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.

Flying The First Open Source Satellite

The Libre Space Foundation is an organization dedicated to the development of libre space hardware. It was born from the SatNOGS project — the winners of the first Hackaday Prize — and now this foundation is in space. The Libre Space Foundation hitched a ride on the Orbital ATK launch yesterday, and right now their completely Open Source cube sat is on its way to the International Space Station.

The cube sat in question is UPSat, a 2U cubesat that is completely Open Source. Everything from the chassis to the firmware is completely Open, with all the source files hosted on GitHub.

UPSat is currently on its way to the International Space Station stowed in an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft. From here, the UPSat will be unloaded by members of the current ISS expedition and deployed with help from NanoRacks. Basically, the first Open Source satellite will be tossed overboard from the International Space Station. If you want to listen in on the data UPSat is beaming down, build a SatNOGS ground station and tune into 435.765 MHz. With a good antenna, you should be able to hear it when the ISS is in the sky, or a few times a week.

You can check out the launch of the Cygnus the UPSat is flying on in the video below. NASA also recorded a 360° video from the launch pad that unfortunately cuts out in the first few seconds after launch.

Continue reading “Flying The First Open Source Satellite”

After The Prize: A Libre Space Foundation

The Hackaday Prize is the greatest hardware build-off on the planet, and with that comes some spectacular prizes. For the inaugural Hackaday Prize in 2014, the top prize was $196,418. That’s a handsome sum, and with that, the right hardware, and enough time, anything is possible.

The winners of the first Hackaday Prize was the SatNOGs project. The SatNOGs project itself is very innovative and very clever; it’s a global network of satellite ground stations for amateur cubesats. This, in itself, is a huge deal. If you’re part of a student team, non-profit, or other organization that operates a cubesat, you only have access to that satellite a few minutes every day — whenever it’s in the sky, basically. SatNOGs is a project to put directional, tracking antennas everywhere on Earth, all connected to the Internet. This is a project that gives global ground station coverage to every amateur-built cubesat.

It’s been two years since SatNOGs won the Hackaday Prize, so how are they doing now? I caught up with some of the midwest reps of SatNOGs at this year’s Hamvention, and the project is doing very well. The steerable antenna mount designed by the SatNOGs project is fantastic, some of the Earth stations are seeing a lot of use, and the network is growing.

Two years is a long time, and since then SatNOGs has evolved into the Libre Space Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation with a mission to promote, advance and develop free and open source technologies and knowledge for space.

The premier project for the Libre Space Foundation is the UPSat, the first Open Source satellite ever launched. For the last two years, this is what the Libre Space Foundation has been working on, and soon this satellite will be orbiting the Earth. The satellite itself was recently delivered, and next month it will be launched to the International Space Station aboard a Cygnus spacecraft. After that, it will be deployed to low Earth orbit from Nanoracks’ deployment platform on the station.

This is truly an amazing project. SatNOGs brought a network of ground stations to amateur cubesats orbiting the Earth, and now the Libre Space Foundation will put an Open Source satellite into low Earth orbit. All the documentation is available on Github, and this is the best the open hardware movement has to offer. We’re proud to have SatNOGs and the Libre Space Foundation proving that Open Hardware can change the world, and we can only hope this year’s winner of the Hackaday Prize has such an impact.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Reverse GPS

Every time you watch a SpaceX livestream to see a roaring success or fireball on a barge (pick your poison), you probably see a few cubesats go up. Everytime you watch a Soyuz launch that is inexplicably on liveleak.com before anywhere else, you’re seeing a few cubesats go up. There are now hundreds of these 10 cm satellites in orbit, and SatNogs, the winner of the Hackaday Prize a two years ago, gives all these cubesats a global network of ground stations.

There is one significant problem with a global network of satellite tracking ground stations: you need to know the orbit of all these cubesats. This, as with all Low Earth Orbit deployments that do not have thrusters and rarely have attitude control, is a problem. These cubesats are tumbling through the rarefied atmosphere, leading to orbits that are unpredictable over several months.

