Start Tracking Satellites with This Low-Cost Azimuth-Elevation Positioner

Tracking satellites and the ISS is pretty easy. All you really need is an SDR dongle or a handheld transceiver, a simple homebrew antenna, and a clear view of the sky. Point the antenna at the passing satellite and you’re ready to listen, or if you’re a licensed amateur, talk. But the tedious bit is the pointing. Standing in a field or on top of a tall building waving an antenna around gets tiring, and unless you’re looking for a good arm workout, limits the size of your antenna. Which is where this two-axis antenna positioner could come in handy.

While not quite up to the job it was originally intended for — positioning a 1.2-meter dish antenna — [Manuel] did manage to create a pretty capable azimuth-elevation positioner for lightweight antennas. What’s more, he did it on the cheap — only about €150. His design seemed like it was going in the right direction, with a sturdy aluminum extrusion frame and NEMA23 steppers. But the 3D-printed parts turned out to be the Achille’s heel. At the 1:40 mark in the video below (in German with English subtitles), the hefty dish antenna is putting way too much torque on the bearings, delaminating the bearing mount. But with a slender carbon-fiber Yagi, the positioner shines. The Arduino running the motion control talks GS232, so it can get tracking data directly from the web to control the antenna in real time.

Here’s hoping [Manuel] solves some of the mechanical issues with his build. Maybe he can check out this hefty dish positioner for weather satellite tracking for inspiration.

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Britain Invented Rock-N-Roll, And Other Stories

An elderly relative of mine used to get irate at the BBC news. When our Prime Minister [Edward Heath] or another of her bêtes noirs of the day came on, she’d rail at the radio or the TV, expressing her views to them in no uncertain terms. It taught a young me a lot about the futility of shouting at the telly, as well as about making a spectacle of oneself.

The ISS in flight. NASA(Public Domain)
The ISS in flight. NASA [Public domain].
The other evening though I found myself almost at the point of  shouting at a TV programme, and since it’s one with a clear message about technology I feel it’s worth sharing here. The programme in question was one of the Impossible Engineering series, and it was talking about the technology behind the International Space Station. It was recent enough to include last year’s mission involving [Tim Peake], so it was by no means a show dredged from the archives.

All very well, you say. Impossible Engineering‘s format of looking at a modern engineering marvel and tracing the historical roots of some of its innovations would find fertile ground in the ISS, after all it’s one of our most impressive achievements and could easily provide content for several seasons of the show. And I’ll give them this, they did provide an interesting episode.

The trouble was, they made an omission. And it wasn’t just a slight omission, one of those minor cock-ups that when we Hackaday scribes make them the commenters pounce upon with glee, this one was a doozy. They managed to fill an hour of television talking about space stations and in particular a space station that was assembled by multiple countries under an international co-operation, without mention of any of the Russian technology that underpins much of its design. An egregious example among many was their featuring a new Boeing capsule designed to touchdown on land rather than on water as a novel invention, when as far as I am aware every Russian capsule ever made has performed a land-based touchdown.

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Ok Google. Navigate to the International Space Station

If you’d have asked most people a few decades ago if they wanted a picture of every street address in the world, they would have probably looked at you like you were crazy. But turns out that Google Street View is handy for several reasons. Sure, it is easy to check out the neighborhood around that cheap hotel before you book. But it is also a great way to visit places virtually. Now one of those places is the International Space Station (ISS).

[Thomas Pesquet] in a true hack used bungee cords and existing cameras to take panoramas of all 15 ISS modules. Google did their magic, and you can enjoy the results. You can also see a video on how it was all done, below.

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Flying The First Open Source Satellite

The Libre Space Foundation is an organization dedicated to the development of libre space hardware. It was born from the SatNOGS project — the winners of the first Hackaday Prize — and now this foundation is in space. The Libre Space Foundation hitched a ride on the Orbital ATK launch yesterday, and right now their completely Open Source cube sat is on its way to the International Space Station.

The cube sat in question is UPSat, a 2U cubesat that is completely Open Source. Everything from the chassis to the firmware is completely Open, with all the source files hosted on GitHub.

UPSat is currently on its way to the International Space Station stowed in an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft. From here, the UPSat will be unloaded by members of the current ISS expedition and deployed with help from NanoRacks. Basically, the first Open Source satellite will be tossed overboard from the International Space Station. If you want to listen in on the data UPSat is beaming down, build a SatNOGS ground station and tune into 435.765 MHz. With a good antenna, you should be able to hear it when the ISS is in the sky, or a few times a week.

