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!

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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.

Portable Classroom Upgrade: Smaller, Cheaper, Faster

[Eric] at MkMe Lab has a dream: to build a cheap, portable system that provides the electronic infrastructure needed to educate kids anywhere in the world. He’s been working on the system for quite a while, and has recently managed to shrink the suitcase-sized system down to a cheaper, smaller form-factor.

The last time we discussed [Eric]’s EduCase project was as part of his Hackaday Prize 2016 entry. There was a lot of skepticism from our readers on the goals of the project, but whatever you think of [Eric]’s motivation, the fact remains that the build is pretty cool. The previous version of the EduCase relied on a Ku-band downlink to receive content from Outernet, and as such needed to stuff a large antenna into the box. That dictated a case in the carry-on luggage size range. The current EduCase is a much slimmed-down affair that relies on an L-band link from the Inmarsat satellites, with a much smaller patch antenna. A low-noise amp and SDR receiver complete the downlink, and a Raspberry Pi provides the UI. [Eric]’s build is just a prototype at this point, but we’re looking forward to seeing everything stuffed into that small Pelican case.

Yes, Outernet is curated content, and so it’s not at all the same experience as the web. But for the right use case, this little package might just do the job. And with a BOM that rings up at $100, the price is right for experimenting.

Continue reading “Portable Classroom Upgrade: Smaller, Cheaper, Faster”

FTA Dish Used To Receive L-band Amateur Radio

[David Prutchi] has an FTA (free-to-air) satellite dish. This means he can tune and watch freely available satellite television feeds. But this sounds much better than it actually is. There isn’t much that’s broadcasted unecrypted from satellites with the exception of a collection of religious channels. But he still uses the dish by using the FTA satellites to calibrate the alignment, then repositioning it to receive L-Band radio transmissions with his own add-on hardware. In the image above it’s the spiral of wire attached to the dish’s collector.

The satellite transmissions are picked up on the KU-band by an aftermarket horn that [David] purchased for this purpose. To add his own helix receiver he cut a square mounting plate that fits around the horn. This plate serves as a reflector and ground plane, and also hosts the helix connector which picks up the L-band transmissions. He had to be creative with routing the first few inches of the helix but it looks like he manages to get some pretty good performance out of the hardware.

[via Hacked Gadgets]