Important safety tip: When you’re sending commands to the second-most-distant space probe ever launched, make really, really sure that what you send isn’t going to cause any problems.
According to NASA, that’s just what happened to Voyager 2 last week, when uplinked commands unexpectedly shifted the 46-year-old spacecraft’s orientation by just a couple of degrees. Of course, at a distance of nearly 20 billion kilometers, even fractions of a degree can make a huge difference, especially since the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna (HGA) is set up for very narrow beamwidths; 2.3° on the S-band channel, and a razor-thin 0.5° on the X-band side. That means that communications between the spacecraft and the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex — the only station capable of talking to Voyager 2 now that it has dipped so far below the plane of the ecliptic — are on pause until the spacecraft is reoriented.
Luckily, NASA considered this as a possibility and built safety routines into Voyager‘s program that will hopefully get it back on track. The program uses the onboard star tracker to get a fix on the bright star Canopus, and from there figures out which way the spacecraft needs to move to get pointed back at Earth. The contingency program runs automatically several times a year, just in case something like this happens.
That’s the good news; the bad news is that the program won’t run again until October 15. While that’s really not that far away, mission controllers will no doubt find it an agonizingly long time to be incommunicado. And while NASA is outwardly confident that communications will be restored, there’s no way to be sure until we actually get to October and see what happens. Fingers crossed.
Snooping in on satellites is getting to be quite popular, enough so that the number of people advancing the state of the art — not to mention the wealth of satellites transmitting signals in the clear — has almost made the hobby too easy. An SDR, a homebrew antenna, and some off-the-shelf software, and you too can see weather satellite images on your screen in real time.
But where’s the challenge? That seems to be the question [dereksgc] asked and answered by tapping into S-band telemetry from an obsolete satellite. Most satellite hunters focus on downlinks in the L-band or even the VHF portion of the spectrum, which are within easy reach of most RTL-SDR dongles. However, the Coriolis satellite, which was launched in 2003, has a downlink firmly in the S-band, which at 2.2-GHz puts it just outside the high end of an RTL-SDR. To work around this, [dereksgc] bought a knock-off HackRF SDR and couple it with a wideband low-noise amplifier (LNA) of his own design. The dish antenna is also homebrewed from a used 1.8-m dish and a custom helical antenna for the right-hand circular polarized downlink signal.
As the video below shows, receiving downlink signals from Coriolis with the rig wasn’t all that difficult. Even with manually steering the dish, [dereksgc] was able to record a couple of decent passes with SDR#. Making sense of the data from WINDSAT, a passive microwave polarimetric radiometer that’s the main instrument that’s still working on the satellite, was another matter. Decoded with SatDump and massaged with Gimp, the microwave images of Europe are at least recognizable, mostly due to Italy’s distinctive shape.
Despite the distortion, seeing the planet’s surface via the microwaves emitted by water vapor is still pretty cool. If more traditional weather satellite images are what you’re looking for, those are pretty cool too.
Continue reading “Using An Old Satellite To See The Earth In A New Light”
You no doubt recall the incredible Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) reverse engineering and restoration project featured on the CuriousMarc YouTube channel a few years ago. Well, [Marc] and the team are at it again, this time restoring the Apollo Unified S-Band tracking and communication system flight hardware. As always, the project is well documented, carefully explained, full of problems, and is proceeding slowly despite the lack of documentation.
Like the guidance computer, the Unified S-Band system was pretty innovative for its day — able to track, provide voice communications, receive television signals, and send commands to and monitor the health of the spacecraft via telemetry. The system operates on three frequencies, an uplink containing ranging code, voice and data. There are two downlinks, one providing ranging, voice, and telemetry, the other used for television and the playback of recorded data. All crammed into two hefty boxes totaling 29 kg.
So far, [Marc] has released part 9 of the series (for reference, the Apollo Guidance Computer took 27 parts plus 8 auxiliary videos). There seems to be even less documentation for this equipment than the AGC, although miraculously the guys keep uncovering more and more as things progress. Also random pieces of essential ground test hardware keep coming out of the woodwork. It’s a fascinating dive into not only the system itself, but the design and construction techniques of the era. Be sure to check out the series (part 1 is below the break) and follow along as they bring this system back to life. [Marc] is posting various documents related to the project on his website. And if you missed the AGC project, here’s the playlist of videos, and the team joined us for a Hackaday Chat back in 2020.
Continue reading “Apollo Comms Flight Hardware Deep Dive”
So far in this brief series on in-band signaling, we looked at two of the common methods of providing control signals along with the main content of a transmission: DTMF for Touch-Tone dialing, and coded-squelch systems for two-way radio. For this installment, we’ll look at something that far fewer people have ever used, but almost everyone has heard: Quindar tones.
Continue reading “In-Band Signaling: Quindar Tones”