Tianwen-1 phasing orbit

Last Saturday 2021-02-20 at 11:46:42 UTC Tianwen-1 passed the periapsis of its elliptical polar orbit at Mars and made a retrograde burn to reduce its apoapsis radius. The trajectory planning of the spacecraft can be seen in its Wikipedia page: the spacecraft first arrived into a low inclination elliptical orbit by making a Mars orbit insertion at periapsis, then coasted to apoapsis, where it performed a plane change, and then it arrived at periapsis, performing the manoeuvre described in this post.

Over the next few days the spacecraft should move into a reconnaissance orbit, which is given in Wikipedia to be a 265 x 60000 km orbit (having a period of 2 days) with an inclination of 86.9 degrees. However, the last burn hasn’t lowered the apoapsis that much. The current orbit is approximately 280 x 84600 km (3.45 day period) with an inclination of 87.7 degrees. A possible reason for using the current orbit, which has been described as a phasing orbit, will be explained in this post after reviewing the data we have about the burn.

Voyager-1 single dish detection at Allen Telescope Array

This post has been delayed by several months, as some other things (like Chang’e 5) kept getting in the way. As part of the GNU Radio activities in Allen Telescope Array, on 14 November 2020 we tried to detect the X-band signal of Voyager-1, which at that time was at a distance of 151.72 au (22697 millions of km) from Earth. After analysing the recorded IQ data to carefully correct for Doppler and stack up all the signal power, I published in Twitter the news that the signal could clearly be seen in some of the recordings.

Since then, I have been intending to write a post explaining in detail the signal processing and publishing the recorded data. I must add that detecting Voyager-1 with ATA was a significant feat. Since November, we have attempted to detect Voyager-1 again on another occasion, using the same signal processing pipeline, without any luck. Since in the optimal conditions the signal is already very weak, it has to be ensured that all the equipment is working properly. Problems are difficult to debug, because any issue will typically impede successful detection, without giving an indication of what went wrong.

I have published the IQ recordings of this observation in the following datasets in Zenodo:

Tianwen-1 plane change manoeuvre

Today at 9:00 UTC Tianwen-1 made its plane change manoeuvre, as reported by Xinhua. Yesterday I showed my planning for this manoeuvre. Shortly after the spacecraft returned to the high gain antenna after the manoeuvre, the Bochum 20m antenna operated by AMSAT-DL received state vectors with the new trajectory. These state vectors allow us to calculate the timestamp of the burn and the delta-V vector, as I have done in other occasions. It is convenient to remark that the state vectors that we are seeing right now are probably a prediction. In the next few days we will see updates in the trajectory as the Chinese DSN measures the effects of the actual burn and updates the onboard ephemerides.

Tianwen-1 plane change planning

Today, the Chinese media published a short piece of news stating that tomorrow, 2021-02-15, Tiawen-1 will make make a plane change to a polar orbit. The post is accompanied by an short video, which includes an animation depicting the manoeuvre. A screenshot of the video is shown below. As the spacecraft arrives to apoapsis, it effects a plane change into an ascending polar orbit.

Tianwen-1 plane change manoeuvre. Source 人民日报 in weibo.com

This is a good moment to review the maths behind a plane change manoeuvre and compute what the manoeuvre will look like.

Emirates Mars Mission MOI burn observed in Bochum

A few days ago, Emirates Mars Mission (Hope), and Tianwen-1 performed their Mars orbit injection burn (MOI). AMSAT-DL made a livestream for each of the two events, showing the X-band signals of the spacecraft as received with the 20m antenna at Bochum.

In the case of Tianwen-1 the signal was pretty strong even while the spacecraft was on the low gain antenna, and we could clearly see the change in Doppler rate as the thrusters fired up. However, in the case of Emirates Mars Mission the signal disappeared as soon as the spacecraft switched to the low gain antenna. In fact DSN Now reported a received power of -155 dBm with the 34m DSS55. That was a large drop from the -118 dBm that it was reporting with the high gain antenna. Therefore, nothing could be seen in the livestream waterfall until the spacecraft returned to the high gain antenna, well after the manoeuvre was finished.

Nevertheless, a weak trace of the carrier was still present in the livestream audio, and it could be seen by appropriate FFT processing, for example with inspectrum. I put up a couple of tweets showing this, but at the moment I wasn’t completely sure if what I was seeing was the spacecraft’s signal or some interference. After the livestream ended, I’ve been able to analyse the audio more carefully and realize that not only this weak signal was in fact the Hope probe, but that the start of the burn was recorded in perfect conditions.

In this post I’ll show how to process the livestream audio to clearly show the change in drift rate at the start of the burn and measure the acceleration of the spacecraft.

Tianwen-1 Mars-centric state vectors

Since launch, Tianwen-1 has transmitted as part of its telemetry some state vector data, giving its position and velocity vector every 32 seconds. This has allowed us to propagate, track and study its trajectory. We noticed the presence of the state vector data a few hours after launch, and since then we have received and decoded this data using the 20m antenna at Bochum observatory, which is operated by AMSAT-DL. This has allowed us to supply accurate orbit information to JPL HORIZONS, so that Amateur observers (and also some professional ones, for which Tianwen-1 is a useful and strong X-band beacon) can easily get ephemerides for the spacecraft.

