Starlink Satellite Dish X-Rayed To Unlock RF Magic Inside

When [Kenneth Keiter] took apart his Starlink dish back in November, he did his best to explain the high-level functionality of the incredibly complex device in a video posted to his YouTube channel. It was a fascinating look at the equipment, but by his own admission, he wasn’t the right person to try and explain the nuances of how the phased array actually functioned. But he knew who could do the technology justice, which is why he shipped the dismembered dish over to [Shahriar Shahramian] of The Signal Path.

Don’t be surprised if you can’t quite wrap your head around his detailed analysis after your first viewing. You’ll probably have a few lingering questions after the second re-watch as well. But that’s OK, as [Shahriar] still has a few of his own. Even after cutting out a section of the dish and putting it under an X-ray, it’s still not completely clear how the SpaceX engineers managed to cram everything into such a tidy package. Though there seems to be no question that the $500 price for the early-access hardware is an absolute steal, all things considered.

The layered antenna works on multiple frequencies.

Most of the video is spent examining the stacked honeycomb construction of the phased antenna array, which as expected, holds a number of RF secrets if you know what to look for. Put simply, there’s no such thing as an insignificant detail to the trained eye. From the carefully sized injection molded spacer sheet that keeps the upper array a specific distance from the RF4-like radome, to the almost microscopic holes that have been bored through each floating patch to maintain equalized air pressure through the stack up, [Shahriar] picks up on fascinating details which might otherwise seem like arbitrary design decisions.

But a visual inspection will only get you so far. Eventually [Shahriar] has to cut out a slice of the PCB so he can fit it into the X-ray machine, but don’t feel too bad, the dish was long dead before he got his hands on it. While he hasn’t yet completed his full analysis, an initial examination indicates that each large IC and the eight chips surrounding it make up a 16 channel beam forming module. Each channel is further split into two RX and TX pairs, which provides the necessary right and left hand polarization. That said, he admits there’s some room for interpretation and that further work would be necessary before any hard conclusions could be made.

Between this RF analysis and the initial overview provided by [Kenneth], we’ve already learned a lot more about this device than many might have expected considering how rare and expensive the hardware is. While we admit it’s not immediately clear what kind of hijinks hardware hackers could get into once this device is fully understood, we’re certainly eager to find out.

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Literally Tearing Apart A SpaceX Starlink Antenna

While SpaceX’s constellation of Starlink satellites is nowhere near its projected final size, the company has enough of the birds zipping around in low Earth orbit to start a limited testing period they call the Better Than Nothing Beta. If you’re lucky enough to get selected, you have to cough up $500 for the hardware and another $100 a month for the service. Despite the fairly high bar for getting your hands on one, [Kenneth Keiter] decided to sacrifice his Starlink dish to the teardown Gods.

We say sacrifice because [Kenneth] had to literally destroy the dish to get a look inside. It doesn’t appear that you can realistically get into the exceptionally thin antenna array without pulling it all apart, thanks in part to preposterous amount of adhesive that holds the structural back plate onto the PCB. The sky-facing side of the phased array, the key element that allows the antenna to track the rapidly moving Starlink satellites as they pass overhead, is also laminated to a stack-up comprised of plastic hexagonal mesh layers, passive antenna elements, and the outer fiberglass skin. In short, there are definitely no user-serviceable parts inside.

The dish hides many secrets under its skin.

Beyond attempting to analyze the RF magic that’s happening inside the antenna, [Kenneth] also takes viewers through a tour of some of the more recognizable components of the PCB; picking out things like the Power over Ethernet magnetics, a GPS receiver, some flash storage, and the H-Bridge drivers used to control the pan and tilt motors in the base of the dish.

It also appears that the antenna is a self-contained computer of sorts, complete with ARM processor and RAM to run the software that aims the phased array. Speaking of which, it should come as no surprise to find that not only are the ICs that drive the dizzying array of antenna elements the most numerous components on the PCB, but that they appear to be some kind of custom silicon designed specifically for SpaceX.

In short, there’s still plenty we don’t know about how this high-tech receiver actually works. While [Kenneth] does a respectable job of trying to make sense of it all, and we admire the dedication required to rip apart such a rare and expensive piece of kit, it’s still going to be awhile before the hacker community truly masters the tech that SpaceX is putting into their ambitions global Internet service.

