Over on his website "Jacopo's Lair" IU1QPR (@original_lego11) who is also a developer for SatDump has written up many tutorials about weather satellite decoding that involve the use of SatDump. SatDump is a popular piece of software often used with RTL-SDRs and other low cost SDRs for decoding weather satellite images.
With a small satellite dish, feed, RTL-SDR and LNA+filter and the SatDump software it's possible and download beautiful images of the earth from many geostationary and polar orbiting weather satellites. We note that we are currently taking pre-orders on Crowd Supply for our Discovery Dish system, which is low cost hardware designed to help users get started with weather satellite reception.
Over on Reddit IU1QPR has created a listed summary of all the tutorials he's written. These are currently the most up to date and comprehensive tutorials that we have found on this topic. The tutorials cover everything from what satellites are available, what dish sizes you need, what SDRs can be used, what LNA+filter and other hardware you need, and how to use the SatDump software.
Crowd Supply is hosting Teardown Session 38 on Thursday 3- November at Noon PST time which will feature the Discovery Dish. Join us for this livestream where I will be talking about and showing the Discovery Dish prototype.
Discovery Dish is currently being crowd funded over on Crowd Supply. It is designed to be an easy entry to the world of L-band weather satellites, hydrogen line radio astronomy, and Inmarsat reception. The Discovery Dish aims to be the start of an ecosystem of hardware designed to get users set up with satellite reception, including a planned companion light-duty antenna rotator.
Remember to click on the “Notify me” button on the YouTube link in order to be reminded about the stream!
Over on his YouTube channel "saveitforparts" has uploaded a video where he uses an umbrella, pin tin and tin foil tape to create a simple dish antenna for receiving GOES, NOAA and METEOR HRPT satellites.
The full build consists of an umbrella covered in tin foil tape, a helical wire feed on a pie tin, a filtered LNA, an RTL-SDR and an Android phone running SDR++. While he did have initial success at receiving, he soon decided to swap out the helical wire feed for a PCB linear feed instead which worked much better as helical feeds can be very difficult to get right.
Through the video saveitforparts goes over the failures he had, in the end noting that it's not a great antenna, but it's something that can be used in a pinch.
Over on his YouTube channel, "saveitforparts" has uploaded a video showing how he's modified an old wireless networking dish for L-band HRPT satellite reception. L-band satellites that transmit HRPT are polar orbiting, meaning that some sort of tracking solution is required to point the satellite dish at the sky as the satellite passes over. However, lacking any sort of motorized solution, saveitforparts simply removes the dish mount so that the dish can be manually held and tracked.
He notes that he uses the paid version of the Stellarium app for augmented reality tracking of the satellite. In the past there was a great app called "Satellite AR" which did this for free, however within the past few years it has unfortunately been removed from the Google Play store.
The modifications to the dish involve removing the feed from the satellite and installing a custom built helical feed. He also uses a small handheld PC with RTL-SDR on the rear. However in the end the handheld PC turns out to be problematic so he switches to a laptop.
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.