Swarm Vs. Iridium: Which Satellite IoT Service Is Right For You?

In a world where it seems like everyone’s face is glued to a device screen, the idea that wireless service might be anything other than universal seems just plain silly. But it’s not, as witnessed by vast gaps in cell carrier coverage maps, not to mention the 70% of the planet covered by oceans. The lack of universal coverage can be a real pain for IoT applications, which is a gap that satellite-based IoT services aim to fill.

But which service is right for your application? To help answer that question, [Mike Krumpus] has performed the valuable work of comparing the services offered by Swarm and Iridium in a real-world IoT shootout. On the face of it, the match-up seems a little lopsided — Iridium has been around forever and has a constellation of big satellites and an extensive ground-based infrastructure. But as our own [Al Williams] discovered when he tested out Swarm, there’s something to be said for having a lot of 1/4U Cubesats up there.

[Mike] picked up the gauntlet and did head-to-head tests of the two services under real-world conditions. Using the same Swarm development kit that [Al] used for his test, alongside an Iridium dev board of his own design, [Mike] did basic tests on uplink and downlink times for a short message on each service. We couldn’t find specs on the test message length, but Swarm’s FAQ indicates that packets are limited to 192 bytes, so we assume they’re both in that ballpark. Iridium was the clear winner on uplink and downlink times, which makes sense because Swarm’s constellation is much smaller at this point and leaves large gaps in coverage. But when you consider costs, Swarm wins the day; what would cost over $1,500 with Iridium would set you back a mere $60 with Swarm.

The bottom line, as always, depends on your application and budget, but [Mike]’s work makes it easier to do that analysis.

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Hackaday Links: July 3, 2022

Looks like we might have been a bit premature in our dismissal last week of the Sun’s potential for throwing a temper tantrum, as that’s exactly what happened when a G1 geomagnetic storm hit the planet early last week. To be fair, the storm was very minor — aurora visible down to the latitude of Calgary isn’t terribly unusual — but the odd thing about this storm was that it sort of snuck up on us. Solar scientists first thought it was a coronal mass ejection (CME), possibly related to the “monster sunspot” that had rapidly tripled in size and was being hyped up as some kind of planet killer. But it appears this sneak attack came from another, less-studied phenomenon, a co-rotating interaction region, or CIR. These sound a bit like eddy currents in the solar wind, which can bunch up plasma that can suddenly burst forth from the sun, all without showing the usually telltale sunspots.

Then again, even people who study the Sun for a living don’t always seem to agree on what’s going on up there. Back at the beginning of Solar Cycle 25, NASA and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were calling for a relatively weak showing during our star’s eleven-year cycle, as recorded by the number of sunspots observed. But another model, developed by heliophysicists at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, predicted that Solar Cycle 25 could be among the strongest ever recorded. And so far, it looks like the latter group might be right. Where the NASA/NOAA model called for 37 sunspots in May of 2022, for example, the Sun actually threw up 97 — much more in line with what the NCAR model predicted. If the trend holds, the peak of the eleven-year cycle in April of 2025 might see over 200 sunspots a month.

So, good news and bad news from the cryptocurrency world lately. The bad news is that cryptocurrency markets are crashing, with the flagship Bitcoin falling from its high of around $67,000 down to $20,000 or so, and looking like it might fall even further. But the good news is that’s put a bit of a crimp in the demand for NVIDIA graphics cards, as the economics of turning electricity into hashes starts to look a little less attractive. So if you’re trying to upgrade your gaming rig, that means there’ll soon be a glut of GPUs, right? Not so fast, maybe: at least one analyst has a different view, based mainly on the distribution of AMD and NVIDIA GPU chips in the market as well as how much revenue they each draw from crypto rather than from traditional uses of the chips. It’s important mainly for investors, so it doesn’t really matter to you if you’re just looking for a graphics card on the cheap.

Speaking of businesses, things are not looking too good for MakerGear. According to a banner announcement on their website, the supplier of 3D printers, parts, and accessories is scaling back operations, to the point where everything is being sold on an “as-is” basis with no returns. In a long post on “The Future of MakerGear,” founder and CEO Rick Pollack says the problem basically boils down to supply chain and COVID issues — they can’t get the parts they need to make printers. And so the company is looking for a buyer. We find this sad but understandable, and wish Rick and everyone at MakerGear the best of luck as they try to keep the lights on.

And finally, if there’s one thing Elon Musk is good at, it’s keeping his many businesses in the public eye. And so it is this week with SpaceX, which is recruiting Starlink customers to write nasty-grams to the Federal Communications Commission regarding Dish Network’s plan to gobble up a bunch of spectrum in the 12-GHz band for their 5G expansion plans. The 3,000 or so newly minted experts on spectrum allocation wrote to tell FCC commissioners how much Dish sucks, and how much they love and depend on Starlink. It looks like they may have a point — Starlink uses the lowest part of the Ku band (12 GHz – 18 GHz) for data downlinks to user terminals, along with big chunks of about half a dozen other bands. It’ll be interesting to watch this one play out.

Satellite Communications Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, June 2 at noon Pacific for the Satellite Comms Hack Chat with Paul Marsh!

All things considered, space isn’t that far away; you could drive the equivalent distance in an hour or two, with time for a couple of stops on the way. Of course, getting to space isn’t as simple as a Sunday drive, and yet despite the expense and trouble, we’ve still managed to fill our little corner of the solar system with an astonishing number of satellites.

Almost every single one of the spacecraft we’ve put in orbit represents a huge capital investment, both in terms of building something that can withstand the extreme environment up there and as far as the expense involved in getting it there. So once it gets there, it needs to start producing results, and for the most part that means sending some kind of messages back down to Earth. And those communications can be tempting indeed to hardware hackers.

Monitoring messages from on high is what the satcom radio hobby is all about. Learning how to do it properly can be tricky, though. What frequencies does one use? What are the modulation schemes? What kind of antennas would someone need? And what about tracking these birds as they whizz overhead?

To answer these questions and more, Paul Marsh from UHF-Satcom will stop by the Hack Chat. Paul has been interested in satellites since the early 1990s and coupled with his background in infosec and pentesting, he has uncovered a lot about the ins and outs of satellite snooping. Stop by the Hack Chat and learn how to sniff in on what’s going on upstairs.

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, June 2 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, 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.

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.

Continue reading “A Hybrid Helical Antenna For The Es’hail-2 Geosynchronous Repeater”

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?

Continue reading “How Does Starlink Work Anyway?”

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.