In January we posted about the AntRunner, which is a $325 (incl. shipping) satellite antenna rotator shipped from China. Recently we've come across another low cost satellite rotator from Australia called the "SARCTRAC Mk3b" which was developed as part of a school amateur radio educational program. This rotator fully assembled comes in at AU$400 + AU$50 worldwide shipping (US$290 + US$40 = US$330), making it's price comparable with the AntRunner. SARCTRAC can be purchased from the sarcnet products page. Currently only the fully built unit is available, but in the future they plan to offer a cheaper kit option.
We're yet to test the SARCTRAC Mk3b, but based on an overall review of it's advertising, it appears that the SARCTRAC has some superior specifications and a superior design when compared to the AntRunner.
Unlike the AntRunner, SARCTRAC comes with all its components enclosed in a waterproof IP65 rated enclosure. Its design also makes use of a 3D position sensor with magnetometer, allowing the unit to know its orientation at all times, meaning that it should be able to automatically position itself from startup. The design also makes use of DC motors with a built in worm gear drive, so the the motors back driving is not possible.
The system is controlled via a built in Raspberry Pi 3B+ and can communicate with the controlling PC via WiFi. Raspberry Pi's have stable WiFi connections, so we shouldn't see the connection problems that we had with the ESP32 based AntRunner.
Just like the AntRunner, SARCTRAC is only a lightweight rotator with torque specs of 50kg.cm static and 25kg.cm dynamic. So it should be able to handle counterbalanced Yagi beams, and lightweight dish antennas.
SARCTRAC Mk3 Satellite Antenna Rotator Controller and TRACker
Weather satellites that transmit HRPT give you high resolution uncompressed images of the earth. With an SDR, L-band feed, 60 cm or larger satellite dish and LNA+filter these images can be received by anyone. Derek OK9SGC has the definitive HRPT reception tutorial available here. However, as these are low earth orbit satellites, the user is required to find a way to track the satellite as it moves across the sky. With some skill and experience, hand tracking can work, but a motorized solution is really what is desired. Other applications such as ham satellite communications as well as radio astronomy projects may also benefit from motorized tracking .
Antenna rotators that rotate in azimuth and elevation can be used to track satellites moving across the sky. The problem is that antenna rotators are typically very expensive, or are a major task to DIY, involving circuit construction and 3D printing of parts.
Recently on Tindie we came across the "AntRunner" which is a relatively low cost portable antenna rotator from China coming in at US$325 with free shipping to most countries (VAT is added for the EU as $50 in shipping fees).
AntRunner is based on two geared stepper motors, a motor controller PCB and an open frame. AntRunners code is open source, as well as some partial hardware schematics.
It can be interfaced via a USB serial connection or through WiFi via it's onboard ESP32 chip, and it relies on the Hamlib 'rotctl' software library running on either the controlling PC, or another intermediary device like a Raspberry Pi. Once setup, software like Gpredict on the PC or Look4Sat on Android devices can be used to control the rotator.
We ordered an AntRunner for testing with our own funds. Our setup involved a USB connection from the AntRunner to a Raspberry Pi, 12V plug pack and a 60cm dish. We installed hamlib on the Raspberry Pi, and used Gpredict (PC) and Look4Sat (Android) on networked devices to send the desired elevation and azimuth commands to hamlib on the Raspberry Pi for particular satellites.
(Note that if you are installing hamlib for the AntRunner, you should do so from source as the packages in Ubuntu 22.04 appear to be out of date. And the older version of hamlib installed via Ubuntu does not support the AntRunner).
Overall the AntRunner works as expected and was easily able to follow HRPT satellites across the sky. It was also great for easily pointing and switching between geostationary satellites like GOES and GK-2A. It easily held and moved a 60cm dish and feed which weighs about 3 kg. The specs of the AntRunner indicate 5 kg max load (although the GitHub specs note 10kg), so it should be able to hold larger diameter dishes as well.
