EAARO Project Report on the KickSat Mission 2014

The team at EAARO (East Anglian Amateur Radio Observatory) is delighted to have been involved in Zac Manchester’s recent KickSat satellite mission.

Our goal was to detect and decode the radio signals transmitted by the Sprites using bespoke ground station facilities at our radio observatory site in Hertfordshire, UK.

Due to expected uncertainties in the orbital parameters of the Sprites, we decided to design our receiving systems to operate with a selection of omni-directional antennas rather than the tracking antennas traditionally used in the reception of satellite communications.

Receiver design also posed an interesting challenge due to the bandwidth of the Sprite transmissions, which are too wide to be received by a standard communications receiver. The bandwidth problem was solved by using Software Defined Radio (SDR) technology in the form of a USB digital television receiver, reconfigured as a general purpose radio receiver. These dongle-type devices are designed to be inserted directly into the USB port of a PC, but operate better on an extension cable to avoid some of the PC generated noise. They are a very cost effective solution. However, there are inherent problems with these devices, including low RF gain, thermally inefficient circuitry, and a susceptibility to interference from strong out of band signals.

With these issues in mind, Jason constructed a rack-mounted system to house the dongle-style SDR radios, designed to shield the receivers. EAARO’s first prototype Quad SDR was successfully integrated prior to the launch of Kicksat. Fan cooling, RF filtering and pre-amplification completed the install.

Our observatory was constructed in order to develop innovative radio astronomy and satellite technology. We are fully equipped to calibrate, test and analyse electronic equipment in house. This allowed us to commission our new Quad SDR receiver in situ.
Signals are received then routed to Digital Signal Processing software such as GNU Radio to extract and decode the Sprite data.

In May 2014 we received news that the KickSat had suffered a processing fault in orbit and deployment of the sprites could not be activated before re-entry.

This was a disappointment to everyone involved in KickSat, not least the EAARO team who had worked hard over the last few months to get our ground station facilities fully operational. However, it is not the end of our involvement in the KickSat project. Our ground station facilities remain operational and we look forward to tracking Zac’s KickSat 2 mission in the near future.

Jason Williams, Jonathan Blay and Jeff Lashley - 15th May 2014

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