Solar Flares And Radio Communications — How Precarious Are Our Electronics?

On November 8th, 2020 the Sun exploded. Well, that’s a bit dramatic (it explodes a lot) — but a particularly large sunspot named AR2781 produced a C5-class solar flare which is a medium-sized explosion even for the Sun. Flares range from A, B, C, M, and X with a zero to nine scale in each category (or even higher for giant X flares). So a C5 is just about dead center of the scale. You might not have noticed, but if you lived in Australia or around the Indian Ocean and you were using radio frequencies below 10 MHz, you would have noticed since the flare caused a 20-minute-long radio blackout at those frequencies.

According to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the sunspot has the energy to produce M-class flares which are an order of magnitude more powerful. NOAA also has a scale for radio disruptions ranging from R1 (an M1 flare) to R5 (an X20 flare). The sunspot in question is facing Earth for the moment, so any new flares will cause more problems. That led us to ask ourselves: What if there were a major radio disruption?

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Get Your Weather Images Straight From The Satellite

[Josh] has a series called Ham Radio Crash Course and a recent installment covers how you can grab satellite images directly from weather satellites. This used to be more of a production than it is now thanks to software defined radio (SDR). Josh also has another project using a 3D printer to make an antenna suitable for the job. You can see the video below.

The software is the venerable WXtoImg program. This is abandonware, but the community has kept the software available. The program works on Linux, Windows, and Mac. The satellites in question operate around 137 MHz, but that’s easily in the range of even the cheap SDR dongles. [Josh] shows how to use a virtual audio cable on Windows to connect the output of the radio to the input of the WXtoImg program. Under Linux, you can do this with Pulse or Jack very easily without any extra hardware.

There’s some setup and calibration necessary for the software. You’ll also need the current orbital data and the program will tell you when you can find the next satellite passing overhead. Generally speaking you’ll want your antenna outside, which [Josh] solved by taking everything outdoors and having some lunch during the pass. It also takes some time to post-process the data into images and audio.

We know this isn’t new. But we did like [Josh’s] clear and up-to-date guide. We remember watching NOAA 15 as it started to lose its electronic mind.

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The Death Of A Weather Satellite As Seen By SDR

What is this world coming to when a weather satellite that was designed for a two-year mission starts to fail 21 years after launch? I mean, really — where’s the pride these days?

All kidding aside, it seems like NOAA-15, a satellite launched in 1998 to monitor surface temperatures and other meteorologic and climatologic parameters, has recently started showing its age. This is the way of things, and generally the decommissioning of a satellite is of little note to the general public, except possibly when it deorbits in a spectacular but brief display across the sky.

But NOAA-15 and her sister satellites have a keen following among a community of enthusiasts who spend their time teasing signals from them as they whiz overhead, using homemade antennas and cheap SDR receivers. It was these hobbyists who were among the first to notice NOAA-15’s woes, and over the past weeks they’ve been busy alternately lamenting and celebrating as the satellite’s signals come and go. Their on-again, off-again romance with the satellite is worth a look, as is the what exactly is going wrong with this bird in the first place.

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How 5G Is Likely To Put Weather Forecasting At Risk

If the great Samuel Clemens were alive today, he might modify the famous meteorological quip often attributed to him to read, “Everyone complains about weather forecasts, but I can’t for the life of me see why!” In his day, weather forecasting was as much guesswork as anything else, reading the clouds and the winds to see what was likely to happen in the next few hours, and being wrong as often as right. Telegraphy and better instrumentation made forecasting more scientific and improved accuracy steadily over the decades, to the point where we now enjoy 10-day forecasts that are at least good for planning purposes and three-day outlooks that are right about 90% of the time.

What made this increase in accuracy possible is supercomputers running sophisticated weather modeling software. But models are only as good as the raw data that they use as input, and increasingly that data comes from on high. A constellation of satellites with extremely sensitive sensors watches the planet, detecting changes in winds and water vapor in near real-time. But if the people tasked with running these systems are to be believed, the quality of that data faces a mortal threat from an unlikely foe: the rollout of 5G cellular networks.

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Fail Of The Week: Tracking Meteors With Weather Radio

It’s not hard to detect meteors: go outside on a clear night in a dark place and you’re bound to see one eventually. But visible light detection is limiting, and knowing that meteors leave a trail of ions means radio detection is possible. That’s what’s behind this attempt to map meteor trails using broadcast signals, which so far hasn’t yielded great results.

Passing jet’s Doppler signature

The fact that meteor trails reflect radio signals is well-known; hams use “meteor bounce” to make long-distance contacts all the time. And using commercial FM broadcast signals to map meteor activity isn’t new, either — we’ve covered the “forward scattering” technique before. The technique requires tuning into a frequency used by a distant station but not a local one and waiting for a passing meteor to bounce the distant signal back to your SDR dongle. Capturing the waterfall display for later analysis should show characteristic patterns and give you an idea of where and when the meteor passed.

[Dave Venne] is an amateur astronomer who turns his eyes and ears to the heavens just to see what he can find. [Dave]’s problem is that the commercial FM band in the Minneapolis area that he calls home is crowded, to say the least. He hit upon the idea of using the National Weather Service weather radio broadcasts at around 160 MHz as a substitute. Sadly, all he managed to capture were passing airplanes with their characteristic Doppler shift; pretty cool in its own right, but not the desired result.

The comments in the post on [Dave]’s attempt had a few ideas on where this went wrong and how to improve it, including the intriguing idea of using 60-meter ham band propagation beacons. Now it’s Hackaday’s turn: any ideas on how to fix [Dave]’s problem? Sound off in the comments below.

An Antenna That Really Cooks–Really

[9A4OV] set up a receiver using the HackRF board and an LNA that can receive the NOAA 19 satellite. Of course, a receiver needs an antenna, and he made one using a cooking pot. The antenna isn’t ideal – at least indoors – but it does work. He’s hoping to tweak it to get better reception. You can see videos of the antenna and the resulting reception, below.

The satellite is sending High-Resolution Picture Transmission (HRPT) data which provides a higher image quality than Automatic Picture Transmission (APT). APT is at 137 MHz, but HRPT is at 1698 MHz and typically requires a better receiver and antenna system.

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Junkyard Dish Mount Tracks Weather Satellites

There’s a magnificent constellation of spacecraft in orbit around Earth right now, many sending useful data back down to the surface in the clear, ready to be exploited. Trouble is, it often takes specialized equipment that can be a real budget buster. But with a well-stocked scrap bin, a few strategic eBay purchases, and a little elbow grease, a powered azimuth-elevation satellite dish mount can become affordable.

The satellites of interest for [devnulling]’s efforts are NOAA’s Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES), a system of low-Earth orbit weather birds. [devnulling] is particularly interested in direct reception of high-definition images from the satellites’ L-band downlink. The mount he came up with to track satellites during lengthy downloads is a tour de force of junkyard build skills.

The azimuth axis rotates on a rear wheel bearing from a Chevy, the elevation axis uses cheap pillow blocks, and the frame is welded from scrap angle iron and tubing. A NEMA-23 stepper with 15:1 gearhead rotates the azimuth while a 36″ linear actuator takes care of elevation. The mount has yet to be tested in the wind; we worry that sail area presented by the dish might cause problems. Here’s hoping the mount is as stout as it seems, and we’ll look forward to a follow-up.

It would work for us, but a 4-foot dish slewing around in the back yard might not be everyone’s taste in lawn appurtenances. If that’s you and you still want to get your weather data right from the source, try using an SDR dongle and chunk of wire.

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