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.

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.

Measuring the QO-100 WB transponder power budget

The QO-100 WB transponder is an S-band to X-band amateur radio transponder on the Es’hail 2 GEO satellite. It has about 9 MHz of bandwidth and is routinely used for transmitting DVB-S2 signals, though other uses are possible. In the lowermost part of the transponder, there is a 1.5 Msym QPSK 4/5 DVB-S2 beacon that is transmitted continuously from a groundstation in Qatar. The remaining bandwidth is free to be used by all amateurs in a “use whatever bandwidth is free and don’t interfere others” basis (there is a channelized bandplan to put some order).

From the communications theory perspective, one of the fundamental aspects of a transponder like this is how much output power is available. This sets the downlink SNR and determines whether the transponder is in the power-constrained regime or in the bandwidth-constrained regime. It indicates the optimal spectral efficiency (bits per second per Hz), which helps choose appropriate modulation and FEC parameters.

However, some of the values required to do these calculations are not publicly available. I hear that the typical values which would appear in a link budget (maximum TWTA output power, output power back-off, antenna gain, etc.) are under NDA from MELCO, who built the satellite and transponders.

I have been monitoring the WB transponder and recording waterfall data of the downlink with my groundstation for three weeks already. With this data we can obtain a good understanding of the transponder behaviour. For example, we can measure the input power to output power transfer function, taking advantage of the fact that different stations with different powers appear and disappear, which effectively sweeps the transponder input power (though in a rather chaotic and uncontrollable manner). In this post I share the methods I have used to study this data and my findings.

Monitoring the QO-100 WB transponder usage with Maia SDR

I am interested in monitoring the usage of the QO-100 WB transponder over several weeks or months, to obtain statistics about how full the transponder is, what bandwidths are used, which channels are occupied more often, etc., as well as statistics about the power of the signals and the DVB-S2 beacon. For this, we need to compute and record to disk waterfall data for later analysis. Maia SDR is ideal for this task, because it is easy to write a Python script that configures the spectrometer to a low rate, connects to the WebSocket to fetch spectrometer data, performs some integrations to lower the rate even more, and records data to disk.

For this project I’ve settled on using a sample rate of 20 Msps, which covers the whole transponder plus a few MHz of receiver noise floor on each side (this will be used to calibrate the receiver gain) and gives a frequency resolution of 4.9 kHz with Maia SDR’s 4096-point FFT. At this sample rate, I can set the Maia SDR spectrometer to 5 Hz and then perform 50 integrations in the Python script to obtain one spectrum average every 10 seconds.

Part of the interest of setting up this project is that the Python script can serve as an example of how to interface Maia SDR with other applications and scripts. In this post I will show how the system works and an initial evaluation of the data that I have recorder over a week. More detailed analysis of the data will come in future posts.

Running the AD9361 at 122.88 Msps

The Analog Devices AD9361 is an RFIC that is used in several popular SDRs, such as the USRP B2xx series and E3xx series, the BladeRF 2.0 micro, the ADALM Pluto, the ANTSDR, and in many other products (some of these use the AD9363 or the AD9364, which are similar chips in the same family). This RFIC has a nominal maximum sample rate of 61.44 Msps, and an analog bandwidth of 56 MHz.

A few days ago, Nuand has published a new software version that allows running the BladeRF 2.0 at 122.88 Msps. This has attracted some interest in Twitter, specially regarding questions about how they manage to achieve this and how good the performance is. One of the changes that Nuand has done to support the 122.88 Msps mode is an 8-bit wire protocol for the USB 3.0 interface. This is required to be able to pass 122.88 Msps through the USB. This change affects the FPGA gateware and host drivers. The other change involves manually setting some registers of the AD9361 in the host drivers in order to bypass a half-band filter, effectively doubling the output sample rate. In this post I will give a short review of the AD9361 register settings that enable the 122.88 Msps mode.

