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Letters to the Editor • Space Travel and Exploration

GROUND STATIONS ARE JUST THE BEGINNING: THE SATNOGS STORY

I thought you'd enjoy this. open source satellite technology...

http://hackaday.com/2015/02/19/ground-stations-are-just-the-beginning-the-s atnogs-story/

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.

Crowd-Sourcing Satellite Ground Stations

"BoiseSatelliteDish" by Kencf0618 - CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Satellite ground stations have been around as long as satellites have. It's

simply the antenna that communicates with satellites in space. The

traditional model is a huge dish, sometimes enclosed in a white dome.

There are several things to consider. First, a single ground station can

only stay in contact with a satellite if it is in geostationary orbit

(meaning the satellite is always above the same point on the earth). Dishes

pointing at these satellites are in near-constant communication with these

satellites. Want to get some time on this thing? Fat chance!

Secondly, satellites which are not locked in synchronous orbit are only in

contact with a single ground station for a small portion of each pass.

Eventually the planet gets in the way and you need a ground station on a

different part of the globe to communicate with it while you are in

blackout.

Internals of a SatNOGS ground station.

The SatNOGS project seeks to address both of the issues just mentioned. It

starts with the hardware; an Open Design which can be built at a minimum of

cost using readily available tools and a reasonable skillset. Bootstrapping

your own receiver is one way to guarantee your access to a ground station.

But if you're also willing to share some of that time with others you

unlock the solution to the second problem.

The SatNOGS project allows multiple ground stations to synchronize their

data and to schedule time on each instance of the hardware around the

world. A ground station must point at the right place at the right time for

any given satellite. The platform design accounts for this by sending

scheduling data back to each ground station which will automatically adjust

its aim to line up with the next satellite capture request.

Building the network is key. As more people build and deploy their own

hardware, everyone gets a bigger piece of the satellite data as it is

collected.

This is Bigger than SatNOGS: Libre Space Foundation

>From the description above we're sure you agree that this has the potential

to be much more than a project between a few friends. This is a movement.

The SatNOGS team came to this realization early on and conceived of an

organization to help illuminate the path. The Libre Space Foundation was

formed with the idea that all of satellite communications should have an

Open model. This means the satellites themselves, the ground stations, and

the data.

We already mentioned the Grand Prize, which was of course a trip into

space. We were really hoping that we'd see a hacker sign up for such an

adventure, but we're thrilled with the alternative. The SatNOGS team went

with the cash option of $196,418 and chose to invest it in the Libre Space

Foundation (LSF). This is a great jump-start but the LSF needs more than

just cash to succeed. They need people to adopt and further their vision.

CubeSats

[Arko's] satellite project Cubex via Hackaday.io

Those smaller, cheaper satellites that we mentioned before come from many

different players. They are often known as CubeSats and the common

form-factor is 10cm on each side. Universities have been building and

launching these for some time now. It's a great engineering challenge, to

be certain, but it's also a way to conduct experiments in near-zero

gravity.

Private industry has been in on the action as well. Planet Labs has

launched what they call "flocks" of these small satellites which work

together to form something of a line-scanner for the planet. The system

images the entire earth once every 24 hours.

Already there are proofs of concept that all point to personal satellites.

That's right, you can own a satellite. Just like the two previous examples;

built it small, and launch it as extra cargo. We saw a very successful

crowd funding campaign just a couple of years ago on the topic. And our own

Hackaday.io has numerous satellites, warranting a roundup of them all.

The Satellite Data

What kind of data can you get from these satellites? It's easy to assume

that all of this is encrypted and proprietary but that's simply not the

case. Sure, media and communications satellites are not going to dump the

latest episode of Game of Thrones into your home-built ground station. But

there are a lot of satellites that are broadcasting useful data in the

open.

To name one very interesting source, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric

Administration (NOAA) has a collection of satellites monitoring weather and

transmitting the data back to earth. Recording these transmissions is a

trick we've seen many times over the years.

One that we've seen less often is grabbing data sets from research

satellites like those launched by University programs. Getting your hands

on the data without waiting for the researchers' publication means more

opportunities for peer-review and better access for educational purposes.

The potential is also there to form your own communications networks. Right

now SatNOGS hardware is a receive-only unit. But the software stack is

ready for transmit and receive. This will that the DVB-T dongle be swapped

for something with a transmitter, and more than likely will call for

licensure in most areas (for example, an amateur radio license) but these

are not large hurdles to cross. As mentioned, the LSF has hopes of

developing Open Hardware and Open Source Software designs for satellites.

Imagine your own data network. In Space. Now that is a brave new world.

Here's How You Can Help

We like to dream big and it excites us that the LSF is doing just that. But

they need your help.

Version 3 of the SatNOGS ground station is in development and they can use

experts in all areas to help. Most notably, RF design to help improve

communications, as well as mechanical design to ensure the build will stand

up to time and weather. Check out the SatNOGS community for more on getting

involved directly.

Don't have the skills to build these yourself? Don't worry, just spreading

the word is a big way to help. Give a talk at your local Hackerspace, or

just pester all of your neighbors. It's space, everyone wants to hear about

that, right?

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