Decoding AMICal Sat in-orbit images

Back in March, I was helping Julien Nicolas F4HVX to test the S-band image transmitter of AMICal Sat before launch. In my post back then, I explained that AMICal Sat uses a Nordic Semiconductor nRF24L01+ 2.4GHz FSK transceiver chip to transmit Shockburst packets at 1Mbaud. I also explained how the Onyx EV76C664 CMOS image sensor works and how to process raw images.

AMICal Sat was finally launched on 2020-09-03, and since them the satellite team has been busy trying to downlink some images, both using the UHF transmitter (which uses the same protocol as Światowid) and the S-band transmitter. This has proven a bit difficult because the ADCS of the satellite is not working, and the downlink protocols are not very robust.

Julien has been sending me recordings done by their groundstation in Russia with the hope that we could be able to decode some of the data. Before several failed attempts where we were hardly able to decode a few packets, we got a particularly good S-band recording done on 2020-10-05. Using that recording, I have been able to decode a full image.

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Analysis of Object A’s S-band signal

On 2020-09-04, China launched a “reusable experimental spacecraft” of which very little is publicly known. The most popular hypothesis is that this is a robotic spaceplane similar to the X-37B. The spacecraft spent two days in orbit and landed back at Earth, most likely near Lop Nur nuclear test site. Marco Langbroek has a nice post detailing all we know about the mission.

During the time it spent in orbit, the spacecraft released an object which has been catalogued as 2020-063G and is commonly known as “Object A”. On 2020-09-14, Dmitry Pashkov R4UAB detected an S-band signal coming from Object A at around 2280 MHz. This was verified later by Scott Tilley VE7TIL, who received a strong signal with lots of fading, suggesting that the object is tumbling. Marco also did some optical observations of the object.

Scott has sent me a recording of the S-band signal that he did on 2020-09-15 so that I can analyse it and we can learn more about this mysterious object. This post shows the results of my analysis.

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Measuring Tianwen-1’s modulation

This is a post I had announced since I first described Tianwen-1’s modulation. Since we have very high SNR recordings of the Tianwen-1 low rate rate telemetry signal made with the 20m dish in Bochum observatory, it is interesting to make detailed measurements of the modulation parameters. In fact, there is something curious about the way the modulation is implemented in the spacecraft’s transmitter. This analysis will show it clearly, but I will reserve the details for later in the post.

Here I will be using a recording that already appeared in a previous post. It was made on 2020-07-26 07:47:20 UTC in Bochum shortly after the switch to the high gain antenna, so the SNR is fantastic. The recording was done at 2.5Msps, and the spectrum can be seen below. The asymmetry (especially around +1MHz) might be due to the receive chain.

The signal is residual carrier phase modulation, with 16348 baud BPSK data on a 65536Hz square wave subcarrier. There is also a 500kHz ranging tone.

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Tianwen-1 telemetry: modulation and coding

As promised in this post, I will now speak about how to demodulate the Tianwen-1 telemetry signal. This post will deal with demodulation and FEC decoding. The structure of the frames will be explained in the next post. In this post I also give a fully working GNU Radio decoder that can store frames in the format used by the orbit state vector extraction Python script.

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gr-satellites FSK BER

A few months ago I talked about BER simulations of the gr-satellites demodulators. In there, I showed the BER curves for the BPSK and FSK demodulators that are included in gr-satellites, and gave some explanation about why the current FSK demodulator is far from ideal. Yesterday I was generating again these BER plots to check that I hadn’t broken anything after some small improvements. I was surprised to find that the FSK BER curve I got was much worse than the one in the old post.

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Decoding Crew Dragon Demo-2

The launch last Saturday of Crew Dragon Demo-2 undoubtedly was an important event in the history of American space exploration and human spaceflight. This was the first crewed launch from the United States in 9 years and the first crewed launch ever by a commercial provider. Amateur radio operators always follow this kind of events with their hobby, and in the hours and days following the launch, several Amateur operators have posted reception reports of the Crew Dragon C206 “Endeavour” signals.

