Junk Bin Cyberdish Turns You Into The Satellite Tracker

The good thing about listening in on satellites is that they tend to beam down all kinds of juicy information from their lofty perches. The bad thing about satellites is that to stay in those orbits, they’ve got to be moving really fast, and that means that you’ve got to track them if you want to keep a nice consistent signal during a pass. And that can lead to all sorts of complexity, with motorized two-axis mounts and fancy tracking software.

Or does it? Not if you’re willing to act as the antenna mount, which is the boat [Gabe] from the saveitforparts channel on YouTube recently found himself in when searching for L-band signals from the GOES satellite. His GOES setup uses a 30″ (0.8 m) dish repurposed from a long-range wireless networking rig. Unfortunately, the old security camera pan-tilt unit it was mounted on wasn’t quite up to satellite tracking duty, so [Gabe] pulled the dish off and converted it to manual tracking.

With a freshly wound helical antenna and a SAWbird LNA at the focal point, the dish proved to be pretty easy to keep on track manually, while providing quite the isometric workout. Aiming was aided by an app called Stellarium which uses augmented reality to point out objects in the night sky, and a cheap tablet computer was tasked with running SDR++ and capturing data. Sadly, neither of these additions brought much to the party, with the latter quickly breaking and the former geared more toward stargazing than satellite snooping. But with some patience — and some upper-body strength — [Gabe] was able to track GOES well enough with the all-in-one “cyberdish” to get some usable images. The whole saga is documented in the video after the break.

Kudos to [Gabe] for showing us what can be accomplished with a little bit of junk and a lot of sticktoitiveness. He promises that a legit two-axis mount is in the works, so we’ll be on the lookout for that. We’ve seen a few of those before, and [Chris Lott] did a great overview of satellite tracking gear a while back, too.

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Listening In On A Deep-Space Satellite As It Returns Home

We’ve covered dozens of projects about getting images of Earth’s weather straight from the source. It’s not too much of a trick to download images straight from our constellation of weather satellites, but what about space weather? We’ve got satellites for that too, of course, but to get a good look at the Sun, they’re out of reach of most homebrew ground stations.

That’s about to change, though, as STEREO-A returns to our neighborhood after a 17-year absence, making citizen science a reasonable proposition. The STEREO mission — Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory — was launched in 2006 with a pair of satellites in heliocentric orbits. STEREO-B was lost in 2014 due to a navigational glitch, but STEREO-A has spent a lot of the intervening years watching the backside of the Sun relative to the Earth. As [Scott Tilley] explains, the satellite is now approaching inferior conjunction, where it will pass between the Earth and the Sun.

This close pass makes STEREO-A’s X-band deep-space beacon readily available to hobbyist-scale equipment, like [Scott]’s 66-cm dish antenna. The dish is mounted on an alt-az telescope mount for tracking, and sports a host of gear at the focus, like LNAs, filters, mixers, and an Ettus B200 SDR. It’s not a cheap setup, but compared to what’s usually needed to listen to STEREO-A, it’s a bargain. The process of demodulating and decoding the signals was a bit more involved, though, requiring not only SatDump and some custom code but also a lot of patience. The images are worth the wait, though; [Scott] shares some amazing shots of our increasingly active Sun as well as animations of recent sunspot activity.

If you’re interested in getting in on the STEREO-A action, you’d better get hopping — the satellite will only be in the neighborhood for a few more months before heading off for another pass around the back of the Sun.

Using An Old Satellite To See The Earth In A New Light

Snooping in on satellites is getting to be quite popular, enough so that the number of people advancing the state of the art — not to mention the wealth of satellites transmitting signals in the clear — has almost made the hobby too easy. An SDR, a homebrew antenna, and some off-the-shelf software, and you too can see weather satellite images on your screen in real time.

But where’s the challenge? That seems to be the question [dereksgc] asked and answered by tapping into S-band telemetry from an obsolete satellite. Most satellite hunters focus on downlinks in the L-band or even the VHF portion of the spectrum, which are within easy reach of most RTL-SDR dongles. However, the Coriolis satellite, which was launched in 2003, has a downlink firmly in the S-band, which at 2.2-GHz puts it just outside the high end of an RTL-SDR. To work around this, [dereksgc] bought a knock-off HackRF SDR and couple it with a wideband low-noise amplifier (LNA) of his own design. The dish antenna is also homebrewed from a used 1.8-m dish and a custom helical antenna for the right-hand circular polarized downlink signal.

As the video below shows, receiving downlink signals from Coriolis with the rig wasn’t all that difficult. Even with manually steering the dish, [dereksgc] was able to record a couple of decent passes with SDR#. Making sense of the data from WINDSAT, a passive microwave polarimetric radiometer that’s the main instrument that’s still working on the satellite, was another matter. Decoded with SatDump and massaged with Gimp, the microwave images of Europe are at least recognizable, mostly due to Italy’s distinctive shape.