However we did have an issue with the advertised WiFi connection which is an alternative to the USB serial connection. When connected to WiFi the connection would always drop after a single movement command was sent, and it would never reconnect unless rebooted twice. For this reason we abandoned WiFi and only used the USB serial connection, and communicated wirelessly via the Raspberry Pi. There is also a WiFi web interface available for testing movement commands and setting up the WiFi connection, but it is only in Chinese.
It's possible that RF noise from the motors was causing the WiFi disconnection, but on the frequencies that L-band satellites operate at, we did not notice any motor interference.
The AntRunner is advertised as a portable rotator, so that means it is not suitable for use in poor weather as it has no cover to protect the motor circuit board and motors themselves from rain. However, it is certainly small and light enough to be portable. You just need a portable 12V power supply as well.
Another issue is that when power is lost, the motors will spin freely, resulting in the antenna coming crashing down fast. So care must be taken when powering down with someone there to hold the antenna. The user is also required to physically hold the antenna level at 0 degrees elevation before powering up the AntRunner, so that it will reference 0 degrees elevation. Once powered the antenna holds in place.
There are also no limit switches on the device, so if an erroneous command is sent, it could send the motors into a position that could damage something.
Overall if you want something cheap and pretty much ready to use out of the box for tracking HRPT or other LEO satellites, the AntRunner is a good budget choice if you intend to only setup temporary stations. It is not suitable for permanent satellite receiver setups, at least not without some modifications.
A similar product is the SATRAN MK3 which was a 3D printed kit costing 175 Euros + shipping, but unfortunately this product appears to no longer be sold.
The ultimate in low cost rotators is probably the SatNOGS V3 rotator, but as mentioned this is a DIY project that requires a significant time commitment as it involves 3D printing multiple parts, sourcing components, building PCBs and constructing everything together. We have found one company offering a SatNOGs hardware kit, containing all of the parts required for US$445.
SatDump is a popular piece of software that can be used with RTL-SDRs and other software defined radios for decoding images from a wide array of weather imaging satellites including GOES, GK-2A, NOAA HRPT, FengYun, Electro-L and Meteor M2 LRPT + HRPT, and many others (note: there is no APT support at the moment, but it is planned for the future). It is compatible with Windows, Linux and even has an Android APK available.
Over on his blog Derek (OK9SGC) has recently uploaded a very comprehensive beginners guide to receiving HRPT weather satellite images. HRPT reception can be a little daunting as it requires a good L-Band dish setup which involves choosing and building a feed, and importantly, a way to track the satellite with the dish as it moves across the sky. Tracking can be achieved manually by hand, but that can be very difficult and so a motorized tracking mount is recommended.
This is unlike the much easier to receive NOAA APT or Meteor LRPT satellite signals in the VHF band which can be received by a V-dipole antenna, or the geostationary GOES HRIT satellites that can be received with a WiFi grid dish and LNA. Both of which do not require tracking.
The advantage of HRPT however, is that you end up with high resolution, close-up, and uncompressed images of the earth. For example Derek notes that NOAA APT gives 4km/px resolution, and Meteor LRPT gives much better 1km/px resolution but it is heavily compressed. Whereas HRPT gives peak resolutions of 1km/px uncompressed. There are also nine satellites in operation sending HRPT, so there are more opportunities to receive.
Derek has created a very comprehensive beginners guide that covers almost everything from purchasing and building the hardware, to finding and tracking the satellites, to setting up the software and decoding images. He notes that an RTL-SDR can be used as the receiver, and that a WiFi dish with GOES SAWBird LNA can work, although the difficult tracking requirements are still there so a smaller offset dish with custom helix feed might be preferred. Derek also provides useful tips, like the fact that the NOAA15 HRPT signal is quite a lot weaker than others.
