Oops… Britain Launched A Satellite, But Who Remembers It?

Did you know Britain launched its first satellite after the program had already been given the axe? Me neither, until some stories of my dad’s involvement in aerospace efforts came out and I dug a little deeper into the story.

I grew up on a small farm with a workshop next to the house, that housed my dad’s blacksmith business. In front of the workshop was a yard with a greenhouse beyond it, along one edge of which there lay a long gas cylinder about a foot (300mm) in diameter. To us kids it looked like a torpedo, and I remember my dad describing the scene when a similar cylinder fell off the side of a truck and fractured its valve, setting off at speed under the force of ejected liquid across a former WW2 airfield as its pressurised contents escaped.

Everybody’s parents have a past from before their children arrived, and after leaving the RAF my dad had spent a considerable part of the 1950s as a technician, a very small cog in the huge state-financed machine working on the UK’s rocket programme for nuclear and space launches. There were other tales, of long overnight drives to the test range in the north of England, and of narrowly averted industrial accidents that seem horrific from our health-and-safety obsessed viewpoint. Sometimes they came out of the blue, such as the one about a lake of  highly dangerous liquid oxidiser-fuel mix ejected from an engine that failed to ignite and which was quietly left to evaporate, which he told me about after dealing with a cylinder spewing liquid propane when somebody reversed a tractor into a grain dryer.

Bringing Home A Piece Of History

The remains of the Black Arrow first and second stages, taken from the Skyrora promotional video.
The remains of the Black Arrow first and second stages, taken from the Skyrora promotional video.

My dad’s tales from his youth came to mind recently with the news that a privately-owned Scottish space launch company is bringing back to the UK the remains of the rocket that made the first British satellite launch from where they had lain in Australia since crashing to earth in 1971. What makes this news special is that not only was it the first successful such launch, it was also the only one. Because here in good old Blighty we hold the dubious honour of being the only country in the world to have developed a space launch capability of our own before promptly abandoning it. Behind that launch lies a fascinating succession of forgotten projects that deserve a run-through of their own, they provide a window into both the technological and geopolitical history of that period of the Cold War.

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All About Ham Satellites

How hard is it to build a ground station to communicate with people via a satellite? Probably not as hard as you think. [Modern Ham] has a new video that shows just how easy it can be. It turns out that a cheap Chinese radio is all you need on the radio side. You do, however, benefit from having a bit of an antenna.

It isn’t unusual for people interested in technology to also be interested in space. So it isn’t surprising that many ham radio operators have tied space into the hobby. Some do radio astronomy, others bounce signals off the moon or meteors. Still others have launched satellites, though perhaps that’s not totally accurate since as far as we know all ham radio satellites have hitched rides on commercial rockets rather than being launched by hams themselves. Still, designing and operating a ham radio station in space is no small feat, but it has been done many times with each generation of satellite becoming more and more sophisticated.

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Hackaday Links: Christmas Eve Eve, 2018

The entirety of Silicon Valley is predicated on the ability to ‘move fast and break laws’. Have an idea for a scooter startup? No problem, just throw a bunch of scooters on the curb, littering and e-waste laws be damned. Earlier this year, Swarm Technologies launched four rogue satellites on an Indian rocket. All commercial satellite launches by US companies are regulated by the FCC, and Swarm just decided not to tell the FCC. This was the first unauthorized satellite launch ever. Now, Swarm has been fined $900k. Now that we know the cost of launching unauthorized satellites, so if you’ve got a plan for a satellite startup, the cost for an unauthorized launch is a bit more than $200k per satellite. Be sure to put that in your budget.

Santa Claws! Liberty Games would like to donate to a charity this holiday season, but you can’t just write a check. That’s not fun. Instead, they connected a claw machine to the Internet, and anyone can play it. Setting up a webcam was easy enough, but they also had to move the claw and press the button over the Internet. A Raspberry Pi came to the rescue.

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, mankind’s first trip beyond Earth orbit. Now, using Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter data, NASA has reconstructed the famous ‘Earthrise’ photo taken by the crew. It’s in 4K, and we’re getting a great diagram of what pictures were taken when, through which window.

It’s that time of year again, and the 176th Air Defense Squadron is on high alert. This squadron, based out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska has the AWACS in the air, on patrol, just waiting for the inevitable. You can take a look at their progress here, and please be sure to keep our service members in your thoughts this holiday season.

Show off your sculpture skills with small bits of wire! Get the blowtorch out because copper work hardens! [Roger] can’t enter the Circuit Sculpture contest, but he did manage to give a body to one of the Tindie heads.

GPS III Launching Today But You Can’t Use it Until 2022

Imagine if you bought a new car but they keys were not going to be shipped to you until a few years later. That’s analogous to the situation the U.S. Air Force finds itself in. The first GPS III satellite is finally ready to launch today, December 18, 2018 — a little over 2 years beyond the original schedule. However, most of the unique GPS III features won’t be available until at least 2022, according to a 2017 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report to Congress.

GPS III is a project to launch 32 new satellites that will — for military users — be more difficult to jam. For civilian users, the new GPS satellites will be compatible with other systems, including the EU’s Galileo system. But the big draw? About three times the accuracy of the current system. For civilian use, that means 3 to 10 feet under good conditions as opposed to the current systems’ 10- to 33-foot resolution.