Until now, the state vector data has encoded the spacecraft’s Cartesian position (in km) and velocity (in km/s) in a heliocentric reference frame. It is not completely clear if the frame is supposed to be ICRF or MJ2000, since the difference between the two is very small (see Section 3.5 in this paper by Kaplan) to be able to distinguish them with the data at hand, but we have always been using ICRF so far for consistency.

Today we have noticed that starting at some point on 2021-02-08, Tianwen-1 is now transmitting state vectors using a different, Mars-centric frame of reference. We don’t have the exact moment of the change. The last heliocentric vector we received was

2021-02-07 23:23:03.744100 18791639.655712113 211029173.8782428 96492674.05965108 -21.108400067542537 4.768376820024702 1.8445381918644286

This vector was received with one of the antennas at Allen Telescope Array, which I used as a backup since Bochum was unable to track that day due to a big snowfall.

The first Mars-centric state vector was received by Bochum the next day, and is

2021-02-08 22:14:25.049300 -345203.0840200648 103420.7793506239 -15761.456419116437 2.409386271990221 -0.7794198288828312 0.12118319008153547

The change in the frame of reference is clear from the change in magnitude of the position vector. Ensuring that the Mars-centric state vectors are interpreted correctly is important to continue using the data accurately. In this post I give the assessment of the appropriate reference system to use.

Tianwen-1 TCM-4

Today, 2021-02-05 at 12:00 UTC, Tianwen-1 has executed TCM-4. This is its last trajectory correction manoeuvre before the arrival to Mars orbit next Tuesday February 10. This was reported by Chinese media together with a black and white image of Mars taken recently by the spacecraft.

As usual, I have analysed this manoeuvre by propagating forwards the last state vector that we have from the spacecraft’s telemetry before the manoeuvre, propagating backwards the first state vector that we have after the manoeuvre, and finding the intersection point of the two trajectories.

Chang’e 5 low rate telemetry

Even though I haven’t been posting updates about Chang’e 5 lately, we have continued tracking it with Allen Telescope Array most weekends since my last post. The main goal of these observations has been to give Bill Gray updated pointing data so that he can refine his ephemerides. Additionally, we have been decoding telemetry from the recordings we’ve made.

One of the interesting things that have happened is the change to a lower baudrate in the telemetry signals. Until 2020-12-27 the baudrate was 4096 baud, while starting with the observation on 2021-01-02 we are seeing a new baudrate of 512 baud. This means that at some point around the end of last year the spacecraft was commanded to switch to a lower baudrate, to account for the increase in path loss caused by the increasing distance as the spacecraft travels towards the Sun-Earth L1 point.

Decoding IDEASSat

One of the interesting Amateur cubesats in yesterday’s SpaceX Transporter-1 launch from Cape Canaveral is IDEASSat, a 3U cubesat from the National Central University of the Republic of China (Taiwan) designed to study ionospheric plasma. Jan van Gils PE0SAT drew my attention to this satellite as he was trying to see if it was possible to decode it with any of the decoders existing in gr-satellites. Mike Rupprecht DK3WN also helped with a good recording, much cleaner than the SatNOGS recording that Jan was using.

Presumably this satellite uses “AX25, 9k6, GMSK”, as listed at the bottom of this page from Taiwan’s National Space Organization, and also in this research paper. However, this is not true. It’s simple to check that the usual 9k6 FSK AX.25 decoders aren’t able to decode this signal, and a look at the FSK symbols shows that there is no scrambler (9k6 AX.25 uses the G3RUH scrambler) and that the symbol sequence doesn’t have much to do with AX.25.

After some reverse-enginnering, yesterday I figured out how the coding used by IDEASSat worked, and today I added a decoder to gr-satellites to help Mike investigate what kind of telemetry the packets contain. The protocol is not very good, so I think it’s interesting to document it in detail, as some sort of lessons learned. In this post I’ll do so. As it turns out, the protocol has some elements that loosely resemble AX.25, so I’m left wondering whether this is some unsuccessful attempt at implementing standard AX.25 (we’ve already seen very weird attempts, such as ESEO).

BPSK radar received through Meridian 8

Ever since SETI Insitute published the news of a possible signal received from Proxima Centauri in some of the Parkes telescope recordings at 982 MHz, Scott Tilley VE7TIL has taken up the interest to search and catalogue the satellites that transmit on this band (specially old, forgotten and zombie satellites). His idea is to try to see if this candidate signal can be explained as interference from some satellite.

This has led him to discover some signals coming from satellites on a Molniya orbit. After examination with the Allen Telescope Array of these signals, we confirmed that they came from wideband transponders (centre frequency around 995 MHz, 13 MHz width) on some of the Meridian Russian communications satellites (in particular Meridian 4 and 8, but also others).

These transponders show all sorts of terrestrial signals that are relayed as unintended traffic through the transponder. By measuring Doppler we know that the uplink is somewhere around 700 or 800 MHz. We have found some OFDM-like signals that seem to be NB-IoT. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to do anything useful with them, maybe because there are several signals overlapping on the same frequency. We also found a wideband FM signal containing music and announcements in Turkmen, which later turned out to be the audio subcarrier of a SECAM analogue TV channel from Turkmenistan.

A few days ago, Scott detected a pulsed strong signal through the transponder of the Meridians at a downlink frequency of 994.2 MHz. He did an IQ recording of this signal on the downlink of Meridian 8. It turns out that this signal is a BPSK pulse radar. In this post I do a detailed analysis of the radar waveform using this recording.