Maia SDR

I’m happy to announce the release of Maia SDR, an open-source FPGA-based SDR project focusing on the ADALM Pluto. The first release provides a firmware image for the Pluto with the following functionality:

  • Web-based interface that can be accessed from a smartphone, PC or other device.
  • Real-time waterfall display supporting up to 61.44 Msps (limit given by the AD936x RFIC of the Pluto).
  • IQ recording in SigMF format, at up to 61.44 Msps and with a 400 MiB maximum data size (limit given by the Pluto RAM size). Recordings can be downloaded to a smartphone or other device.

Using GSE and DVB-S2 for IP traffic

GSE (Generic Stream Encapsulation) is a protocol used to embed packets of almost any sort into the DVB data link layer. It can be used to send IP (IPv4 and IPv6) packets, Ethernet packets, etc. In my post about Blockstream Satellite, I talked about MPE, which is another way of sending IP traffic inside DVB. However, MPE is based on MPEG TS packets, so it is a far from ideal solution, given the overhead of the TS headers and the relatively small size of TS packets. GSE is a much more lightweight solution, and it’s arguably the best way of sending IP packets inside DVB.

The downside of GSE compared to MPE is that it is not supported by so many devices. Since MPE uses TS packets, it should be supported by mostly any device. The formatting of the TS packets, and thus all of the MPE stack, is handled at the application level. However, GSE is different from a stream of TS packets already the level of BBFRAMEs, so devices that handle this layer need to support GSE.

In this post I show how to set up a DVB-S2 GSE one-way link using the GNU Radio out-of-tree module gr-dvbgse and an SDR for transmission, and a MiniTiouner, Longmynd and some software I’ve written for reception.

The MiniTiouner is a DVB-S2 hardware receiver that is based on a Serit FTS4334 NIM (which uses the STV0910 DVB-S2 demodulator IC) together with a FT2232H that provides a USB2 interface for data and control. It is a very popular device within the Amateur TV community, given its affordable price and large range of supported carrier frequencies, symbol rates, and MODCODs.

The ideas in this post are also applicable to an SDR demodulation approach, which could use gr-dvbs2rx and gr-dvbgse. Using a hardware receiver solution can give some benefits over an SDR receiver, since demodulation and LDPC decoding is computationally expensive, specially at higher symbol rates and in low SNR conditions.

My final goal for this is to do some tests of two-way IP links over the QO-100 WB transponder. I think this would be a rather interesting use of the transponder, since it would open the door to many new ideas. Currently the transponder is used almost exclusively to transmit video, which by all means is good, but not very innovative after the almost 4 years now that the transponder has been in operation.

I have to give huge thanks to Brian Jordan G4EWJ and Evariste Courjard F5OEO for their interest in this project and for running many initial tests that showed that it is possible to use the MiniTiouner to receive GSE (despite the lack of clear and detailed documentation about the STV0910 register settings).

Decoding the BlueWalker 3 S-band downlink

BlueWalker 3 is a satellite built by AST SpaceMobile that was launched in 2022-09-11. It is as a prototype mission that will try to communicate from low Earth orbit with unmodified cellphones on ground using a large 64 m² unfoldable phased array antenna. It has received some criticism because of concerns of the satellite being too bright due to the large antenna (impacting astronomy observations) and potentially causing RF interference to radioastronomy and other services, since the cellular bands it will use are normally used only in terrestrial applications.

It also received criticism when shortly after launch, amateur radio operators noticed that the satellite was transmitting packets on 437.500 MHz, in the UHF amateur satellite band. The mission of this satellite is not compatible with the amateur radio service and it hasn’t received IARU coordination. There were some arguments on Twitter about whether BlueWalker 3 actually had the proper experimental license from the FCC to do this or not, and people posted ITU SNL filings and FCC applications. I didn’t track all of this in detail, so I don’t have a well informed opinion about whether BlueWalker 3 is following the regulations correctly.

A month ago, I looked at the UHF packets and checked that BlueWalker 3 used exactly the same modulation and coding as Light-1, which is a 3U cubesat from United Arab Emirates (this was first discovered by Tetsurou Satou JA0CAW). The framing contains the typical elements of the built-in packet handler of low cost FSK chips such as the Texas Instruments CC11xx family. Scott Tilley noticed some details that seem to explain this connection: Light-1 was built by NanoAvionics, which apparently has collaborated with AST SpaceMobile in the BlueWalker 3 mission. Therefore, it seems that the satellite bus used by BlueWalker 3 is that of a typical cubesat.

