Coding for HIT satellites (and other CCSDS satellites)

The Harbin Institute of Technology satellites LilacSat-2, BY70-1 and the upcoming LilacSat-1 all use a concatenated code with an r=1/2, k=7 convolutional code and a (255,223) Reed-Solomon code according to the CCSDS TM Synchronization and Channel Coding blue book specifications. The GNU Radio decoder gr-lilacsat by Wei BG2BHC includes a custom implementation of the relevant part of the CCSDS stack, probably ported into GNU Radio from some other software.

Recently, I have been working on decoding KS-1Q and I've seen that it uses the same CCSDS coding as the HIT satellites. This has made me realise that most of this CCSDS coding can be processed using stock GNU Radio blocks, without the need for custom blocks. The only exception is Reed-Solomon decoding. This can be done easily with gr-libfec, which provides an easy interface from GNU Radio to Phil Karn's libfec. Here I look at the details of the CCSDS coding and how to process it with GNU Radio. I've updated the decoders in gr-satellites to use this kind of processing. I'll also talk about the small advantages of doing it in this way versus using the custom implementation in gr-lilacsat.

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KS-1Q decoded

In a previous post, I talked about my attempts to decode KS-1Q. Lately, WarMonkey, who is part of the satellite team, has been giving me some extra information and finally I have been able to decode the packets from the satellite. The decoder is in gr-ks1q, together with a sample recording contributed by Scott K4KDR. I've also added support for KS-1Q in gr-satellites. Here I look at the coding of the packets in more detail.

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First data from BY70-1

The Amateur satellite BY70-1 launched yesterday at around 3:00UTC. The launch was a partial failure, as all the satellites from this launch have been put in a 520x220km orbit. The perigee is too low to support a long duration orbit, and the satellites will decay in a couple months. BY70-1 has a 9k6 BPSK telemetry downlink on 70cm. This downlink is also used to download JPEG images from the onboard camera. I've talked about this in a previous post.

Since I'm at 33C3, I haven't been able to receive this satellite with my own equipment yet. However, Tetsu JA0CAW already has posted some IQ recordings. Here I look at recording1 and recording2.

My first impression is that the packets are not very strong. I don't know if this is something about JA0CAW's station or that the downlink of BY70-1 is not very strong. I've only managed to decode the strongest packets in the recording. In comparison, LilacSat-2 has a very strong downlink and I can decode correctly almost from horizon to horizon with a handheld 7 element yagi.

Perhaps it's possible to do some optimization of the decoder parameters such as filter width or loop bandwidths, but so far I haven't experimented much. I just wanted to write a quick post to publish all the information I've managed to decode. I'm using the decoder from gr-satellites. The decoder log from recording1 is in this gist. From recording2 I could only decode a couple of JPEG packets and no telemetry packets.

There are three distinct types of telemetry packets. It seems that BY70-1 transmits all the three types in a single burst. Another curiosity: the message in one of the telemetry packets uses the callsign ON02CN, which is the Belgian callsign that LilacSat-1 will use. Since LilacSat-1 is part of the QB50 project, it makes sense that it uses a Belgian callsign. However, it seems that it's some sort of software configuration error that BY70-1 is also using this callsign.

Update on 30/12/2016: I have found that there was a problem with the Costas loop bandwidth in the GNU Radio receiver on gr-satellites. Its value was too large. I have copied the value from the example demodulator on gr-lilacsat and now the decoder works much better. I have even been able to decode the following image from recording2.

BY70-1 image 18

The result looks pretty bad, but the keen eye will notice that in fact there are few packets lost in this JPEG image. Compare with the image posted by BG2BHC, which has no errors and is presumably the same image.

Looking at BY70-1 image downlink

BY70-1 is a Chinese Amateur satellite that will launch on Monday 26 December. It has a V/U FM repeater, a camera and a 9k6 BPSK downlink on 70cm that transmits telemetry and the JPEG images taken by the camera. The BPSK downlink uses the same modulation and coding as LilacSat-2, of which I have spoken several times. Recently, Wei MingChuan BG2BHC has added support for the image downlink of BY70-1 to gr-lilacsat and a bit stream recording to test the image receiver.

Unfortunately, the image decoder is closed-source, as it contains some certification methods used to avoid fake packets over the internet. However, Wei gave me a brief description of how the image downlink protocol works. After seeing the closed-source decoder running, I had enough to figure out how the protocol works. I have implemented an open-source image decoder as a python GNU Radio block. It is in my gr-lilacsat fork, and it will soon be included in the upstream gr-lilacsat repository. Here I look at the protocol used for the image downlink.

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Testing a simple pulse generator for Linrad calibration

Lately, I've being talking with Juan Antonio EA4CYQ and Pedro EA4ADJ about performing Linrad calibration to enable the use of the smart noise blanker. They pointed me to the SIGP-1 by Alex HB9DRI, which is a 144MHz pulse generator with which I was already familiar, and a simpler pulse generator by Leif SM5BSZ which I hadn't seen before.

