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, 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:

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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Hams see Dark Side Of The Moon Without Pink Floyd

Ham radio operators bouncing signals off the moon have become old hat. But a ham radio transmitter on the Chinese Longjiang-2 satellite is orbiting the moon and has sent back pictures of the Earth and the dark side of the moon. The transceiver’s main purpose is to allow hams to downlink telemetry and relay messages via lunar orbit.

While the photo was received by the Dwingeloo radio telescope, reports are that other hams also picked up the signal. The entire affair has drawn in hams around the world. Some of the communications use a modulation scheme devised by [Joe Taylor, K1JT] who also happens to be a recipient of a Nobel prize for his work with pulsars. The Dwingeloo telescope has several ham radio operators including [PA3FXB] and [PE1CHQ].

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France Questions Russian Satellite with “Big Ears”

French Defense Minister Florence Parly took a page out of Little Red Riding Hood when she recently called out a Russian satellite for having “big ears”. While she stopped short of giving any concrete details, it was a rare and not terribly veiled accusation that Russia is using their Luch-Olymp spacecraft to perform orbital espionage.

Luch satellite conceptual drawing from NASA

At a speech in Toulouse, Parly was quoted as saying: “It got close. A bit too close. So close that one really could believe that it was trying to capture our communications.” and “this little Stars Wars didn’t happen a long time ago in a galaxy far away. It happened a year ago, 36,000 kilometers above our heads.”

The target of this potential act of space piracy is the Athena-Fidus satellite, a joint venture between France and Italy to provide secure communication for the military and emergency services of both countries. Launched in 2014, it provides 3 Gbit/s throughput via the Ka-band for mobile receivers on the ground and in drones.

This isn’t the first time Russia’s Luch class of vehicles has been the subject of scrutiny. In 2015 it was reported that one such craft maneuvered to within 10 kilometers of the Intelsat 7 and Intelsat 901 geostationary communications satellites, prompting classified meetings at the United States Defense Department. As geostationary satellites orbit the Earth at 3.07 km/s, a 10 km approach is exceptionally dangerous. Even a slight miscalculation could cause an impact within seconds.

Could Stealth Satellites Be In Our Future?

Much to the chagrin of shadowy spy agencies everywhere, this sort of orbital cat and mouse is easily detectable from the ground. When spy planes became easy to detect using radar, the next step was to evade that detection. Are we on a path to satellites that are transparent to radar?

Gregory Charvat, author of Small and Short-Range Radar Systems and occasional contributor here at Hackaday, tells us that building a stealth satellite is no easy task. “Just like how we had to re-invent the aircraft to make the first stealth aircraft, to make a stealth satellite one would have to fundamentally re-invent the satellite as we know it today.”

Likening it to the immense cost and effort it took to develop stealth aircraft like the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, Gregory says developing a satellite which could hide from radar would likely be more trouble than it’s worth for most applications. Space is already hard enough. “Maintaining that special shape that reflects radar away from your aircraft and including all of these essential peripherals is a big challenge” Gregory says, which results in “compromise and high maintenance costs.”

Beyond attempting to eavesdrop on communications, military insiders say that these close passes by Luch satellites could also be “dry-runs” for anti-satellite operations; either by using a directed energy weapon to disable the target spacecraft, or simply running into it. With events like these, and the commitment by the United States to establish a Space Force in the coming years, efforts to militarize space seem to be on the rise.

[via DefenseNews]

Before Sending A Probe To The Sun, Make Sure It Can Take The Heat

This past weekend, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe took off for a journey to study our local star. While its mission is well covered by science literate media sources, the equally interesting behind-the-scenes information is a little harder to come by. For that, we have Science News who gave us a look at some of the work that went into testing the probe.

NASA has built and tested space probes before, but none of them were destined to get as close to the sun as Parker will, creating new challenges for testing the probe. The lead engineer for the heat shield, Elizabeth Congdon, was quoted in the article: “Getting things hot on Earth is easier than you would think it is, getting things hot on Earth in vacuum is difficult.” The team used everything from a concentrated solar facility to hacking IMAX movie projector lenses.

The extreme heat also posed indirect problems elsewhere on the probe. A rocket launch is not a gentle affair, any cargo has to tolerate a great deal of shock and vibration. A typical solution for keeping fasteners in place is to glue them down with an epoxy, but they’d melt where Parker is going so something else had to be done. It’s not all high technology and exotic materials, though, as when the goal was to verify that the heat shield was strong enough to withstand up to 20G of acceleration expected during launch, the test team simulated extra weight by stacking paper on top of it.

All that testing should ensure Parker can perform its mission and tell us a lot of interesting things about our sun. And if you got in on the publicity campaign earlier this year, your name is along for the ride.

Not enough space probe action for the day? We’ve also recently featured how creative hacking gave the exoplanet hunter Kepler a second lease on life.

The Photo Lab That Flew to the Moon

When planning a trip by car these days, it’s pretty much standard practice to spin up an image of your destination in Google Maps and get an idea of what you’re in for when you get there. What kind of parking do they have? Are the streets narrow or twisty? Will I be able to drive right up, or will I be walking a bit when I get there? It’s good to know what’s waiting for you, especially if you’re headed someplace you’ve never been before.

NASA was very much of this mind in the 1960s, except the trip they were planning for was 238,000 miles each way and would involve parking two humans on the surface of another world that we had only seen through telescopes. As good as Earth-based astronomy may be, nothing beats an up close and personal look, and so NASA decided to send a series of satellites to our nearest neighbor to look for the best places to land the Apollo missions. And while most of the feats NASA pulled off in the heyday of the Space Race were surprising, the Lunar Orbiter missions were especially so because of how they chose to acquire the images: using a film camera and a flying photo lab.

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