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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Is This The Oldest Still-Working Geostationary Satellite?

The LES-5 spacecraft
The LES-5 spacecraft

Regular followers of space news will know that when satellites or space probes reach the end of their life, they either are de-orbited in a fiery re-entry, or they stay lifeless in orbit, often in a safe graveyard orbit where they are unlikely to harm other craft. Sometimes these deactivated satellites spring back into life, and there is a dedicated band of enthusiasts who seek out these oddities. Dead satellite finder extraordinaire [Scott Tilley] has turned up a particularly unusual one, a craft that is quite likely to be the oldest still-working geostationary satellite.

LES-5 is an experimental satellite built by MIT’s Lincoln Labs, launched in 1967, and used to test military UHF communications in a geosynchronous orbit. It had an active life into the early 1970s after which it was placed in a graveyard orbital slot for redundant craft. It’s lain forgotten ever since, until this month when [Scott]  found its beacon transmitting on 236.75 MHz. The Twitter thread is an extremely interesting glimpse into the satellite finder’s art, as first he’s not certain at all that it is LES-5 so he waits for its solar eclipse to identify its exact position.

Whether anything on the craft can find another use today is not certain, as he finds no evidence of its transponder. Still, that something is working again 53 years after its launch is a testament to the quality of its construction. Should its transponder be reactivated again it’s not impossible that people might find illicit uses for it, after all that’s not the first time this has happened.

Radio Free Blockchain: Bitcoin From Space

Cryptocurrencies: love them, hate them, or be baffled by them, but don’t think you can escape them. That’s the way it seems these days at least, with news media filled with breathless stories about Bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies, and everyone from Amazon to content creators on YouTube now accepting the digital currency for payments. And now, almost everyone on the planet is literally bathed in Bitcoin, or at least the distributed ledger that makes it work, thanks to a new network that streams the Bitcoin blockchain over a constellation of geosynchronous satellites.

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Es’hail-2: Hams Get Their First Geosynchronous Repeater

In the radio business, getting the high ground is key to covering as much territory from as few installations as possible. Anything that has a high profile, from a big municipal water tank to a roadside billboard to a remote hilltop, will likely be bristling with antennas, and different services compete for the best spots to locate their antennas. Amateur radio clubs will be there too, looking for space to locate their repeaters, which allow hams to use low-power mobile and handheld radios to make contact over a vastly greater range than they could otherwise.

Now some hams have claimed the highest of high ground for their repeater: space. For the first time, an amateur radio repeater has gone to space aboard a geosynchronous satellite, giving hams the ability to link up over a third of the globe. It’s a huge development, and while it takes some effort to use this new space-based radio, it’s a game changer in the amateur radio community.

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3D Printed Helical Satcom Feed

With the advent of cheap software defined radios made popular by the RTL-SDR project a few years back, satellite communications are now within the budget of even the most modest hacker. For $20 USD you can get a USB SDR module that is more than capable of receiving signals from any number of geosynchronous satellites, but you’ll need something a little more robust than rabbit ears to pick up a signal broadcast from over 22,000 miles away.

Building a satellite-capable antenna isn’t necessarily difficult, but does involve a fair bit of arcane black magic and mathematics to do properly; something that can scare away those new to the hobby. But by using a 3D printed mandrel, [Tysonpower] has come up with a feed you can build and mount on a standard dish without having to take a crash course in antenna theory. [Tysonpower] reports the feed has a center frequency 1550 MHz, and works well for reception of Inmarsat, AERO and HRPT signals.

The channel in the 3D printed core of the feed ensures that the inserted wire is of the correct length and in the perfect position for optimal reception. All you need to do is print the core, wrap it with wire, and then solder the end to a connector on a ground-plane that’s nothing more than a sheet of aluminum. [Tysonpower] was even kind enough to model up a mount that will allow you to bolt this feed to a standard satellite dish.

We’ve previously covered using RTL-SDR to receive Inmarsat transmissions, and hardware for the Outernet project, both of which would be great applications for an antenna like this.

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See Satellites With A Simple Radio Telescope

Have you got a spare Dish Network antenna lying about? They’re not too hard to come by, either curbside on bulk waste day or perhaps even on Freecycle. If you can lay hands on one, you might want to try this fun radio telescope build.

Now, don’t expect much from [Justin]’s minimalist build. After all, you’ll be starting with a rather small dish and an LNB for the Ku band, so you won’t be doing serious radio astronomy. In fact, the BOM doesn’t include a fancy receiver  – just a hacked satellite finder. The idea is to just get a reading of the relative “brightness” of a radio source without trying to demodulate the signal. To that end, the signal driving the piezo buzzer in the sat finder is fed into an Arduino through a preamp. The Arduino also controls stepper motors for the dish’s azimuth and elevation control, which lets it sweep the sky and build up a map of signal intensity. The result is a clear band of bright spots representing the geosynchronous satellites visible from [Justin]’s location in Brazil.

Modifications are definitely on the docket for [Justin], including better equipment that will allow him to image the galactic center. There may be some pointers for him in our coverage of a tiny SDR-based radio telescope, or from this custom receiver that can listen to Jupiter.

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