Leif's generator is very simple. It uses a 555 timer to generate a square wave, a 74AC74 flip-flop to divide the frequency of the square wave by 2 and obtain a precise 50% duty cycle, a 74AC04 inverter as a driver, and capacitive coupling to turn the edges of the square wave into RF pulses. Alex's SIGP-1 is an improvement over Leif's design. It generates the square wave in the same manner, but then it uses a helical bandpass filter for 144MHz with around 5MHz bandwidth to convert the square wave into 144MHz pulses, and a PGA-103+ MMIC RF amplifier and a BFR91 RF NPN transistor as a class A amplifier to increase the output level. The SIGP-1 has two main advantages over Leif design. The output is stronger, so the S/N of the pulses is higher, and the filtering helps prevent saturation in the receiver. However, Leif's design uses only simple components and it's adequate in many cases.

I have built and tested Leif's generator and used it to calibrate my FUNcube Dongle Pro+ at 144MHz. I've also tried doing the calibration at other frequencies and it also works well, but the pulses are not very strong at 432MHz and above.

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Improving signal processing in my OTH radar receiver

This is a follow up post to my experiments studying OTH radar. I have found that the signal processing I did there to obtain the cross-correlation was far from optimal. This produced the strange side-bands below the main reflection. The keen reader might have noticed that I was doing the cross-correlation with a template pulse that lasted the whole pulse repetition cycle. However, the pulses from the radar are shorter. Therefore, it is a better idea to use a shorter template pulse. Ideally, the template pulse should have the same length as the transmitted pulse. However, I don't know this length precisely, because multipath propagation makes the received pulses a bit longer. However, I think that 6.5ms is a good estimate.

I have also changed the window for the pulse. I'm now using a Dolph-Chebyshev window. I use scipy to compute this window, because it is not included in GNU Radio. This window has the property that the side-bands have constant attenuation. Indeed, it minimizes the L^\infty norm of the side-bands. There is a parameter that tunes the side-bands attenuation. For higher attenuations, you have a wider main lobe, while if you want a narrower main love you get less side-band attenuation. These properties make this window useful in radar applications.

Below I'm doing the cross-correlation in GNU Radio with a shorter template pulse shaped with a Dolph-Chebyshev window set for 55dB attenuation.

Cross-correlation with shorter pulse

The good thing about the settable attenuation of the Dolph-Chebyshev window is that it can be used to trade-off performance between different features. First, we use an attenuation of 100dB. The side-bands are below the noise floor in this case, so we have no "false responses" in our cross-correlation. The drawback is that the main lobe is wide so the resolution of the features of the ionosphere in the image below is not very good.

Dolph-Chebyshev window with 100dB attenuation

Next we try with 55dB attenuation. This narrows the main lobe, improving the resolution and crispness of the features of the ionosphere in the image below. However, side-bands start being visible above the noise floor, producing "false responses". However, comparing with the image above, we now know where the false responses are.

Dolph-Chebyshev window with 55dB attenuation

I have updated the gist with the GNU Radio flowgraph and python script used to produce the images.

Looking at an HF OTH radar

Most amateur operators are familiar with over-the-horizon radars in the HF bands. They sometimes pop up in the Amateur bands, rendering several tens of kilohertzs unusable. Inspired by Balint Seeber's talk in GRCon16, I've decided to learn more about radars. Here I look at a typical OTH radar, presumably of Russian origin. It was recorded at my station around 20:00UTC on 8 December at a frequency around 6860kHz. This radar sometimes appears inside the 40m Amateur band as well.

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About KS-1Q

In a previous post, I talked about the satellite CAS-2T on a recent Chinese launch. CAS-2T was designed to remain attached to the upper stage of the rocket and decay in a few days. However, due to an error in the launch, the upper stage of the rocket and CAS-2T where put on a long-term 1000km x 500km elliptical orbit. A few days after launch we learned that another satellite, called KS-1Q was also attached to the same upper stage of the rocket. This satellite transmits telemetry on the 70cm Amateur Satellite band.

I haven't been able to completely decode telemetry from KS-1Q yet, mostly because the satellite team hasn't given many technical details about the telemetry format. There is a technical brochure in Chinese, but it is not publicly available. I have asked the team if they could send me a copy, but they haven't replied. Here I report my findings so far in case someone finds them useful.

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Testing Opera sensitivity with GNU Radio

Some fellow Spanish Amateur Operators were talking about the use of the Opera mode as a weak signal mode for the VHF and higher bands. I have little experience with this mode, but I asked them what is the advantage of this mode and how it compares in sensitivity with the JT modes available in WSJT-X. I haven't found many serious tests of what is the sensitivity of Opera over AWGN, so I've done some tests using GNU Radio to generate signals with a known SNR. Here I'll talk about how to use GNU Radio for this purpose and the results I've obtained with Opera. Probably the most interesting part of the post is how to use GNU Radio, because it turns out that Opera is much less sensitive than comparable JT modes.

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