It seems that the signal received by most people has been the one at 2216 MHz. Among these reports, I can mention the tweets by Scott Tilley VE7TIL (and this one), USA Satcom, Paul Marsh M0EYT. Paul also managed to receive a signal on 2272.5 MHz, which is not in the FCC filing, so this may or may not be from the Crew Dragon.

Scott has also shared with me an IQ recording of one of the passes, and as I showed on Twitter yesterday, I have been able to demodulate the data. This post is my analysis of the signal.

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Decoding BepiColombo

BepiColombo is a joint mission between ESA and JAXA to send two scientific spacecraft to Mercury. The two spacecraft, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter, built by ESA, and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, built by JAXA, travel together, joined by the Mercury Transfer Module, which provides propulsion and support during cruise, and will separate upon arrival to Mercury. The mission was launched on October 2018 and will arrive to an orbit around Mercury on December 2025. The long cruise consists of one Earth flyby, two Venus flybys, and six Mercury flybys.

The Earth flyby will happen in a few days, on 2020-04-10, so currently BepiColombo is quickly approaching Earth at a speed of 4km/s. Yesterday, on 2020-04-04, the spacecraft was 2 million km away from Earth, which is close enough so that Amateur DSN stations can receive the data modulation sidebands. Paul Marsh M0EYT, Jean-Luc Milette and others have been posting their reception reports on Twitter.

Paul sent me a short recording he made on 2020-04-04 at 15:16 UTC at a frequency of 8420.535MHz, so that I could see if it was possible to decode the signal. I’ve successfully decoded the frames, with very few errors. This post is a summary of my decoding.

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Decoding images from AMICal Sat

AMICal Sat is a 2U cubesat developed by the Space Centre of the Grenoble University, France, and the Skobeltsyn Institute of Nuclear Physics in the Lomonosov Moscow State University. Its scientific mission consists in taking images of auroras from low Earth orbit. The satellite bus was built by SatRevolution. Currently, the satellite is in Grenoble waiting to be launched on a future date (which is uncertain due to the COVID-19 situation).

A few weeks ago I was working with Julien Nicolas F4HVX to try to decode some of the images transmitted by AMICal Sat. Julien is an Amateur radio operator and he is helping the satellite team at Grenoble with the communications of the satellite.

This post is an account of our progress so far.

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Decoding ESA Solar Orbiter

Solar Orbiter is an ESA Sun observation satellite that was launched on February 10 from Cape Canaveral, USA. It will perform detailed measurements of the heliosphere from close distances reaching down to around 60 solar radii.

As usual, Amateur observers have been interested in tracking this mission since launch, but apparently ESA refused to publish state vectors to aid them locate the spacecraft. However, 18 hours after launch, Solar Orbiter was found by Amateurs, first visually, and then by radio. Since then, it has been actively tracked by several Amateur DSN stations, which are publishing reception reports on Twitter and other media.

On February 13, the spacecraft deployed its high gain antenna. Since it is not so far from Earth yet, even stations with relatively small dishes are able to receive the data modulation on the X band downlink signal. Spectrum plots showing the sidelobes of this signal have been published in Twitter by Paul Marsh M0EYT, Ferruccio IW1DTU, and others.

I have used an IQ recording made by Paul on 2020-02-13 16:43:25 UTC at 8427.070MHz to decode the data transmitted by Solar Orbiter. In this post, I show the details.

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Extracting AX.25 satellites from SatNOGS DB

In my last post about gr-satellites 3, I announced that gr-satellites would start to support all the AX.25 satellites transmitting in Amateur bands. Historically, gr-satellites didn’t support packet radio (AFSK and FSK AX.25) satellites since there were too many of them and there were already other good decoders such as Direwolf. At one point Rocco Valenzano W2RTV convinced me to add “generic” packet radio decoders to gr-satellites and since then these have been seeing quite some use.

In gr-satellites 3 it is very easy to add new satellites, since this is done with a SatYAML file, which is a brief YAML file describing basic information about the satellite and its transmitters. Therefore, I decided to make a script to get this data from SatNOGS DB and write the SatYAMLs automatically for all the AFSK and FSK AX.25 satellites.

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