You can check out the launch of the Cygnus the UPSat is flying on in the video below. NASA also recorded a 360° video from the launch pad that unfortunately cuts out in the first few seconds after launch.

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Turbine-driven Robot to Navigate Inside Space Station

It may look more like a Companion Cube than R2-D2, but the ISS is getting an astromech droid of sorts.

According to [Trey Smith] of the NASA Ames Research Center, Astrobee is an autonomous robot that will be able to maneuver inside the ISS in three dimensions using vectored thrust from a pair of turbines. The floating droid will navigate visually, using a camera to pick out landmarks aboard the station, including docking ports that let it interface with power and data. A simple arm allows Astrobee to grab onto any of the hand rails inside the ISS to provide a stable point for viewing astronaut activities or helping out with the science.

As cool as Astrobee is, we’re intrigued by how the team at Ames is testing it. The droid is mounted on a stand that floats over an enormous and perfectly flat granite slab using low-friction CO₂ gas bearings, giving it freedom to move in two dimensions. We can’t help but wonder why they didn’t suspend the Astrobee from a gantry using a counterweight to add that third dimension in. Maybe that’s next.

From the sound of it, Astrobee is slated to be flight ready by the end of 2017, so we’ll be watching to see how it does. But if they find themselves with a little free time in the schedule, perhaps adding a few 3D-printed cosmetics would allow them to enter the Hackaday Sci-Fi Contest.

How To Receive Pictures From Spaaace!

The International Space Station, or ISS, has been in orbit in its various forms now for almost twenty years. During that time many of us will have stood outside on a clear night and seen it pass overhead, as the largest man-made object in space it is clearly visible without a telescope.

Most ISS-watchers will know that the station carries a number of amateur radio payloads. There are voice contacts when for example astronauts talk to schools, there are digital modes, and sometimes as is happening at the moment for passes within range of Moscow (on Feb. 14, 11:25-16:30 UTC) the station transmits slow scan television, or SSTV.

You might think that receiving SSTV would be hard work and require expensive equipment, but given the advent of ubiquitous mobile and tablet computing alongside dirt-cheap RTL-SDRs it is now surprisingly accessible. An Android phone can run the SDRTouch software defined radio app as well as the Robot36 SSTV decoder, and given a suitable antenna the pictures can be received and decoded relatively easily. The radio must receive 145.8MHz wideband FM and the decoder must be set to the PD120 PD180 mode (Thanks [M5AKA] for the update), and here at least the apps are run on separate Android devices. It is possible to receive the signal using extremely basic antennas, but for best results something with a little gain should be used. The antenna of choice here is a handheld [HB9CV] 2-element beam.

A failed grab from a 2014 transmission, proving that Hackaday scribes don't always get perfect results.
A failed grab from a 2015 transmission, proving that Hackaday scribes don’t always get perfect results.

You can find when the station is due to pass over you from any of a number of ISS tracker sites, and you can keep up to date with ISS SSTV activity on the ARISS news page. Then all you have to do is stand out in the open with your receiver and computing devices running and ready, and point your antenna at the position of the station as it passes over. If you are lucky you’ll hear the tones of the SSTV transmission and a picture will be decoded, if not you may receive a garbled mess. Fortunately grabs of other people’s received pictures are posted online, so you can take a look at what you missed if you don’t quite succeed.

Even if you don’t live within range of a pass, it’s always worth seeing if a Web SDR somewhere is in range. For example this Russian one for the current transmissions.

In that you are using off-the-shelf hardware and software you might complain there is little in the way of an elite hack about pulling in a picture from the ISS. But wait a minute — you just received a picture from an orbiting space station. Do that in front of a kid, and see their interest in technology come alive!

Hams in Space Part 2: The Manned Spaceflights

Whether it’s trying to make contacts across the planet with a transmitter that would have a hard time lighting an LED, or blasting signals into space and bouncing them off the moon, amateur radio operators have always been on the forefront of communications technology. As mankind took to space in the 1950s and 1960s, hams went along for the ride with the first private satellites. But as successful as the OSCAR satellites were, they were still at best only beacons or repeaters in space. What was needed was the human touch – a real live operator making contacts with people on the ground, showing the capabilities of amateur radio while generating public interest in the space program. What was needed was a ham in space. Continue reading “Hams in Space Part 2: The Manned Spaceflights”