Despite the distortion, seeing the planet’s surface via the microwaves emitted by water vapor is still pretty cool. If more traditional weather satellite images are what you’re looking for, those are pretty cool too.

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See Satellites In Broad Daylight With This Sky-Mapping Dish Antenna

If you look up at the night sky in a dark enough place, with enough patience you’re almost sure to see a satellite cross the sky. It’s pretty cool to think you’re watching light reflect off a hunk of metal zipping around the Earth fast enough to never hit it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work during the daylight hours, and you really only get to see satellites in low orbits.

Thankfully, there’s a trick that allows you to see satellites any time of day, even the ones in geosynchronous orbits — you just need to look using microwaves. That’s what [Gabe] at [saveitforparts] did with a repurposed portable satellite dish, the kind that people who really don’t like being without their satellite TV programming when they’re away from home buy and quickly sell when they realize that toting a satellite dish around is both expensive and embarrassing. They can be had for a song, and contain pretty much everything needed for satellite comms in one package: a small dish on a motorized altazimuth mount, a low-noise block amplifier (LNB), and a single-board computer that exposes a Linux shell.

After figuring out how to command the dish to specific coordinates and read the signal strength of the received transponder signals, [Gabe] was able to cobble together a Python program to automate the task. The data from these sweeps of the sky resulted in heat maps that showed a clear arc of geosynchronous satellites across the southern sky. It’s quite similar to something that [Justin] from Thought Emporium did a while back, albeit in a much more compact and portable package. The video below has full details.

[Gabe] also tried turning the dish away from the satellites and seeing what his house looks like bathed in microwaves reflected from the satellite constellation, which worked surprisingly well — well enough that we’ll be trawling the secondary market for one of these dishes; they look like a ton of fun.

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Hackaday Links: January 15, 2023

It looks like the Martian winter may have claimed another victim, with reports that Chinese ground controllers have lost contact with the Zhurong rover. The solar-powered rover was put into hibernation back in May 2022, thanks to a dust storm that kicked up a couple of months before the start of local winter. Controllers hoped that they would be able to reestablish contact with the machine once Spring rolled around in December, but the rover remains quiet. It may have suffered the same fate as Opportunity, which had its solar panels covered in dust after a planet-wide sandstorm and eventually gave up the ghost.

What’s worse, it seems like the Chinese are having trouble talking to the Tianwen-1 orbiter, too. There are reports that controllers can’t download data from the satellite, which is a pity because it could potentially be used to image the Zhurong landing site in Utopia Planitia to see what’s up. All this has to be taken with a grain of dust, of course, since the Chinese aren’t famously transparent with their space program. But here’s hoping that both the rover and the orbiter beat the odds and start doing science again soon.

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Tune Your Dish Antenna Like A Pro

It’s a problem we all have at one time or another: your five-meter radio astronomy dish gets out of calibration and you don’t have a ridiculously expensive microwave holography rig on hand to diagnose it. OK, maybe this isn’t your problem, but when [Joe Martin]’s parabolic antenna got out of whack, he set out to diagnose and repair it, and then wrote up how he did it. You can download the PDF from his radio astronomy articles collection.

At the heart of the measurement rig is a laser rangefinder connected to a Porcupine Labs interface that passes the data on to a Pi 4. This is placed on the end of a two-degree-of-freedom servo gimbal that scans over the surface of the dish, measuring its shape. After measuring and math, [Joe] found out that it’s a little bit long here and short there, he attached two cables with turnbuckles to the front of the dish and pulled it back into shape — the sort of thing that you should probably only do if you’ve got a measurement rig already set up.

The Fluke rangefinder and Porcupine labs interface combo is pretty sweet, but it comes with a fairly hefty price tag. (Nothing compared to a professional dish measurement rig, we presume.) We’ve seen a few attempt at hacking into el-cheapo laser rangefinders, but other than [iliasam]’s heroic effort where he ended up writing his own firmware, it doesn’t seem like there are any successes. A shame, because applications like [Joe]’s prove that there’s a need for one. Let us know if there’s anything we missed?

Thanks [Ethan] for the tip!

Satellite Ground Station Upcycles Trash

While the term “upcycle” is relatively recent, we feel like [saveitforparts] has been doing it for a long time. He’d previously built gear to pick up low-Earth orbit satellites, but now wants to pick up geosynchronous birds which requires a better antenna. While his setup won’t win a beauty contest, it does seem to work, and saved some trash from a landfill, too. (Video, embedded below.)

Small dishes are cheap on the surplus market. A can makes a nice feedhorn using a classic cantenna design, although that required aluminum tape since the only can in the trash was a cardboard oatmeal carton. The tape came in handy when the dish turned out to be about 25% too small, as well.

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