a 22-meter wire in the attic of their home. Keep in mind, the old tube transmitters were less finicky about SWR and by adjusting the loading circuits, you could transmit into almost anything. Paradoxically, older houses work better with indoor antennas because they lack things like solar cell panels, radiant barriers, and metallic insulation.

Like many people, [Peter] likes loop antennas for indoor use. He also shows other types of indoor antennas. They probably won’t do as much good as a proper outdoor antenna, but you can make quite a few contacts with some skill, some luck, and good propagation. [Peter] has some period spy radios, which are always interesting to see. By today’s standards, they aren’t especially small, but for their day they are positively tiny. Video after the break.

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Literally Tearing Apart A SpaceX Starlink Antenna

While SpaceX’s constellation of Starlink satellites is nowhere near its projected final size, the company has enough of the birds zipping around in low Earth orbit to start a limited testing period they call the Better Than Nothing Beta. If you’re lucky enough to get selected, you have to cough up $500 for the hardware and another $100 a month for the service. Despite the fairly high bar for getting your hands on one, [Kenneth Keiter] decided to sacrifice his Starlink dish to the teardown Gods.

We say sacrifice because [Kenneth] had to literally destroy the dish to get a look inside. It doesn’t appear that you can realistically get into the exceptionally thin antenna array without pulling it all apart, thanks in part to preposterous amount of adhesive that holds the structural back plate onto the PCB. The sky-facing side of the phased array, the key element that allows the antenna to track the rapidly moving Starlink satellites as they pass overhead, is also laminated to a stack-up comprised of plastic hexagonal mesh layers, passive antenna elements, and the outer fiberglass skin. In short, there are definitely no user-serviceable parts inside.

The dish hides many secrets under its skin.

Beyond attempting to analyze the RF magic that’s happening inside the antenna, [Kenneth] also takes viewers through a tour of some of the more recognizable components of the PCB; picking out things like the Power over Ethernet magnetics, a GPS receiver, some flash storage, and the H-Bridge drivers used to control the pan and tilt motors in the base of the dish.

It also appears that the antenna is a self-contained computer of sorts, complete with ARM processor and RAM to run the software that aims the phased array. Speaking of which, it should come as no surprise to find that not only are the ICs that drive the dizzying array of antenna elements the most numerous components on the PCB, but that they appear to be some kind of custom silicon designed specifically for SpaceX.

In short, there’s still plenty we don’t know about how this high-tech receiver actually works. While [Kenneth] does a respectable job of trying to make sense of it all, and we admire the dedication required to rip apart such a rare and expensive piece of kit, it’s still going to be awhile before the hacker community truly masters the tech that SpaceX is putting into their ambitions global Internet service.

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Portable Ham Antenna Uses SMD Capacitors

[K6ARK] likes to operate portable, so he puts together very lightweight antennas. One of his latest uses tiny toroids and SMD capacitors to form trap elements. You can see  the construction of it in the video below.

You usually think of toroid winding as something you do when building transmitters or receivers, especially small ones like these. We presume the antenna is best for QRP (low power) operation since the tiny core would saturate pretty quickly at higher power. Exactly how much power you should pass through an FT50-43 core depends on the exact application, but we’ve seen numbers around 5 watts.

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The Theremin Is 100 Years Old; Celebrating The Spookiest Of Instruments

It wouldn’t be October without Halloween, and it wouldn’t be Halloween without some spooky music. There’s no instrument spookier than a Theremin, which also happens to be one of the world’s first electronic instruments.

Leon Theremin plays his namesake instrument. Image via Linda Hall Library

You’ve no doubt heard the eerie, otherworldly tones of the Theremin in various 1950s sci-fi films, or heard the instrument’s one-of-a-kind cousin, the Electro-Theremin in “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys. The Theremin turns 100 years old this month, so we thought we’d take a look at this strange instrument.

One hundred years ago, a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeyevich Termen, better known as Leon Theremin, was trying to invent a device to measure the density of various gases. In addition to the standard analog needle readout, he wanted another way to indicate the density, so he devised an oscillator whistle that would change pitch based on the density.

He discovered by accident that having his hand in the field of the antenna changed the pitch of the whistle, too. Then he did what any of us would do — played around until he made a melody, then called everyone else in the lab over to check it out.

Theremin soon showed his device to Lenin, who loved it so much that he sent Lev on a world tour to show it off. While in New York, he played it for Rachmaninoff and Toscanini. In fact you can see a video recording of Leon playing the instrument, a performance that’s more hauntingly beautiful than spooky. In 1928, he patented the Theremin in the United States and worked with RCA to produce them.

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Affordable Ground-Penetrating Radar

While you might think of radar pointing toward the skies, applications for radar have found their way underground as well. Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is a tool that sends signals into the earth and measures their return to make determinations about what’s buried underground in much the same way that distant aircraft can be located or identified by looking for radar reflections. This technology can also be built with a few common items now for a relatively small cost.

This is a project from [Mirel] who built the system around a Arduino Mega 2560 and antipodal Vivaldi antennas, a type of directional antenna. Everything is mounted into a small cart that can be rolled along the ground. A switch attached to the wheels triggers the radar at regular intervals as it rolls, and the radar emits a signal and listens to reflections at each point. It operates at a frequency range from 323 MHz to 910 MHz, and a small graph of what it “sees” is displayed on an LCD screen that is paired to the Arduino.

Using this tool allows you to see different densities of materials located underground, as well as their depths. This can be very handy when starting a large excavation project, detecting rock layers or underground utilities before digging. [Mirel] made all of the hardware and software open-source for this project, and if you’d like to see another take on GPR then head over to this project which involves a lot of technical discussion on how it works.

Precision Metal Detector Finds Needles In Haystacks

Full-size metal detectors are great for narrowing down a region to start digging through. But what if you had a smaller metal detector that could pinpoint the location? Then you could spend far less time digging and way more time sweeping for metal.

Metal detectors work because of the way metal behaves around electromagnetic fields. [mircemk] reused the ferrite core from an old MW radio to build the antenna coils. When metal objects are close enough, the induced electromagnetism changes the frequency, and the Arduino blinks an LED and beeps a buzzer in time with the new frequency.

[mircemk]’s handheld metal detector is quite sensitive, especially to smaller objects. As you can see in the demo video after the break, it can sense coins from about 4cm away, larger objects like lids from about 7 cm, and tiny things like needles from a few millimeters away. There’s also an LED for treasure hunting in low light.

Don’t want to pinpoint a bunch of useless junk? Build in some phase detection to help you discriminate.

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