SatNOGS is an open source project that aims to make it easy for volunteers to build and run RTL-SDR or other SDR based RF ground stations that automatically monitor satellites, and upload that data to the internet for public access. The antennas used in a typical home based SatNOGS station are small enough for a single person to handle, however recently the SatNOGS team have been working on setting up a monitoring station at the Dwingeloo Radio Observatory in the Netherlands.
Dwingeloo has a large 25 meter satellite dish antenna, and they connect it to an RTL-SDR on a laptop running the SatNOGS software. In the video they show it tracking the PRISM amateur radio satellite, and note that the use of this large dish will only be used in special circumstances. They write:
This week the Dwingelooradio Observatory tested their 25 meter dish as a SatNOGS station! Although not set up as a permanent SatNOGS station it is great to see this historic observatory linked to the network. Dwingeloo radio observatory was built between 1954 and 1956 near the village of Dwingeloo in the Netherlands. Since 2009 this single 25 meter dish has been a national heritage site.
Dwingeloo Radio Observatory as a SatNOGS 📡 station
Over on the AWS blog Jeff Barr has blogged about Amazon's new rentable ground station system called "AWS Ground Station". AWS, or Amazon Web Services is the server farm division of Amazon. They allow customers to rent out server capability on demand. In a similar sense, AWS Ground Station is aiming to allow customers to rent out satellite ground stations on demand.
Launching low cost micro/nano satellites has become very affordable in recent years and it's now common to see high schools, colleges, organizations and hobbyists designing, fabricating and launching their own satellites. Once launched, a ground station is required to receive the satellite's radio transmission as it passes over. Most low cost satellite owners will not have the budget to deploy ground stations all around the world for continuous monitoring of the satellite. This is where AWS Ground Station can take over, allowing a ground station on the other side of the world to be rented temporarily during a pass.
Currently the service is just starting, and only has 2 ground stations, but by 2019 they hope to have a total of 12. More information available on the official AWS Ground Station website.
Alternatively, there are other free open source services that could be utilized such as SATNOGS. SATNOGs relies on volunteer ground stations running antenna rotators that can be built with a 3D printer, some low cost motors and electronics, and an RTL-SDR. The antenna rotator carries a Yagi antenna and will automatically track, receive and upload satellite data to the internet for the public to access.
In the past we've seen software defined radio's like the HackRF use to create art installations such as the 'Holypager', which was an art project that aimed to draw attention to the breach of privacy caused by pagers used by doctors and staff at hospitals.
Recently another art installation involving a software defined radio was exhibited at Wichita State University. The project by artist Nicholas A. Knouf is called "they transmitted continuously / but our times rarely aligned / and their signals dissipated in the æther" and it aims to collect the sounds of various satellite transmissions, and play them back using small piezo speakers in the art gallery. To do this he built a SatNOGS receiver and used a software defined radio to capture the audio. He doesn't mention which SDR was used, but most commonly RTL-SDR's are used with the SatNOGS project. Nicholas describes the project below:
This 20-channel sound installation represents the results of collecting hundreds of transmissions from satellites orbiting the earth. Using custom antennas that I built from scratch, I tracked the orbits and frequencies of satellites using specialized software. This software then allows me to collect the radio frequency signals and translate them into sound.
The open source software and hardware, called SatNOGS and developed by a world-wide group of satellite enthusiasts, enables anyone to build a ground station for tracking satellites and their transmissions, which are then uploaded to a publicly accessable database. Data received by my ground stations can be found here. These transmissions are mostly from weather satellites, CubeSats (small satellites launched by universities world-wide for short-term research), or amateur radio repeaters (satellites designed for ham radio operators to experiment with communication over long distances).
I made the speakers hanging from the grid from a piezoelectric element embedded between two sheets of handmade abaca paper that was then air dried over a form.
The project was also discussed over on the SatNOGS forum.
An antenna rotator can be used to automatically point a high gain directional antenna such as a Yagi at a low earth orbit satellite which passes overhead relatively quickly. Such as antenna can be easily connected to an SDR like the RTL-SDR to receive data such as HRPT weather satellite images from satellites.
Manuel's antenna tracker is inspired by the SatNOGs rotator, but he writes that his one was designed to slightly to be smaller and more powerful. For the driving motors he uses NEMA23 steppers which are mounted in a frame made out of 2020 aluminum extrusions. An Arduino Nano with optical end stops controls two TB6600 stepper drivers which control the motors. The rest of the parts such as brackets and gears are all 3D printed.
