Review: Hands On With The Swarm Satellite Network Eval Kit

If you have devices out in the field, you probably want to connect with them. There was a time when that was hard to do, requiring telephone wires or specialized radio gear. Now cellular data is prevalent, but even cellular isn’t everywhere. If you have the cash, you can pay a number of satellite companies to carry your data, but that’s generally pricey and has its own challenges.

The age of satellite constellations is changing that. Of course everyone by now has heard of Starlink which is offering satellite internet via numerous satellites that are much smaller than traditional telecom satellites. But they’re not the only came in town.

A company called Swarm has put up a constellation of 1/4U cube satellites in low orbits. They offer a ground station that uses an omni antenna and a subscription access program for small amounts of data. They sent us a unit to review, and while I haven’t used the system in a real project yet, the kit was pretty impressive.

About Swarm

Swarm tile device
The Swarm Tile is made to mount on a PCB

The Swarm “tile” is a tiny radio that can talk bi-directionally with small satellites in low Earth orbit. The little unit is made to mount on a PCB, can control its power consumption, and talks to your system via a standard 3.3V UART connection. It does, however, require a small antenna and maybe even a smaller antenna for its GPS module. Small, in this case, is about a mid-size handy talkie antenna. There is a half-wave antenna that doesn’t need a ground plane and a shorter antenna that does need a ground plane.

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A Satellite Upconverter Need Not Be Impossible To Make

Those readers whose interests don’t lie in the world of amateur radio might have missed one of its firsts, for the last year or two amateurs have had their own geostationary satellite transponder. Called Es’hail-2 / AMSAT Phase 4-A / Qatar-OSCAR 100, it lies in the geostationary orbit at 25.9° East and has a transponder with a 2.4 GHz uplink and a 10.489 GHz downlink. Receiving the downlink is possible with an LNB designed for satellite TV, but for many hams the uplink presents a problem. Along comes [PY1SAN] from Brazil with a practical and surprisingly simple solution using a mixture of odd the shelf modules and a few hand-soldered parts.

An upconverter follows a simple enough principle, the radio signal is created at a lower frequency (in this case by a 435 MHz transmitter) and mixed with a signal from a local oscillator. A filter then picks out the mixer product — the sum of the two — and amplifies it for transmission. [PY1SAN]’s upconverter takes the output from the transmitter and feeds it through an attenuator to a MiniCircuits mixer module which takes its local oscillator via an amplifier from a signal generator module. The mixer output goes through a PCB stripline filter through another amplifier module to a power amplifier brick, and thence via a co-ax feeder to a dish-mounted helical antenna.

The whole thing is a series of modules joined by short SMA cables, and could probably be largely sourced from a single AliExpress order without too much in the way of expenditure. It’s by no means easy to get on air via Es’hail-2, but at least now it need not be impossibly expensive. Even the antenna can be made without breaking the bank.

We covered Es’hail-2 when it first appeared. May it long provide radio amateurs with the chance to operate worldwide with homebrew microwave equipment!

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StarLink Terminal Unit Firmware Dumped

There’s a lot of expense in what telephone companies call “the last mile” — delivering service from the main trunks to your home or business. StarLink wants to avoid that cost by connecting you via an array of low-orbit satellites and some users are already using the service. In Belgium, [Lennert Wouters] managed to dump the terminal’s firmware and has some interesting observations.

The teardown is actually more than just a firmware dump. His “level 1” teardown involves exposing the board. This can be tricky because there are apparently different versions of the terminal out already, so advice from one source might not match your hardware, and that was the case here.

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You Have About Four Months To Find A Lost Satellite

In the annals of technical achievement originating from the United Kingdom there lies a forgotten success story that should have led to greater things but instead became a dead-end even before it had happened. We’re referring of course to Prospero, a British satellite that holds the honour of being the only one to have been launched on board a British-developed satellite launch platform. On the 28th of October 1971 it was launched aboard a Black Arrow rocket from the Woomera launch site in Australia and successfully entered orbit to complete its mission. When it was launched the Black Arrow program had already been canceled by the British government, with the launch proceeding only because rocket and satellite were by then already on the pad.

A never flown Black Arrow rocket and the Prospero flight spare, in the Science Museum, London.
A never flown Black Arrow rocket and the Prospero flight spare, in the Science Museum, London.

So the Brits became the sixth nation to develop a satellite launch capability, and promptly canned it. Prospero was a success though and remains in orbit, and was even re-activated periodically as late as the 1990s. With its fiftieth anniversary approaching in October we think it’s worth looking for to mark the occasion, and so would like to remind you of its existence and the impending anniversary. If any community can find a lost satellite, hear its call if it is still transmitting anything, and maybe even wake it up, it’s you lot. Hackaday readers never cease to amaze us with their talents, and we know that among you will be people with what it takes to find Prospero.

To help you along your way there’s a lot of information about the satellite to be found online, including the details of an unsuccessful attempt to contact it a decade ago for the anniversary in 2011, and a real-time tracker to help you find its position. Maybe some of you have a decent enough telescope to take a snap of it as it passes over, but if a radio signal could be retrieved from it that would be particularly impressive. Watch out though, you might find yourself hearing an Orbcomm satellite on the same frequency.

