A Hybrid Helical Antenna For The Es’hail-2 Geosynchronous Repeater

Amateur radio operators like to say that working a contact in space can be done with a simple handheld transceiver and a homemade antenna. And while that’s true, it’s true only for low Earth orbit satellites such as the ISS. If you want to reach a satellite in geosynchronous orbit it’ll take a little more effort, and this dual-feed helical “ice cream cone” antenna could really help.

Until recently, the dream of an amateur radio repeater in geosynchronous orbit remained out of reach, but that changed with the launch of the Qatari satellite Es’hail-2 last year. Since then, hams from Brazil to Thailand have been using the repeater, and UK-based [Tech Minds] has been in the thick of the action. The antenna he presents is a hybrid design, needed because of the 2.4-GHz band uplink and 10-GHz downlink on the satellite, also known as QO-100. Both require a largish dish antenna, with the downlink requiring a low-noise block downconverter (LNB) and feed horn. The uplink side of [Tech Minds]’ antenna is a helical design, with three-and-a-half turns of heavy copper wire and a tuning section of copper strapping that attaches directly to an N-type connector. The helix is just the right size for the feed horn of an LNB for the downlink side, nestled in a hole in the helical antenna’s aluminum reflector disc. There are 3D-printed parts to support everything, plus a cone-shaped radome to keep it all safe from the elements.

It looks like a great design, but sadly, North American and East Asian hams can only dream about building one, since QO-100 is below the horizon for us. We’re jealous, but we’re still glad the repeater is up there. Check out this article for more on how Es’hail-2 got the first geosynchronous ham repeater.

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Help Thrust Open Source Satellites To The Next Level

To place a satellite in orbit satisfactorily it is necessary not only to hitch a ride on a rocket, but also to put it in the right orbit for its task, and once it is there, to keep it there. With billions of dollars or roubles of investment over six decades of engineering behind them the national space agencies and commercial satellite builders solved these problems long since, but replicating those successes for open source microsatellites still represents a significant engineering challenge. One person working in this field is [Michael Bretti], who is doing sterling work with a shoestring budget on open source electric thrusters for the smallest of satellites, and he needs your help in crowdfunding a piece of equipment.

Beware suspiciously cheap eBay vacuum pumps!
Beware suspiciously cheap eBay vacuum pumps!

As part of his testing he has a vacuum chamber, and when he places a thruster inside it he has to create a space-grade vacuum . This is no easy task, and to achieve it he has two pumps. The first of these, a roughing pump, is a clapped-out example that has clearly reached the end of its days, and it is this that he needs your help to replace. His GoFundMe page has a modest target of only $4,200 which should be well within the capabilities of our community in reaching, and in supporting it you will help the much wider small satellite community produce craft that will keep giving us interesting things from space for years to come.

We’ve mentioned his work before here at Hackaday, and we hope that in time we’ll have a chance to look in more detail at his thrusters. Meanwhile you can follow along on Twitter.

Thanks [Bruce Perens K6BP] for the tip.

Hackaday Links: April 26, 2020

Gosh, what a shame: it turns out that perhaps 2 billion phones won’t be capable of COVID-19 contact-tracing using the API that Google and Apple are jointly developing. The problem is that the scheme the two tech giants have concocted, which Elliot Williams expertly dissected recently, is based on Bluetooth LE. If a phone lacks a BLE chipset, then it won’t work with apps built on the contact-tracing API, which uses the limited range of BLE signals as a proxy for the physical proximity of any two people. If a user is reported to be COVID-19 positive, all the people whose BLE beacons were received by the infected user’s phone within a defined time period can be anonymously notified of their contact. As Elliot points out, numerous questions loom around this scheme, not least of which is privacy, but for now, something like a third of phones in mature smartphone markets won’t be able to participate, and perhaps two-thirds of the phones in developing markets are not compatible. For those who don’t like the privacy-threatening aspects of this scheme, pulling an old phone out and dusting it off might not be a bad idea.

We occasionally cover stories where engineers in industrial settings use an Arduino for a quick-and-dirty automation solution. This is uniformly met with much teeth-gnashing and hair-rending in the comments asserting that Arduinos are not appropriate for industrial use. Whether true or not, such comments miss the point that the Arduino solution is usually a stop-gap or proof-of-concept deal. But now the purists and pedants can relax, because Automation Direct is offering Arduino-compatible, industrial-grade programmable controllers. Their ProductivityOpen line is compatible with the Arduino IDE while having industrial certifications and hardening against harsh conditions, with a rich line of shields available to piece together complete automation controllers. For the home-gamer, an Arduino in an enclosure that can withstand harsh conditions and only cost $49 might fill a niche.

Speaking of Arduinos and Arduino accessories, better watch out if you’ve got any modules and you come under the scrutiny of an authoritarian regime, because you could be accused of being a bomb maker. Police in Hong Kong allegedly arrested a 20-year-old student and posted a picture of parts he used to manufacture a “remote detonated bomb”. The BOM for the bomb was strangely devoid of anything with wireless capabilities or, you know, actual explosives, and instead looks pretty much like the stuff found on any of our workbenches or junk bins. Pretty scary stuff.

