In one of my previous posts about Voyager 1, I stated that the Voyager probes used as forward error correction only the k=7, r=1/2 CCSDS convolutional code, and that Reed-Solomon wasn’t used. However, some days ago, Brett Gottula asked about this, citing several sources that stated that the Voyager probes used Reed-Solomon coding after their encounter with Saturn.
My source for stating that Reed-Solomon wasn’t used was some private communication with DSN operators. Since the XML files describing the configuration of the DSN receivers for Voyager 1 didn’t mention Reed-Solomon either, I had no reason to question this. However, the DSN only processes the spacecraft data up to some point (which usually includes all FEC decoding), and then passes the spacecraft frames to the mission project team without really looking at their contents. Therefore, it might be the case that it’s the project team the one who handles the Reed-Solomon code for the Voyagers. This would make sense specially if the code was something custom, rather than the CCSDS code (recall that Voyager predates the CCSDS standards). If this were true, the DSN wouldn’t really care if there is Reed-Solomon or not, and they might have just forgotten about it.
After looking at the frames I had decoded from Voyager 1 in more detail, I remarked that Brett might be right. Doing some more analysis, I have managed to check that in fact the Voyager 1 frames used Reed-Solomon as described in the references that Brett mentioned. In this post I give a detailed look at the Reed-Solomon code used by the Voyager probes, compare it with the CCSDS code, and show how to perform Reed-Solomon decoding in the frames I decoded in the last post. The middle section of this post is rather math heavy, so readers might want to skip it and go directly to the section where Reed-Solomon codewords in the Voyager 1 frames are decoded.
Back in September, I showed how to decode the telemetry signal from Voyager 1 using a recording made with the Green Bank Telescope in 2015 by the Breakthrough Listen project. The recording was only 22.57 seconds long, so it didn’t even contain a complete telemetry frame. To study the contents of the telemetry, more data would be needed. Often we can learn things about the structure of the telemetry frames by comparing several consecutive frames. Fields whose contents don’t change, counters, and other features become apparent.
Some time after writing that post, Steve Croft, from BSRC, pointed me to another set of recordings of Voyager 1 from 16 July 2020 (MJD 59046.8). They were also made by Breakthrough Listen with the Green Bank Telescope, but they are longer. This post is an analysis of this set of recordings.
Today is the 44th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 1, so I want to celebrate by showing how to decode the Voyager 1 telemetry signal using GNU Radio and some Python. I will use a recording that was done back in 30 December 2015 with the Green Bank Telescope in the context of the Breakthrough Listen project. Most of the data from this project is open data and can be accessed through this portal.
In contrast to other posts about deep space probes in this blog, which are of a very specialized nature, I will try to keep this post accessible to a wider audience by giving more details about the basics. Those interested in learning further can refer to the workshop “Decoding Interplanetary Spacecraft” that I gave in GRCon 2020, and also take a look at other posts in this blog.
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:
A few days ago I read the paper about the Breakthrough Listen experiment. This experiment consists in doing many wideband recordings of different stars using the Green Bank Telescope, and (in the future) Parkes Observatory and then trying to find signals from extraterrestrial intelligent life in the recordings. The Breakthrough Listen project has a nice Github repository with some documentation and an analysis of a recording they did of Voyager 1 to test their setup.
I have also been thinking about how to study the polarization of signals in a dual polarization recording (two coherent channels with orthogonal polarizations). My main goal for this is to study the polarization of the signals of Amateur satellites in low Earth orbit. It seems that there are many myths regarding polarization and the rotation of cubesats, and these myths eventually pop up whenever anyone tries to discuss whether linearly polarized or circularly polarized Yagis are any good for receiving cubesats.
Through the Breakthrough Listen paper I’ve learned of the Stokes parameters. These are a set of parameters to describe polarization which are very popular in optics, since they are easy to measure physically. I have immediately noticed that they are also easy to compute from a dual polarization recording. In comparison with Jones vectors, Stokes parameters disregard all the information about phase, but instead they are computed from the averaged power in different polarizations. This makes their computation less affected by noise and other factors.
As I also wanted to get my hands on the Breakthrough Listen raw recordings, I have been computing the Stokes parameters of the Voyager 1 signal in their recording. Since the Voyager 1 signal is left hand circularly polarized, the results are not particularly interesting. It would be better to use a signal with changing polarization or some form of elliptical polarization.
I have started to use Jupyter notebook. This is something I had been wanting to try since a while ago, and I’ve realised that a Jupyter notebook serves better to document my experiments in Python than a Python script in a gist, which is what I was doing before. I have started a Github repo for my experiments using Jupyter notebooks. The experiment about polarization in the Voyager 1 signal is the first of them. Incidentally, this experiment has been done near Voyager 1’s 40th anniversary.