BlueWalker 3 also transmits in S-band, at a frequency of 2245 MHz. Scott Tilley has been doing some observations of this signal and sharing some recordings. Aang254 has been analysing the signal and remarks that it’s mostly idle data. In this post I’ll do an analysis of the BlueWalker 3 S-band signal using two recordings made by Scott.

Blockstream Satellite: decoding Bitcoin transactions

In my previous post I wrote about the protocols used by Blockstream Satellite. This was motivated by a challenge in GRCon22’s CTF. In that challenge, muad’dib sent the flag as a Blockstream API message and recorded the Blockstream Satellite DVB-S2 downlink as the message was broadcast. The recording was used as the IQ file for the challenge.

In my post, I gave a look at how all the protocol stack for the Blockstream API works: DVB-S2, MPE, IPv4, UDP, plus a custom protocol that supports fragmentation and application-level FEC. However, I didn’t give any details about how the protocols used to broadcast the Bitcoin blockchain work. This runs on another UDP port, independently of the Blockstream API. At that time I didn’t understand much about it, even though during the CTF I was trying to search for the flag in a Bitcoin transaction and looking at the source code of bitcoinsatellite to try to figure out how it worked.

After my previous post, Igor Freire commented some details of the FEC used in bitcoinsatellite. This is quite interesting by itself. Two FEC libraries by Chris Taylor are used: the Wirehair O(N) fountain code for larger blocks, and the CM256 MDS code based on Cauchy matrices over GF(256) (this is very similar to Reed-Solomon used as erasure coding). This motivated me to continue studying how all this works.

Now I have been able decode the Bitcoin transactions in the CTF recording. These don’t use any FEC, since transactions are small. I believe that there aren’t any blocks fully contained in the 35 second recording, so to see how the FEC codes work (which could be quite interesting) I would need a longer recording.

In this post I’ll show how to decode the Bitcoin transaction in Blockstream Satellite. The materials can be found in this repository.

Anatomy of Blockstream Satellite

This is another post about GRCon22’s Capture The Flag (see my previous post). One of the challenges in the Dune track submitted by muad’dib was called Heighliner. It consisted of a short recording of Blockstream Satellite, as we might guess from the challenge description below, especially if we had watched Igor Freire‘s talk about gr-dvbs2rx and Blockstream Satellite (I’ve heard that the fact that the talk and the challenge had the same topic was just a coincidence).

A heighliner just passed through “folded space” and it has sent a secret message to the remaining members of House Atreides on the surface of Arrakis. The communication protocol was historically used for sending visual propaganda films and archival files, recently however, Duke Leto had his engineering guild repurpose the transmission unit for financial transactions. It’s the perfect place for a covert message, the Harkonnens would never think to look there… The original transmission was on Frequency 12.0164GHz. Our groundstation receiver downconverted to 1.2664GHz.

Heighliner challenge description

I didn’t manage to solve this challenge, mainly because I was looking in the wrong place. I was focused on looking at the Bitcoin blockchain chunks, but the flag was in a Blockstream Satellite API message, and I wasn’t aware of the existence of API messages back then. After the CTF ended, a few of us were discussing this challenge in the chat. None of us really understood all the details about how the Blockstream Satellite system works. Since the intended way of solving the challenge was setting up and running the Blockstream Satellite receiver tools, an in-depth understanding wasn’t really necessary.

I have some interest in satellite filecasting systems since I reverse-engineered Outernet back in 2016, so I’ve been taking some time after the CTF to look at the details of how Blockstream Satellite works. While attempting to solve the challenge, I found that detailed enough documentation wasn’t available. There is some high-level documentation, but for the details you need to go to the source code (which is a typical situation).

In this post I describe the details of how Blockstream Satellite works, using the recording from the CTF challenge as an example. I will mainly focus on the Blockstream Satellite API, since I haven’t been able to understand all the details of the Bitcoin blockchain FEC blocks.