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Hackaday Links: November 15, 2020

Now that we drive around cars that are more like mobile data centers than simple transportation, there’s a wealth of data to be harvested when the inevitable crashes occur. After a recent Tesla crash on a California highway, a security researcher got a hold of the car’s “black box” and extracted some terrifying insights into just how bad a car crash can be. The interesting bit is the view of the crash from the Tesla’s forward-facing cameras with object detection overlays. Putting aside the fact that the driver of this car was accelerating up to the moment it rear-ended the hapless Honda with a closing speed of 63 MPH (101 km/h), the update speeds on the bounding boxes and lane sensing are incredible. The author of the article uses this as an object lesson in why Level 2 self-driving is a bad idea, and while I agree with that premise, the fact that self-driving had been disabled 40 seconds before the driver plowed into the Honda seems to make that argument moot. Tech or not, someone this unskilled or impaired was going to have an accident eventually, and it was just bad luck for the other driver.

Last week I shared a link to Scan the World, an effort to 3D-scan and preserve culturally significant artifacts and create a virtual museum. Shortly after the article ran we got an email from Elisa at Scan the World announcing their “Unlocking Lockdown” competition, which encourages people to scan cultural artifacts and treasures directly from their home. You may not have a Ming Dynasty vase or a Grecian urn on display in your parlor, but you’ve probably got family heirlooms, knick-knacks, and other tchotchkes that should be preserved. Take a look around and scan something for posterity. And I want to thank Elisa for the link to the Pompeiian bread that I mentioned.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)has been running an interesting challenge for the last couple of years: The Subterranean (SubT) Challenge. The goal is to discover new ways to operate autonomously below the surface of the Earth, whether for mining, search and rescue, or warfare applications. They’ve been running different circuits to simulate various underground environments, with the most recent circuit being a cave course back in October. On Tuesday November 17, DARPA will webcast the competition, which features 16 teams and their autonomous search for artifacts in a virtual cave. It could make for interesting viewing.

If underground adventures don’t do it for you, how about going upstairs? LeoLabs, a California-based company that specializes in providing information about satellites, has a fascinating visualization of the planet’s satellite constellation. It’s sort of Google Earth but with the details focused on low-earth orbit. You can fly around the planet and watch the satellites whiz by or even pick out the hundreds of spent upper-stage rockets still up there. You can lock onto a specific satellite, watch for near-misses, or even turn on a layer for space debris, which honestly just turns the display into a purple miasma of orbiting junk. The best bit, though, is the easily discerned samba-lines of newly launched Starlink satellites.

A doorbell used to be a pretty simple device, but like many things, they’ve taken on added complexity. And danger, it appears, as Amazon Ring doorbell users are reporting their new gadgets going up in flame upon installation. The problem stems from installers confusing the screws supplied with the unit. The longer wood screws are intended to mount the device to the wall, while a shorter security screw secures the battery cover. Mix the two up for whatever reason, and the sharp point of the mounting screw can find the LiPo battery within, with predictable results.

And finally, it may be the shittiest of shitty robots: a monstrous robotic wolf intended to scare away wild bears. It seems the Japanese town of Takikawa has been having a problem with bears lately, so they deployed a pair of these improbable looking creatures to protect themselves. It’s hard to say what’s the best feature: the flashing LED eyes, the strobe light tail, the fact that the whole thing floats in the air atop a pole. Whatever it is, it seems to work on bears, which is probably good enough. Take a look in the video below the break.

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Spacing Out: A Big Anniversary, Starlink Failures Plummet, Lunar Cellphones, And A Crewed Launch

After a couple of months away we’re returning with our periodic roundup of happenings in orbit, as we tear you away from Star Trek: Discovery and The Mandalorian, and bring you up to date with some highlights from the real world of space. We’ve got a launch to look forward to this week, as well as a significant anniversary.

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Spacing Out: OneWeb Rescue, Starlink Base Stations, And Rocket Tests

Another couple of weeks, and a fresh crop of space news to run through as a quick briefing of the latest in the skies above us.