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Amazon Creates Distributed Satellite Ground Stations

Here’s an interesting thought: it’s possible to build a cubesat for perhaps ten thousand dollars, and hitch a ride on a launch for free thanks to a NASA outreach program. Tracking that satellite along its entire orbit would require dozens or hundreds of ground stations, all equipped with antennas and a connection to the Internet. Getting your data down from a cubesat actually costs more than building a satellite.

This is the observation someone at Amazon must have made. They’ve developed the AWS Ground Station, a system designed to downlink data from cubesats and other satellites across an entire orbit. Right now, Amazon only has two ground stations attached, but they plan to have a dozen in place by the middle of next year. Each of these ground stations are associated with a particular AWS region (there are a total of sixteen AWS regions, which might limit the orbital coverage of the AWS Ground Station system), and consists of an antenna, an alt-az mount, and a gigantic bank of servers and hard drives to capture data from satellites orbiting overhead.

The Amazon blog post goes over how easy it is to capture data from a satellite, and it’s as easy as getting a NORAD ID, logging into your AWS account, and clicking a few buttons.

It should go without mention that this is the exact same idea behind SatNOGS, an Open Source global network of satellite ground stations and winner of the 2014 Hackaday Prize. One of their ground stations is what’s pictured at the top if this article. Right now, SatNOGS has over seventy ground stations in the network, including a few stations that are in very useful locations like the Canary Islands. The SatNOGS network already has a lot more coverage than the maximum of sixteen locations where Amazon has their data centers — made possible by its open nature. Congrats to the SatNOGS team once again for creating something so useful, and doing it four years before Amazon.

Slack on the SNES via Satellite

We love seeing hardware and software from bygone eras getting a new lease on life through modern hacks, as longtime readers can surely attest to. Why leave this stuff to rot in a closet somewhere when it can be pushed into service today? Granted it might not always be the most efficient way to accomplish a task in the 21st century, but at least you’ll net some precious Internet Points for originality.

As a perfect example, take a look at this project which lets you read Slack messages through a Super Nintendo game. If your first thought was that such a thing would involve an unreasonable amount of effort and hoop jumping…then you would be correct. [Bertrand Fan] really had to think outside the box to make this one happen, and even admits a bit of imagination is required on the part of the end-user to use it. But it’s undeniably an original approach, so we hereby bestow the customary Internet Points unto him.

So how does this work, and where do the satellites come in? The key is in a fairly obscure Japanese SNES peripheral called the Satellaview, one of Nintendo’s early attempts at creating an online content delivery system for their consoles. Games designed with Satellaview support would be able to pull down new content from regular satellite broadcasts, not too bad for 1995. This means that if you have the hardware, and happen to own a satellite, you can push your own content into an unmodified SNES. No problem, right?

Alright, [Bertrand] didn’t really use a Satellaview modem plugged into an actual SNES. Plus we’re fairly sure he doesn’t have his own satellite network to broadcast Slack messages with anyway. But it turns out some SNES emulators have support for a virtual Satellaview modem, and there’s even software out there that will let you create new content “downloads” for the system’s included game: BS-X: The Story of The Town Whose Name Was Stolen. All he had to do was connect the dots.

[Bertrand] started by stripping the user interface out of SatellaWave, an open source tool for creating Satellaview content, so that it only need to be provided with an XML file of the content to be “downloaded” by the virtual satellite modem. Using the Slack API, he then came up with way to pull the last 10 messages from a server and push them into his modified version of SatellaWave. Each time somebody posts a new message his software kicks in to produce a new satellite download which automatically gets picked up by the SNES emulator and pops up in the game.

If this is still too practical for you, you can always go all in and run Slack on your Commodore 64.

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Real Time Satellite Tracker Shows You What’s Going Over Your Head

Whilst modern technology relies heavily on satellites, it’s easy to forget they’re there; after all, it’s hard to comprehend mostly-invisible lumps of high-density tech whizzing around above you at ludicrous speeds. Of course, it’s not hard to comprehend if you’ve built a real-time satellite tracker which displays exactly what’s in orbit above your head at any given time. [Paul Klinger]’s creation shows the position of satellites passing through a cylinder of 200 km radius above the tracker.

Each layer of LEDs represents a specific band of altitude, whilst the colour of the LEDs and text on the screen represent the type of object. The LEDs themselves are good old WS2812b modules, soldered to a custom PCB and mounted in a 3D-printed stand. The whole thing is a really clean build and looks great – you can see it in action in the video after the break

On the software side, a Raspberry Pi is in charge, running Python which makes use of pyorbital for some of the heavy lifting. The data is taken from space-track.org, who provide a handy API. All the code is on the project GitHub, which also includes the 3D print and PCB files.

[Paul] answers questions in the reddit thread, and gives more detail in this reddit comment. The project was inspired by one of our favorite sites: stuffin.space.

Some of the satellites the device displays are de-commisioned and inactive. Space junk is a significant problem, one which can only be tackled by a space garbage truck.

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