Aireon Hitchhikes on Iridium to Track Airplanes

SpaceX just concluded 2017 by launching 10 Iridium NEXT satellites. A footnote on the launch was the “hosted payload” on board each of the satellites: a small box of equipment from Aireon. They will track every aircraft around the world in real-time, something that has been technically possible but nobody claimed they could do it economically until now.

Challenge one: avoid adding cost to aircraft. Instead of using expensive satcom or adding dedicated gear, Aireon listen to ADS-B equipment already installed as part of international air traffic control modernization. But since ADS-B was designed for aircraft-to-aircraft and aircraft-to-ground, Aireon had some challenges to overcome. Like the fact ADS-B antenna is commonly mounted on the belly of an aircraft blocking direct path to satellite.

Challenge two: hear ADS-B everywhere and do it for less. Today we can track aircraft when they are flying over land, but out in the middle of the ocean, there are no receivers in range except possibly other aircraft. Aireon needed a lot of low-orbit satellites to ensure you are in range no matter where you are. Piggybacking on Iridium gives them coverage at a fraction of the cost of building their own satellites.

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Downloading Satellite Images via FM Radio

Did you know weather satellites transmit their weather images over an FM frequency? And now that you know… You can intercept them yourself with a $10 FM radio dongle!

American NOAA weather satellites are in a polar orbit around earth, and each one will pass the same point approximately every 12 hours. When it is overhead, the signal is strong enough to receive. After [Matt] found out this tidbit of knowledge, he had to learn how to intercept the images himself.

The satellites transmit the images over the 137MHz band, and using a radio tuner USB dongle, you can record the transmission and then decode it into a picture. He used CubicSDR to tune and record the signal, and then Soundflower to pull out interference, and finally WXtoIMG — which starts recording when the satellite is above, and decodes the image.

[Thanks for the tip Amirgon!]