A Parts Bin Cyberdeck Built For Satellite Hacking

While there’s little in the way of hard rules dictating what constitutes a cyberdeck, one popular opinion is that it should be a piecemeal affair — a custom rig built up of whatever high-tech detritus the intrepid hacker can get their hands on, whether it be through trades or the time-honored tradition of dumpster diving. It should also be functional, and ideally, capable of some feats which would be difficult to accomplish with a garden variety laptop.

If you’re looking for an example that embraces these concepts to the fullest, look no further than the Spacedeck built by¬†[saveitforparts]. Combining a touch screen all-in-one computer pulled from a police cruiser in the early 2000s, an RTL-SDR, and the contents of several parts bins, the rig is designed to work in conjunction with his growing collection of motorized satellite dishes to sniff out signals from space.

As you can see in the build video below, the design for this mobile satellite hacking station was originally very different, featuring considerably more modern hardware with all the buzzword interfaces and protocols you’d expect. But [saveitforparts] couldn’t get all the parts talking satisfactorily, so he went in the closet and dug out one of the surplus police terminals he’d picked up a while back.

He didn’t have the appropriate connector to power the machine up, but by cracking open the case and tracing out the wires, he figured out where he needed to inject the 12 V to get it spun up. From there he installed a new Mini PCI WiFi adapter, loaded up an era-appropriate build of Linux, and got the standard software-defined radio tools up and running.

What really sets this build apart are the two custom panels. The top one offers access to the various ports on the computer, as well as provides a sort of switchboard that connects the RTL-SDR to various onboard filters. The lower panel includes the hardware and controls necessary to aim different styles of motorized satellite dishes, as well as a USB hub and connector that leads into a commercial satellite meter tucked into the case.

At the end of the video [saveitforparts] demonstrates the various capabilities of the Spacedeck, such as the ability to pull in imagery from weather satellites. Considering the sort of satellite sniffing we’ve seen him pull off in the past, we have no doubt this machine is going to be listening in on some interesting transmissions before too long.

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Rapidly Prototyping RF Filters

RF filters are really just a handful of strategically placed inductors and capacitors. Yes, you can make a 1 GHz filter out of through-hole components, but the leads on the parts turn into inductors at those frequencies, completely ruining the expected results in a design.

The solution to this is microstrip antennas, or carefully arranged tracks and pads on a PCB. Anyone can build one of these with Eagle or KiCad, but that means waiting for an order from a board house to verify your design. [VK2SEB] has a better idea for prototyping PCB filters: use copper tape on blank FR4 sheets.

The first, and simplest, filter demonstrated is a simple bandstop filter. This is really just a piece of fiberglass with copper laminated to one side. Two RF connectors are soldered to the edges and a strip of copper tape strung between them. Somewhere around the middle of this copper tape, [VK2SEB] put another strip of copper tape in a ‘T’ configuration. This is the simplest bandstop filter you can make, and the beauty of this construction is that it can be tuned with a razor blade.

Of course, a filter can only be built with copper tape if you can design them, and for that [SEB] is turning to software. The Qucs project is a software tool for designing and simulating these microstrip¬†filters, and after inputting the correct parameters, [SEB] got a nice diagram of what the filter should look like. A bit of taping, razor blading, and soldering and [SEB] had a working filter connected to a spectrum analyzer. Did it work? To a limited extent; the PCB material probably wasn’t right, and board houses are more accurate than a razor blade, but [SEB] did manage to create a 10 GHz filter out of fiberglass and copper tape.

You can check out the video for this experiment below.

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Real World RF Filter Design And Construction

We bet when [devttyS0] made his latest video about RF filter design (YouTube, embedded below), he had the old saying in mind: in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is. He starts out pointing how now modern tools will make designing and simulating any kind of filter easy, but the trick is to actually build it in real life and get the same performance. You can see the video below.

One of the culprits, of course, is we tend to design and simulate with perfect components. Wires have zero resistance, capacitance, and inductance. Inductors and capacitance have no parasitic elements in our rosy design world. Even the values of components will vary from their ideal values and may change over time.

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