• Mars Express 20th anniversary livestream

    On June 2, ESA celebrated the 20th anniversary of the launch of Mars Express (MEX) by livestreaming images of Mars from the VMC camera in a Youtube livestream. They set things up so that an image was taken by the camera approximately every 50 seconds, downlinked in the X-band telemetry to the Cebreros groundstation, which was tracking the spacecraft, and then sent to the Youtube. The total latency, according to the image timestamps that were shown in Youtube was around 17 minutes, which is quite good, since most of that latency was the 16 minutes and 45 seconds of one-way light time from Mars to Earth.

    The livestream was accompanied by commentary from Simon Wood and Jorge Hernández Bernal. One of the things that got my attention during the livestream was the mention that to make the livestream work, the VMC camera should be pointing to Mars and the high-gain antenna should be pointing to Earth. This could only be done during part of Mars Express orbit, and in fact reduced the amount of sunlight hitting the solar panels, so it could not be done for too long.

    This gave me the idea to use the Mars Express SPICE kernels to understand better how the geometry looked like. This is also a good excuse to show how to use SPICE.

  • An erasure FEC for SSDV

    SSDV is an amateur radio protocol that is used to transmit images in packets, in a way that is tolerant to packet loss. It is based on JPEG, but unlike a regular JPEG file, where losing even a small part of the file has catastrophic results, in SSDV different blocks of the image are compressed independently. This means that packet loss affects only the corresponding blocks, and the image can still be decoded and displayed, albeit with some missing blocks.

    SSDV was originally designed for transmission from high-altitude balloons (see this reference for more information), but it has also been used for some satellite missions, including Longjiang-2, a Chinese lunar orbiting satellite.

    Even though SSDV is tolerant to packet loss, to obtain the full image it is necessary to receive all the packets that form the image. If some packets are lost, then it is necessary to retransmit them. Here I present an erasure FEC scheme that is backwards-compatible with SSDV, in the sense that the first packets transmitted by this scheme are identical to the usual \(k\) packets of standard SSDV, and augments the transmission with FEC packets in such a way that the complete image can be recovered from any set of \(k\) packets (so there is no encoding overhead). The FEC packets work as a fountain code, since it is possible to generate up to \(2^{16}\) packets, which is a limit unlikely to be reached in practice.

  • Analysis of JUICE frames

    In the previous post, I showed how to use GNU Radio to decode a 3 hour recording of the ESA spacecraft JUICE that I made with the Allen Telecope Array. In this post I will analyse the contents of the telemetry frames.

    As I mentioned, the decoder I used was quite slow because the Turbo decoder was rather inefficient. In fact, the 3 hour recording has taken a total of 70.82 hours to process using the gnuradio1 machine at the GR-ATA testbed (a dual-socket Xeon Silver 4216). This means that the decoder runs 23.6 times slower than real time in this machine. Here I have used the decoder that beamforms two ATA antennas, as I described in the previous post. In total, 152 MiB worth of frames have been decoded.

  • Decoding JUICE

    JUICE, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, is ESA’s first mission to Jupiter. It will arrive to Jupiter in 2031, and study Ganymede, Callisto and Europa until 2035. The spacecraft was launched on an Ariane 5 from Kourou on April 14. On April 15, between 05:30 and 08:30 UTC, I recorded JUICE’s X-band telemetry signal at 8436 MHz using two of the 6.1 m dishes from the Allen Telescope Array. The spacecraft was at a distance between 227000 and 261000 km.

    The recording I made used 16-bit IQ at 6.144 Msps. Since there are 4 channels (2 antennas and 2 linear polarizations), the total data size is huge (966 GiB). To publish the data to Zenodo, I have combined the two linear polarizations of each antenna to form the spacecraft’s circular polarization, and downsampled to 8-bit IQ at 2.048 Msps. This reduces the data for each antenna to 41 GiB. The sample rate is still enough to contain the main lobes of the telemetry modulation. As we will see below, some ranging signals are too wide for this sample rate, so perhaps I’ll also publish some shorter excerpts at the higher sample rate.

    The downsampled IQ recordings are in the following Zenodo datasets:

    In this post I will look at the signal modulation and coding, and some of its radiometric properties. I’ll show how to decode the telemetry frames with GNU Radio. The analysis of the decoded telemetry frames will be done in a future post.

  • More about the QO-100 WB transponder power budget

    Last week I wrote a post with a study about the QO-100 WB transponder power budget. After writing this post, I have been talking with Dave Crump G8GKQ. He says that the main conclusions of my study don’t match well his practical experience using the transponder. In particular, he mentions that he has often seen that a relatively large number of stations, such as 8, can use the transponder at the same time. In this situation, they “rob” much more power from the beacon compared to what I stated in my post.

    I have looked more carefully at my data, specially at situations in which the transponder is very busy, to understand better what happens. In this post I publish some corrections to my previous study. As we will see below, the main correction is that the operating point of 73 dB·Hz output power that I had chosen to compute the power budget is not very relevant. When the transponder is quite busy, the output power can go up to 73.8 dB·Hz. While a difference of 0.8 dB might not seem much, there is a huge difference in practice, because this drives the transponder more towards saturation, decreasing its gain and robbing more output power from the beacon to be used by other stations.

    I want to thank Dave for an interesting discussion about all these topics.

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