Eavesdropping On Satellites For Fun And Profit

Geosynchronous satellites, girdling the Earth from their perches 36,000 km above the equator, are remarkably useful devices. Depending on where they’re parked, they command views of perhaps a third of the globe at a time, making them perfect communications relays. But as [James Pavur] points out in his DEF CON Safe Mode talk, “Whispers Among the Stars”, geosynchronous satellite communication links are often far from secure.

[James], a D. Phil. student in Systems Security at Oxford University, relates that his exploits rely on the wide areas covered by the downlink signals from the satellites, coupled with security as an afterthought, if it was even thought of at all by satellite service providers. This lackadaisical approach let him use little more than a regular digital satellite TV dish and a tuner card for a PC — off-the-shelf stuff that you’d really have to try hard to spend more than $300 on — to tap into sensitive information.

While decoding the digital signals from satellites into something parseable can be done with commercial applications, [James] and his colleagues built a custom tool, GSExtract, to pull data from the often noisy signals coming down from on high. The setup returned an amazing bounty of information, like maritime operators relaying the passport information of crew members from ship to shore, point-of-sale terminal information from cruise ships in the Mediterranean, and in-flight entertainment systems in jet airliners. The last example proved particularly alarming, as it revealed an exploitable connection between the systems dedicated to keeping passengers content and those in the cockpit, which clearly should not be the case.

We found [James’] insights on these weaknesses in satellite communications fascinating, and it’s well worth the 45 minutes to watch the video below and perhaps try these exploits, which amount to side-channel attacks, for yourself.

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A Hybrid Helical Antenna For The Es’hail-2 Geosynchronous Repeater

Amateur radio operators like to say that working a contact in space can be done with a simple handheld transceiver and a homemade antenna. And while that’s true, it’s true only for low Earth orbit satellites such as the ISS. If you want to reach a satellite in geosynchronous orbit it’ll take a little more effort, and this dual-feed helical “ice cream cone” antenna could really help.

Until recently, the dream of an amateur radio repeater in geosynchronous orbit remained out of reach, but that changed with the launch of the Qatari satellite Es’hail-2 last year. Since then, hams from Brazil to Thailand have been using the repeater, and UK-based [Tech Minds] has been in the thick of the action. The antenna he presents is a hybrid design, needed because of the 2.4-GHz band uplink and 10-GHz downlink on the satellite, also known as QO-100. Both require a largish dish antenna, with the downlink requiring a low-noise block downconverter (LNB) and feed horn. The uplink side of [Tech Minds]’ antenna is a helical design, with three-and-a-half turns of heavy copper wire and a tuning section of copper strapping that attaches directly to an N-type connector. The helix is just the right size for the feed horn of an LNB for the downlink side, nestled in a hole in the helical antenna’s aluminum reflector disc. There are 3D-printed parts to support everything, plus a cone-shaped radome to keep it all safe from the elements.

It looks like a great design, but sadly, North American and East Asian hams can only dream about building one, since QO-100 is below the horizon for us. We’re jealous, but we’re still glad the repeater is up there. Check out this article for more on how Es’hail-2 got the first geosynchronous ham repeater.

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How Does Starlink Work Anyway?

No matter what you think of Elon Musk, it’s hard to deny that he takes the dictum “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” to heart. From hurling sports cars into orbit to solar-powered roof destroyers, there’s little that Mr. Musk can’t turn into a net positive for at least one of his many ventures, not to mention his image.

Elon may have gotten in over his head, though. His plan to use his SpaceX rockets to fill the sky with thousands of satellites dedicated to providing cheap Internet access ran afoul of the astronomy community, which has decried the impact of the Starlink satellites on observations, both in the optical wavelengths and further down the spectrum in the radio bands. And that’s with only a tiny fraction of the planned constellation deployed; once fully built-out, they fear Starlink will ruin Earth-based observation forever.

What exactly the final Starlink constellation will look like and what impact it would have on observations depend greatly on the degree to which it can withstand regulatory efforts and market forces. Assuming it does survive and gets built out into a system that more or less resembles the current plan, what exactly will Starlink do? And more importantly, how will it accomplish its stated goals?

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SatNOGS Update Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, October 30 at noon Pacific for the SatNOGS Update Hack Chat with Pierros Papadeas and the SatNOGS team!

Ever since the early days of the Space Race, people have been fascinated with satellites. And rightly so; the artificial moons we’ve sent into orbit are engineering marvels, built to do a difficult job while withstanding an incredibly harsh environment. But while most people are content to just know that satellites are up there providing weather forecasts and digital television, some of us want a little more.

Enter SatNOGS. Since winning the very first Hackaday Prize in 2014, SatNOGS has grown into exactly what Pierros Papadeas and the rest of the team envisioned: a globe-spanning network of open-source satellite ground stations, feeding continuous observations into an open, accessible database. With extensive documentation and an active community, SatNOGS has helped hundreds of users build ground stations with steerable antennas and get them connected. The network tracks hundreds of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites each day, including increasingly popular low-cost Cubesats.

Join us as the SatNOGS crew stops by the Hack Chat to give us an update on their efforts over the last few years. We’ll discuss how winning the Hackaday Prize changed SatNOGS, how the constellation of satellites has changed and how SatNOGS is dealing with it, and what it takes to build a global network and the community that makes it work.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, October 30 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.