Over on Reddit u/Xerbot has posted about the release of his new software called "LeanHRPT". When combined with a software defined radio, this software can be used to decode and view HRPT weather satellite images received from satellites such as NOAA, Meteor, MetOp and FengYun. We note that unlike APT and LRPT weather satellite signals which transmit in the VHF bands, HRPT signals are generally at ~1.70 GHz and require a motorized or hand tracked satellite dish to receive. u/Xerbot writes:
LeanHRPT is a flexible, easy to use and powerful set of tools for the manipulation of HRPT data (maybe I could be convinced to add LRPT support).
When used properly LeanHRPT Decode can generate (almost) L1B data usable in actual land/weather observation, or just pretty images :)
The LeanHRPT project also contains LeanHRPT Demod, as you probably guessed, a HRPT demodulator. It features an incredibly high sensitivity as well as being able to do both realtime (through SoapySDR) and offline demodulation (baseband).
Back in June we posted about the release of Zbigniew Sztanga's NOAA-HIRS-Decoder which can decode HIRS instrument data which measures the vertical temperature profile of the Earth's surface. This HIRS signal is broadcast by NOAA satellites at the same time as their APT images and the HIRS frequency is close by at 137.350 MHz.
Recently Zbigniew has released a new decoder for the Microwave Humidity Sounder (MHS) instrument which is available on NOAA-19 only. This MHS instrument observes the Earth in the 89-190 GHz microwave band, which can be useful for measuring humidity levels. However, unlike the APT and HIRS signals which downlink data at around 137 MHz, the MHS data is broadcast in the L-band within the HRPT signal, so a motorized or tracked satellite dish will be required to receive it. Zbigniew writes:
The MHS (Microwave humidity sounder) is an instrument on NOAA-18 and NOAA-19. It replaced the older AMSU-B. It has a resolution of 90px per line and 5 channels.
Data from the instrument is present in HRPT and can be decoded with my new software. Unfortunately, only MHS on N-19 is working, because N-18's NHS is dead.
The instrument can be used to monitor low clouds, percipation and water vaopr in the atmosphere. I attached a sample image to the email.
[@aang254] made a custom HRPT decoder and ported HRPT blocks for NOAA, METEOR and MetOp to work with gnuradio 3.8 on Linux. Right now it is the only free and open source decoder for MetOp (that works), and he also thinks about implementing FengYun support. I tested the decoder and it works great.
He's also working on extracting the full data from HRPT, not just the AVHRR/MSU-GS imagery but also all the telemetry and other instrument data.
HRPT is a high resolution weather satellite image signal that is broadcast from the same NOAA satellites that provide the more commonly received low resolution APT images at 137 MHz. HRPT is also broadcast by the FengYun-3, Metop and Meteor satellites. However, HRPT transmits at 1.7 GHz, so a high gain dish antenna with motorized tracking mount (or hand guided tracking), LNA and a high bandwidth SDR like an Airspy is required to receive it.
Recently Manuel (DO5TY aka Tysonpower from YouTube) wrote in and wanted to share his website that shows HRPT weather satellite receive stations from around the world on a map, and links to their Twitter pages where you can see the latest images that have been uploaded. The database also describes the SDR and antenna equipment used by each station. Currently there are 10 stations on the map, and Manuel encourages other people to submit their stations to the map database too. If you are interested in contributing your station to the map, please see Manuel's blog post for more information.
Since the satellite broadcasts a live image of what is currently being seen by the weather camera, each receiver location receives a live view of their part of the earth only. The end goal of Manuel's HRPT station map is to crowd source and collect multiple images of different parts of the earth to create a large HRPT composite image. In a previous post, Manuel who is based in Germany was able to create a beautiful composite image covering Germany, the Atlantic Ocean and Canada with the help of a station in Canada. With more contributors larger and more complete composite images of the Earth could be created.
HRPT is a high resolution weather satellite image signal that is broadcast from the same NOAA satellites that provide the more commonly received low resolution APT images at 137 MHz. HRPT is also broadcast from the Feng Yun and Metop-A satellites. However, HRPT transmits at 1.7 GHz, so a high gain dish antenna with motorized tracking mount, LNA and high bandwidth SDR like an Airspy is required to receive it.