If you’ve run through every binge-worthy series on Netflix and are looking for a bit of space-nerd entertainment, have we got one for you. Scott Manley has a new video that goes into detail on the four different computers used for each Apollo mission. We knew about the Apollo Guidance Computers that guided the Command Module and the Lunar Module, and the Launch Vehicle Digital Computer that got the whole stack into orbit and on the way to the Moon, but we’d never heard of the Abort Guidance System, a backup to the Lunar Module AGC intended to get the astronauts back into lunar orbit in the event of an emergency. And we’d also never heard that there wasn’t a common architecture for these machines, to the point where each had its own word length. The bit about infighting between MIT and IBM was entertaining too.

And finally, if you still find yourself with time on your hands, why not try your hand at pen-testing a military satellite in orbit? That’s the offer on the table to hackers from the US Air Force, proprietor of some of the tippy-toppest secret hardware in orbit. The Hack-A-Sat Space Security Challenge is aimed at exposing weaknesses that have been inadvertantly baked into space hardware during decades of closed development and secrecy, vulnerabilities that may pose risks to billions of dollars worth of irreplaceable assets. The qualification round requires teams to hack a grounded test satellite before moving on to attacking an orbiting platform during DEFCON in August, with prizes going to the winning teams. Get paid to hack government assets and not get arrested? Maybe 2020 isn’t so bad after all.

Is This The Oldest Still-Working Geostationary Satellite?

The LES-5 spacecraft
The LES-5 spacecraft

Regular followers of space news will know that when satellites or space probes reach the end of their life, they either are de-orbited in a fiery re-entry, or they stay lifeless in orbit, often in a safe graveyard orbit where they are unlikely to harm other craft. Sometimes these deactivated satellites spring back into life, and there is a dedicated band of enthusiasts who seek out these oddities. Dead satellite finder extraordinaire [Scott Tilley] has turned up a particularly unusual one, a craft that is quite likely to be the oldest still-working geostationary satellite.

LES-5 is an experimental satellite built by MIT’s Lincoln Labs, launched in 1967, and used to test military UHF communications in a geosynchronous orbit. It had an active life into the early 1970s after which it was placed in a graveyard orbital slot for redundant craft. It’s lain forgotten ever since, until this month when [Scott]  found its beacon transmitting on 236.75 MHz. The Twitter thread is an extremely interesting glimpse into the satellite finder’s art, as first he’s not certain at all that it is LES-5 so he waits for its solar eclipse to identify its exact position.

Whether anything on the craft can find another use today is not certain, as he finds no evidence of its transponder. Still, that something is working again 53 years after its launch is a testament to the quality of its construction. Should its transponder be reactivated again it’s not impossible that people might find illicit uses for it, after all that’s not the first time this has happened.

Thousands Of Internet-Connected Satellites Above Us, What Could Possibly Go Wrong!

Our skies are full of satellites, more full than they have been, that is, because SpaceX’s Starlink and a bevvy of other soon-to-launch operators plan to fill them with thousands of small low-earth-orbit craft to blanket the Earth with satellite Internet coverage. Astronomers are horrified at such an assault on their clear skies, space-watchers are fascinated by the latest developments, and in some quarters they’re causing a bit of concern about the security risk they might present. With a lot of regrettable overuse use of the word “hacker”, the concern is that such a large number of craft in the heavens might present an irresistible target for bad actors, who would proceed to steer them into each other can cause chaos.

Invest in undersea cables, folks, the Kessler Syndrome is upon us, we’re doomed!

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Northrop Grumman Tests Space Tow Truck

In the early days, satellites didn’t stick around for very long. After it was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, it only took about three months for Sputnik 1 to renter the atmosphere and burn up. But the constant drive to push ever further into space meant that soon satellites would remain in orbit for years at a time. Not that they always functioned for that long; America’s Explorer 1 remained in orbit for more than twelve years, but its batteries died after just four months.

Of course back then, nobody was too worried about that sort of thing. When you can count the number of spacecraft in Earth orbit on one hand, what does it matter if one of them stays up there for more than a decade? The chances of a collision were so low as to essentially be impossible, and if the satellite was dead and wasn’t interfering with communication to its functional peers, all the better.

The likelihood of a collision steadily increased over the years as more and more spacecraft were launched, but the cavalier approach to space stewardship continued more or less unchanged into the modern era. In fact, it might have endured a few more decades if companies like SpaceX weren’t planning on mega-constellations comprised of thousands of individual satellites. Concerned over jamming up valuable near-Earth orbits with so much “space junk”, modern satellites are increasingly being designed with automatic disposal systems that help make sure they are safely deorbited even in the event of a system failure.

That’s good news for the future, but it doesn’t help us with the current situation. Thousands of satellites are in orbit above the planet, and they’ll need to be dealt with in the coming years. The good news is that many of them are at a low enough altitude that they’ll burn up on their own eventually, and methods are being developed to speed up the process should it be necessary to hasten their demise.

Unfortunately, the situation is slightly more complex with communications satellites in geosynchronous orbits. At an altitude of 35,786 kilometers (22,236 miles), deorbiting these spacecraft simply isn’t practical. It’s actually far easier to maneuver them farther out into space where they’ll never return. But what if the satellite fails or runs out of propellant before the decision to retire it can be made?

That’s precisely the sort of scenario the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) was developed for, and after a historic real-world test in February, it looks like this “Space Tow Truck” might be exactly what we need to make sure invaluable geosynchronous orbits are protected in the coming decades.

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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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