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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Decoding Mars 2020

Mars 2020, NASA’s latest mission to Mars, was launched a couple weeks ago. However, with all the Tianwen-1 work down the pipeline, until now I haven’t had time to dedicate an appropriate post to this mission (though I showed some sneak peek on Twitter). This mission consists of a rover and helicopter (a real novelty in space exploration). Both were launched with the cruise stage and the entry, descent and landing system on July 30 from Cape Canaveral, an are currently on their transfer orbit to Mars, as Tianwen-1 and Emirates Mars Mission.

In this post I will be working with some recordings made by AMSAT-DL using the 20m radio telescope at Bochum’s observatory. These feature the low rate safe mode telemetry, which was very strong and caused some anecdotes as it saturated some NASA DSN receivers, and the nominal 10kbps telemetry signal that was switched on later. Here I will describe the modulation and coding, giving GNU Radio decoders, and also take a look at the data. has also written a post where he shows similar information.

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Tianwen-1 high speed data signal

In a previous post I talked about how the high data rate signal of Tianwen-1 can be used to replay recorded telemetry. I did an analysis of the telemetry transmitted over the high speed data signal on 2020-07-30 and showed how to interpret the ADCS data, but left the detailed description of the modulation and coding for a future post.

Here I will talk about the modulation and coding, and how the signal switches from the ordinary low rate telemetry to the high speed signal. I also give GNU Radio decoder flowgraphs, tianwen1_hsd.grc, which works with the 8192 bit frames, and tianwen1_hsd_shortframes.grc, which works with the 2048 bit short frames.

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Decoding Emirates Mars Mission Hope

Last Sunday 2020-07-19, the first mission of United Arab Emirates to Mars, known as Emirates Mars Mission “Hope probe” launched from Tanegashima, Japan. This probe is expect to reach Mars in approximately 200 days and study its atmosphere over the course of two years. The scientific instruments onboard the probe are a digital camera, an infrared spectrometer, and an ultraviolet spectrometer.

Shortly after launch, several Amateur radio operators and Amateur spacecraft trackers received signals from the X-band beacon of the Hope probe at 8402.655 MHz and posted reports on Twitter, such as Paul Marsh M0EYT, Ferrucio IW1DTU, Edgar Kaiser DF2MZ, and others. Since the spacecraft was still near Earth, its signal was so strong that a data modulation with a main lobe of approximately 20kHz wide and several sidelobes could easily be seen in the spectrum, which is shown below.

Emirates Mars Mision Hope X-band downlink spectrum

Paul has been quite kind to send me a recording that he made with his station on 2019-07-19 at 23:29 UTC and I have been decoding the data in GNU Radio and looking at the frames. The recording can be downloaded here (193MB). It is an int16 IQ recording at 99998 samples per second. This post is an account of my results.

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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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gr-satellites v3.0.0-rc1

In GRCon last year I presented the roadmap for a large refactor of gr-satellites that would eventually be released as gr-satellites v3.0.0. The refactor started near the end of September, and after nearly 8 months I have now arrived at a point where I feel that all the work I’ve done should be packed and released. Not all the ideas I had in my head when I started have made it to the release (some of them require a large amount of work), but I think that the new gr-satellites is still much better than the old one and I would like to start seeing people switching over. Therefore, I have released today v3.0.0-rc1.

Rather than summarising here all the changes that v3.0.0 brings, I invite you to head over to the new gr-satellites documentation and discover by yourselves.

As anything bringing large change, I think that gr-satellites v3.0.0 will probably break some old habits and workflows. However, I hope that it breaks them for good, and that you will find a better workflow with v3.0.0. If not, please head over to the Github issues and let me know what you’re missing in the new release.

A few more notes about project management: starting with this release, I have decided to concentrate all the support and discussion about gr-satellites in the Github issues. This is an idea I’ve stolen from Kate Temkin. In the past I’ve done a lot of discussion with gr-satellites users over email, and while I don’t have any objections to the use of email, Kate makes an extremely good point about the usefulness of having this discussion in public forums. Just the possibility of past issues appearing in Google searches when a user is looking for help makes it worth the effort.

To try to have better coordination with satellite teams planning to use gr-satellites for their missions (a few such as OPS-SAT and Quetzal-1 have already done so), I have written a note for them.

The plan is for v3.0.0-rc1 to become the final v3.0.0 at the beginning of June if no major issues show up. So please go ahead and check out all the new features that v3.0.0-rc1 brings, and let me know in the issues any problems you might find.

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 LES-9

After decoding a recording of the LES-5 236.7MHz telemetry beacon made by Scott Tilley VE7TIL, I have decoded an older recording made by Scott of the S-band beacon of LES-9. This satellite was launched in 1976 and it has a 100 baud BPSK beacon at 2250MHz. Scott twitted about it in April 2019, and in January 2020 he reported that the modulation had stopped and the beacon was now a CW carrier.

I have used this recording made by Scott in 2020-01-13. The GNU Radio demodulator, which is very similar to the one for LES-5, is here and the Jupyter notebook with the results is here. Below, I make a brief summary of the results.

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Decoding LES-5

LES-5 is a satellite launched in 1967. It was built by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory and its main payload was an experimental transponder for the military 230MHz band. It was placed in a subsynchrounous orbit with an altitude of around 33400km (GEO altitude is 35786km). Its operations ceased in 1971.

A couple days ago, Scott Tilley VE7TIL discovered that LES-5 was still transmitting, and was able to receive its beacon at 236.749MHz. Scott reports that LES-5 is the oldest GEO-belt object that he knows to be still transmitting.

The beacon is modulated, rather than being a CW carrier, so Scott sent me a short recording for analysis. This post is a summary of my study.

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