OneWeb's most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020.
OneWeb’s most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020. (OneWeb)

The global positioning orbits are getting pretty crowded, with GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, the EU’s Galileo, Japan’s QZSS, and now with the launch of the final satellite in their constellation, China’s BeiDou. As if five were not enough the chance that they might be joined by a sixth constellation from the United Kingdom resurfaced this week, as the UK government is expressing interest in supporting a rescue package for the troubled satellite broadband provider OneWeb. The idea of an independent GPS competitor from a post-Brexit UK has been bouncing around for a couple of years now, and on the face of it until this opportune chance to purchase an “oven ready” satellite constellation might deliver a route to incorporating a positioning payload into their design. The Guardian has its doubts, lining up a bevvy of scientists to point out the rather obvious fact that a low-earth-orbit satellite broadband platform is a very different prospect to a much-higher-orbiting global positioning platform. Despite the country possessing the expertise through its work on Galileo then it remains to be seen whether a OneWeb purchase would be a stroke of genius or a white elephant. Readers with long memories will know that British government investment in space has had its upsets before.

Happily for Brits, not all space endeavours from their islands end in ignominious retreat. Skyrora have scored another milestone, launching the first ever rocket skywards from the Shetland Islands. The Skylark Nano is a relatively tiny craft at only 2m high, and gathered research data during its flight to an altitude of 6km. We’ve followed their work before, including their testing in May of a Skylark L rocket on the Scottish mainland with a view to achieving launch capability in 2023.

A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)
A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)

SpaceX’s Starlink is never far away from the news, with a fresh set of launches delayed for extra pre-launch tests, and the prospect of signing up to be considered for the space broadband firm’s beta test. Of more interest for Hackaday readers though are a few shots of prototype Starlink ground stations and user terminals that have made it online, on the roof of a Tesla Gigafactory and at a SpaceX facility in Wisconsin. What can be seen are roughly 1.5m radomes for the ground stations and much smaller dinner-plate-sized enclosed arrays for the user terminals. The latter are particularly fascinating as they conceal computer-controlled phased arrays for tracking the constellation as it passes overhead. This is a technology more at home in billion-dollar military radars than consumer devices, so getting it to work on a budget that can put it on a roof anywhere in the world must be a challenge for the Starlink engineers. We can’t wait to see the inevitable eventual teardown when it comes.

Elsewhere, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two completed its second glide test over its Mojave Spaceport home since being grounded in 2019 for extensive refitting, and is now said to be ready for powered tests leading to eventual commercial service giving the extremely well-heeled the chance to float in the zero gravity of suborbital spaceflight. And finally, comes the news that NASA are naming their Washington DC headquarters building for Mary W. Jackson, their first African American female engineer, whose story some of you may be familiar with from the book and film Hidden Figures. The previously unnamed building sits on a section of street named Hidden Figures Way.

Displaying HTML Interfaces And Managing Network Nodes… In Space!

The touchscreen interface aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon is just one of its many differences from past space vehicles, but those big screens make an outsized visual impact. Gone are panels filled with indicator needles in gauges, or endless rows of toggle switches. It looked much like web interaction on everyday tablets for good reason: what we see is HTML and JavaScript rendered by the same software core underlying Google’s Chrome browser. This and many other details were covered in a Reddit Ask Me Anything with members of the SpaceX software team.

Various outlets have mentioned Chromium in this context, but without answering the obvious follow-up question: how deep does Chromium go? In this AMA we learn it does not go very deep at all. Chromium is only the UI rendering engine, their fault tolerant flight software interaction is elsewhere. Components such as Chromium are isolated to help keep system behavior predictable, so a frozen tab won’t crash the capsule. Somewhat surprisingly they don’t use a specialized real-time operating system, but instead a lightly customized Linux built with PREEMPT_RT patches for better real-time behavior.

In addition to Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule, this AMA also covered software work for Starlink which offered interesting contrasts in design tradeoffs. Because there are so many satellites (and even more being launched) loss of individual spacecraft is not a mission failure. This gives them elbow room for rapid iteration, treating the constellation more like racks of servers in a datacenter instead of typical satellite operations. Where the Crew Dragon code has been frozen for several months, Starlink code is updated rapidly. Quickly enough that by the time newly launched Starlink satellites reach orbit, their code has usually fallen behind the rest of the constellation.

Finally there are a few scattered answers outside of space bound code. Their ground support displays (visible in Hawthorne mission control room) are built with LabVIEW. They also confirmed that contrary to some claims, the SpaceX ISS docking simulator isn’t actually running the same code as Crew Dragon. Ah well.

Anyone interested in what it takes to write software for space would enjoy reading through these and other details in the AMA. And since it had a convenient side effect of serving as a recruiting event, there are plenty of invitations to apply if anyone has ambitions to join the team. We certainly can’t deny the attraction of helping to write the next chapter in human spaceflight.

[Photo credit: SpaceX]

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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