[hornig] is working on a solution to the problem of tracking hundreds of cubesats that is, simply, reverse GPS. Instead of using multiple satellites to determine a position on Earth, this system is using multiple receiving stations on Earth’s surface to determine the orbit of a satellite.

The hardware for [hornig]’s Distributed Ground Station Network is as simple as you would expect. It’s just an RTL-SDR TV tuner USB dongle, a few antennas, a GPS receiver, and a Raspberry Pi connected to the Internet. This device needs to be simple; unlike SatNogs, where single base station in the middle of nowhere can still receive data from cubesats, this system needs multiple receivers all within the view of a satellite.

The modern system of GPS satellites is one of the greatest technological achievements of all time. Not only did the US need to put highly accurate clocks in orbit, the designers of the system needed to take into account relativistic effects. Doing GPS in reverse – determining the orbit of satellites on the ground – is likewise a very impressive project, and something that is certainly a contender for this year’s Hackaday Prize.

The HackadayPrize2016 is Sponsored by:

The Booths Of Hamvention

Hamvention was last weekend in Dayton, Ohio. Last weekend was also the Bay Area Maker Faire, and if you want tens of thousands of people who actually make stuff there’s really only one place to be. Bonus: you can also check out the US Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB. The ‘Space’ hangar was closed, so that’ll be another trip next year.

The biggest draw for Hamvention is the swap meet. Every year, thousands of cars pull up, set up a few tables and tents, and hock their wares. Everything from radios from the 1920s to computers from the 1980s can be found at the swap meet. This post is not about the swap meet; I still have several hundred pictures to go through, organize, label, and upload. Instead, this post is about the booths of Hamvention. Everything imaginable could be found at Hamvention, from the usual ARRL folks, to the preppers selling expired MREs, and even a few heros of Open Hardware.

Continue reading “The Booths Of Hamvention”

After The Prize: SatNOGS Builds Satellites

When Hackaday announced winners of the 2014 Hackaday Prize, a bunch of hackers from Greece picked up the grand prize of $196,418 for their SatNOGS project – a global network of satellite ground stations for amateur Cubesats.

upsat-integration-test-1The design demonstrated an affordable ground station which can be built at low-cost and linked into a public network to leverage the benefits of satellites, even amateur ones. The social implications of this project were far-reaching. Beyond the SatNOGS network itself, this initiative was a template for building other connected device networks that make shared (and open) data a benefit for all. To further the cause, the SatNOGS team set up the Libre Space Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation with a mission to promote, advance and develop Libre (free and open source) technologies and knowledge for space.

Now, the foundation, in collaboration with the University of Patras, is ready to launch UPSat – a 2U, Open Source Greek Cubesat format satellite as part of the QB50 international thermosphere research mission. The design aims to be maximally DIY, designing most subsystems from scratch. While expensive for the first prototype, they hope that documenting the open source hardware and software will help kickstart an ecosystem for space engineering and technologies. As of now, the satellite is fully built and undergoing testing and integration. In the middle of July, it will be delivered to Nanoracks to be carried on a SpaceX Dragon capsule and then launched from the International Space Station.

Continue reading “After The Prize: SatNOGS Builds Satellites”

Ground Stations are Just the Beginning: The SatNOGS Story

When you think of satellites, you may think of the Space Shuttle extending its robot arm with a huge piece of high-tech equipment waiting to pirouette into orbit. This misconception is similar to picturing huge mainframes when thinking about computers. The future (and arguably even the present) reality of satellites is smaller, cheaper, and more prolific. This future is also an “open” one if the Libre Space Foundation has anything to say about it.

This group that plans to make satellite communications available to anyone started out as a build at a hackerspace. One good idea, a shared set of skills and experience, and a little bit of time led them to accomplish amazing things. We are, of course, talking about the Grand Prize winners of the 2014 Hackaday Prize. The SatNOGS team built a working satellite ground station and laid the foundation for a data-sharing network to connect to it. But even this description can be a bit daunting, so come with me to learn what this is all about, and how it matters to you.

Continue reading “Ground Stations are Just the Beginning: The SatNOGS Story”