So if any of you fancy firing up your SDRs and pointing an antenna skywards over the next few months, we’d like to hear about your progress. It’s possible that the craft may by now be incapable of life, but if anything can be found it’s worth a try.

This isn’t the first satellite rescue attempt documented here on Hackaday. A few years back we put out the call to rescue ICE/ISEE-3.

Satellite Communications Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, June 2 at noon Pacific for the Satellite Comms Hack Chat with Paul Marsh!

All things considered, space isn’t that far away; you could drive the equivalent distance in an hour or two, with time for a couple of stops on the way. Of course, getting to space isn’t as simple as a Sunday drive, and yet despite the expense and trouble, we’ve still managed to fill our little corner of the solar system with an astonishing number of satellites.

Almost every single one of the spacecraft we’ve put in orbit represents a huge capital investment, both in terms of building something that can withstand the extreme environment up there and as far as the expense involved in getting it there. So once it gets there, it needs to start producing results, and for the most part that means sending some kind of messages back down to Earth. And those communications can be tempting indeed to hardware hackers.

Monitoring messages from on high is what the satcom radio hobby is all about. Learning how to do it properly can be tricky, though. What frequencies does one use? What are the modulation schemes? What kind of antennas would someone need? And what about tracking these birds as they whizz overhead?

To answer these questions and more, Paul Marsh from UHF-Satcom will stop by the Hack Chat. Paul has been interested in satellites since the early 1990s and coupled with his background in infosec and pentesting, he has uncovered a lot about the ins and outs of satellite snooping. Stop by the Hack Chat and learn how to sniff in on what’s going on upstairs.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, June 2 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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Hackaday Links: May 2, 2021

Mars is getting to be a busy place, what with helicopters buzzing around and rovers roving all about the place. Now it’s set to get a bit more crowded, with the planned descent of the newly-named Chinese Zhurong rover. Named after the god of fire from ancient Chinese mythology, the rover, which looks a little like Opportunity and Spirit and rides to the surface aboard something looking a little like the Viking lander, will carry a suite of scientific instruments around Utopia Planitia after it lands sometime this month. Details are vague; China usually plays its cards close to the vest, and generally makes announcements only when a mission is a fait accompli. But it appears the lander will leave its parking orbit, which it entered back in February, sometime this month. It’s not an easy ride, and we wish Zhurong well.

Speaking of space, satellites don’t exactly grow on trees — until they do. A few groups, including a collaboration between UPM Plywood and Finnish startup Arctic Astronautics, have announced intentions to launch nanosatellites made primarily of wood. Japanese logging company Sumitomo Forestry and Kyoto University also announced their partnership, formed with the intention to prove that wooden satellites can work. While it doesn’t exactly spring to mind as a space-age material, wood does offer certain advantages, including relative transparency to a wide range of the RF spectrum. This could potentially lead to sleeker satellite designs, since antennae and sensors could be located inside the hull. Wood also poses less of a hazard than a metal spaceframe does when the spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere. But there’s one serious disadvantage that we can see: given the soaring prices for lumber, at least here in the United States, it may soon be cheaper to build satellites out of solid titanium than wood.

If the name Ian Davis doesn’t ring a bell with you, one look at his amazing mechanical prosthetic hand will remind you that we’ve been following his work for a while now. Ian suffered a traumatic amputation of the fingers of his left hand, leaving only his thumb and palm intact, and when his insurance wouldn’t pay for a prosthetic hand, he made his own. Ian has gone through several generations, each of which is completely mechanical and controlled only by wrist movements. The hands are truly works of mechanical genius, and Ian is now sharing what he’s learned to help out fellow hand-builders. Even if you’re not building a hand, the video is well worth watching; the intricacy of the whiffle-tree mechanism used to move the fingers is just a joy to behold, and the complexity of movement that Ian’s hand is capable of is just breathtaking.

If mechanical hands don’t spark your interest, then perhaps the engineering behind top fuel dragsters will get you going. We’ll admit that most motorsports bore us to tears, even with the benefit of in-car cameras. But there’s just something about drag cars that’s so exciting. The linked video is a great dive into the details of the sport, where engines that have to be rebuilt after just a few seconds use, fuel flows are so high that fuel lines the size of a firehouse are used, and the thrust from the engine’s exhaust actually contributes to the car’s speed. There’s plenty of slo-mo footage in the video, including great shots of what happens to the rear tires when the engine revs up. Click through the break for more!

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Satellite Ground Station Upcycles Trash

While the term “upcycle” is relatively recent, we feel like [saveitforparts] has been doing it for a long time. He’d previously built gear to pick up low-Earth orbit satellites, but now wants to pick up geosynchronous birds which requires a better antenna. While his setup won’t win a beauty contest, it does seem to work, and saved some trash from a landfill, too. (Video, embedded below.)

Small dishes are cheap on the surplus market. A can makes a nice feedhorn using a classic cantenna design, although that required aluminum tape since the only can in the trash was a cardboard oatmeal carton. The tape came in handy when the dish turned out to be about 25% too small, as well.

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