Attached to the antenna rotator is Manuel's home made carbon Yagi antenna. He also attempted to use his 1.2m dish but found that the rotator could not handle the weight.
The Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB) and AMSAT-UK recently presented a number of talks at their latest convention held in October of this year. Some of the talks are SDR related and are interesting for those interested in satellite reception. A couple of interesting SDR related talks are presented below, and the rest of the talks can be accessed on their YouTube page.
Software defined radio for the satellite geek - Alex Csete OZ9AEC
In this talk Alex Csete (Oz9AEC) who is the programmer behind the popular GQRX software that is often used with RTL-SDRs discusses his latest work and some of his experiences with writing software for SDRs.
2017: Software defined radio for the satellite geek - Alex Csete OZ9AEC
Going to space the libre way - Pierros Papadeas, Libre Space Foundation
In this talk Pierros Papadeas who is the founder of the Libre Space Foundation discusses their SatNOGS project. SatNOGS is a project that uses RTL-SDRs in custom 3D printed home made satellite tracking ground stations. It aims to enable easy access to live satellite data online by significantly increasing ground station coverage.
2017: Going to space the libre way - Pierros Papadeas, Libre Space Foundation
Thank you to Silvia P. for writing in and letting up know about the SatNOGs “No-Rotator” project, which looks a lot easier to build compared to their motorized rotator. SatNOGs is an idea and organisation that is trying to make it easier to set up a low cost networked RF ground stations for monitoring various satellites. The idea is to increase satellite ground station coverage all over the world and collect and share received satellite data over the internet so that anyone in the world can view and make use of up to date satellite data.
An original SatNOGs station is built as a motorized antenna rotator, with directional antennas that point and track satellites as they pass over the ground station location. The gears and most internal plastic parts are 3D printed, with the rest of the items like bearings, frames and motors being available on eBay. The problem is that building the rotator is quite a big project, and takes a lot of research, purchasing and building to get started.
Recently over on their Wiki a new type of non-rotator ground station has appeared. The no-rotator ground station still consists of the basic SatNOGs electronics including an RTL-SDR and Raspberry Pi. But instead of using high gain directional motorized antennas this ground station uses a much simpler turnstile antenna tuned to about 137 MHz. Unlike the rotator, the turnstile probably doesn’t have enough gain to pick up some of the weaker amateur satellites, but should be good enough for NOAA/Meteor weather satellites and ISS APRS etc.
Over on hackaday.io there is a project blog for the “Distributed Ground Station Network”. This is essentially an idea to build a large network of distributed RF receivers which automatically receive signals from sources like cube satellites and other beacons. The project mainly uses RTL-SDR dongles at the moment for their RF receivers. In some ways it appears to be similar to the SatNOGs project which won the hackaday prize two years ago but the DGSN appears to be more focused on “reverse GPS” which allows the detection and tracking of the location of small satellite signals through distributed receivers.
The Distributed Ground Station Network (DGSN) is a novel network concept of small ground-stations and connected via the internet for performing automatic scans for cubesats and other beacon signals. By correlating the received signal with the precise, GNSS synchronized reception times of at least 5 ground stations, it enables the positioning of the signal’s origin. Thus a global tracking of small satellites becomes possible in this “reverse GPS” mode. It allows mission operators to position and track their small satellites faster after piggy-back commissioning, when the final orbit is yet undefined and could differ from the specified orbit. Furthermore it allows permanent communication in “data-dump” mode. In this mode, DGSN ground-stations relay the received data to the servers and thus to the operator. Let’s track everything, together!
A satellite tracker is a motorized unit that points a directional antenna towards passing satellites. Most satellites are not in a fixed orbit, and will fly over your head a few times a day and will be receivable for a few minutes, and a directional antenna is usually recommended since the signals can be weak. The goal of the SatNOGS project is to set up various volunteer satellite tracker stations around the world, and network the received data on the internet, so that satellite data is always being received and shared.
Although the tracker works, he admits that there are some problems and that it is probably not as good as the SatNOGS recommended build, which is a more permanent solution. But the SatNOGS build requires access to a 3D printer and higher quality components, so Paul’s solution is a much cheaper solution to implement at least for experimentation.