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Hackaday Links: October 23, 2022

There were strange doings this week as Dallas-Forth Worth Airport in Texas experienced two consecutive days of GPS outages. The problem first cropped up on the 17th, as the Federal Aviation Administration sent out an automated notice that GPS reception was “unreliable” within 40 nautical miles of DFW, an area that includes at least ten other airports. One runway at DFW, runway 35R, was actually closed for a while because of the anomaly. According to GPSjam.org — because of course someone built a global mapping app to track GPS coverage — the outage only got worse the next day, both spreading geographically and worsening in some areas. Some have noted that the area of the outage abuts Fort Hood, one of the largest military installations in the country, but there doesn’t appear to be any connection to military operations. The outage ended abruptly at around 11:00 PM local time on the 19th, and there’s still no word about what caused it. Loss of GPS isn’t exactly a “game over” problem for modern aviation, but it certainly is a problem, and at the very least it points out how easy the system is to break, either accidentally or intentionally.

In other air travel news, almost as quickly as Lufthansa appeared to ban the use of Apple AirTags in checked baggage, the airline reversed course on the decision. The original decision was supposed to have been based on “an abundance of caution” regarding the potential for disaster from its low-power transmitters, or should a stowed AirTag’s CR2032 battery explode. But as it turns out, the Luftfahrt-Bundesamt, the German civil aviation authority, agreed with the company’s further assessment that the tags pose little risk, green-lighting their return to the cargo compartment. What luck! The original ban totally didn’t have anything to do with the fact that passengers were shaming Lufthansa online by tracking their bags with AirTags while the company claimed they couldn’t locate them, and the sudden reversal is unrelated to the bad taste this left in passengers’ mouths. Of course, the reversal only opened the door to more adventures in AirTag luggage tracking, so that’s fun.

Energy prices are much on everyone’s mind these days, but the scale of the problem is somewhat a matter of perspective. Take, for instance, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which runs a little thing known as the Large Hadron Collider, a 27-kilometer-long machine that smashes atoms together to delve into the mysteries of physics. In an average year, CERN uses 1.3 terawatt-hours of electricity to run the LHC and its associated equipment. Technically, this is what’s known as a hell of a lot of electricity, and given the current energy issues in Europe, CERN has agreed to shut down the LHC a bit early this year, shutting down in late November instead of the usual mid-December halt. What’s more, CERN has agreed to reduce usage by 20% next year, which will increase scientific competition for beamtime on the LHC. There’s only so much CERN can do to reduce the LHC’s usage, though — the cryogenic plant to cool the superconducting magnets draws a whopping 27 megawatts, and has to be kept going to prevent the magnets from quenching.

And finally, as if the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been weird enough, the fact that it has left in its wake survivors whose sense of smell is compromised is alarming. Our daily ritual during the height of the pandemic was to open up a jar of peanut butter and take a whiff, figuring that even the slightest attenuation of the smell would serve as an early warning system for symptom onset. Thankfully, the alarm hasn’t been tripped, but we know more than a few people who now suffer from what appears to be permanent anosmia. It’s no joke — losing one’s sense of smell can be downright dangerous; think “gas leak” or “spoiled food.” So it was with interest that we spied an article about a neuroprosthetic nose that might one day let the nasally challenged smell again. The idea is to use an array of chemical sensors to stimulate an array of electrodes implanted near the olfactory bulb. It’s an interesting idea, and the article provides a lot of fascinating details on how the olfactory sense actually works.

When [Elon] Says No, Just Reverse Engineer The Starlink Signal

We all know that it’s sometimes better to beg forgiveness than ask permission to do something, and we’ll venture a guess that more than a few of us have taken that advice to heart on occasion. But [Todd Humphreys] got the order of operations a bit mixed up with his attempt to leverage the Starlink network as a backup to the Global Positioning System, and ended up doing some interesting reverse engineering work as a result.

The story goes that [Todd] and his team at the University of Texas Austin’s Radionavigation Lab, on behalf of their sponsors in the US Army, approached Starlink about cooperating on a project to make their low-Earth orbit constellation provide position, navigation, and timing capabilities. Although initially interested in the project, Starlink honcho [Elon Musk] put the brakes on things, leaving [Todd]’s team high and dry. Not to be dissuaded, they bought a Starlink user terminal, built what amounts to a small radiotelescope — although we’ve seen something similar done with just an RTL-SDR — and proceeded to reverse-engineer the structure of Starlink’s Ku-band downlink signal. The paper (PDF link) on their findings is densely packed with details, such as the fact that Starlink uses an orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) scheme.

It’s important to note that their goal was not to break encryption or sniff in on user data; rather, they wanted access to the synchronization and timing signals embedded in the Starlink data structures. By using this data along with the publically available ephemera for each satellite, it’s possible to quickly calculate the exact distance to multiple satellites and determine the receiver’s location to within 30 meters. It’s not as good as some GPS-Starlink hacks we’ve seen, but it’s still pretty good in a pinch. Besides, the reverse engineering work here is well worth a read.

Thanks to [Adrian] for the tip!

GPS? With Starlink, We Don’t Need It Any More!

To find your position on the earth’s surface there are a variety of satellite-based navigation systems in orbit above us, and many receiver chipsets found in mobile phones and the like can use more than one of them. Should you not wish to be tied to a system produced by a national government though, there’s now an alternative. It comes not from an official source though, but as a side-effect of something else. Researchers at Ohio State University have used the Starlink satellite broadband constellation to derive positional fixing, achieving a claimed 8-metre accuracy.

The press release is light on information about the algorithm used, but since it mentions that it relies on having advance knowledge of the position and speed of each satellite we’re guessing that it measures the Doppler shift of each satellite’s signal during a pass to determine a relative position which can be refined by subsequent observations of other Starlink craft.

The most interesting takeaway is that while this technique leverages the Starlink network, it doesn’t have any connection to the service itself. Instead it’s an entirely passive use of the satellites, and though its accuracy is around an order of magnitude less than that achievable under GPS it delivers a position fix still useful enough to fit the purposes of plenty of users.

Earlier in the year there was some amusement when the British government bought a satellite broadband company under the reported impression it could plug the gap left by their withdrawal from the European Galileo project. Given this revelation, maybe they were onto something after all!

Thanks [Renze] for the tip.