A Portable Satellite Station Part 6 – 3.0 Station Initial Contacts

Tech Class First 3.0 Portable Station Test

Tech Class First 3.0 Portable Station Test

With the construction of our Portable Satellite Station 3.0 complete, we’ve been looking forward to an opportunity to test the new setup. We chose the Nashua Area Radio Society’s recent Technician License Class as a good time to both test the new stations and to acquaint our Tech Class grads with one of the many things that they can do with their new licenses – amateur satellite operations.

Tech Class 3.0 Portable Satellite Antenna Test

Tech Class 3.0 Portable Satellite Antenna Test

The first transport of the new 3.0 station antenna system turned out to be simple. The booms and counterweights of the new antenna system are easily separated via the removal of a few bolts located at the cross-boom. This allowed the antennas feed-points, rotator loops and polarity switching connections to be removed and transported as complete assemblies. The separation of the longer-boom antennas into two sections also made transporting the antennas easier and made the antenna elements less prone to bending in transport. Setup and cabling of the new 3.0 antenna system as the class site was quick and simple.

The opportunities to make contacts during our Tech Class were limited but the new system performed well with one exception. We saw a higher than expected SWR readings on the 70cm yagi during transmit. We immediately suspected problems with one of the N connectors that were installed during the construction of the new system (component testing during assembly showed the SWR readings on the 70cm side of the system to be in spec.).

Portable Satellite Station 3.0 Antenna System

Portable Satellite Station 3.0 Antenna System

After the class, we set up the 3.0 system again at our QTH. Transport and re-assembly of the new system are somewhat easier and faster than our 2.0 portable station antenna setup is.

Satellite Antenna System 3.0 Connections

Satellite Antenna System 3.0 Connections

The 3.0 antenna system uses a similar connector bulkhead approach that we used previously. The rotator controls are handled via a single, 8-conductor cable and we have a new connection for the polarity switching controls on the 3.0 system yagis.

Rotator Loop Coax Retention System

Rotator Loop Coax Retention System

We have had some problems with the connections between the preamplifiers mounted at the antennas and the rotator loops which connect the antennas to them. This problem caused several failures in the associated N-connectors on the 2.0 portable antenna system so we fabricated a simple arrangement to prevent the rotation of the antennas from turning the coax inside the N-connectors and causing these failures.

70cm Yagi SWR in the Satellite Sub-Band

70cm Antenna and Feedline SWR in the Satellite Sub-Band

Some isolation tests were performed on each cabling element of the 70cm side of the 3.0 antenna system and this resulted in the location of an improperly installed N-connector. The faulty connector was easily replaced and this corrected the SWR readings on the 70cm side of the antenna system. The image above shows the SWR readings for the 70cm antenna after the faulty connector was replaced. We checked the SWR performance with the 70cm yagi set for both Left-Hand and Right-Hand Circular Polarization and we saw good results in both configurations.

2m Yagi SWR in the Satellite Sub-Band

2m Antenna and Feedline SWR in the Satellite Sub-Band

We also re-checked the SWR performance of the 2m side of the antenna system with the 2m yagi in both polarity settings and it looked good as well.

Portable Satellite Antenna 3.0 Az-El Rotator

Portable Satellite Antenna 3.0 Az-El Rotator

The 3.0 antenna system uses an Alfa-Spid rotator. The Alfa-Spid can handle the additional weight of the larger yagis and has a more precise pointing ability (1° accuracy) which is helpful given the tighter patterns of the larger, 3.0 yagis.

70cm Yagi Switchable Polarity Feedpoint

70cm Yagi Switchable Polarity Feedpoint

The new yagis in the 3.0 antenna system have feed point arrangements which allow the polarity of the yagis to be switched between Left-Hand Circular Polarity (LHCP) and Right-Hand Circular Polarity (RHCP). These antennas used a relay arrangement at the feed-points that flip the polarity of one plane of the yagis by 180° which in turn changes the polarity of the antennas between LHCP and RHCP.

Portable Satellite Station 3.0 Radio and Controls

Portable Satellite Station 3.0 Radio and Controls

With the SWR problem corrected, we set up the 3.0 station radio and controls. The 3.0 station adds our homebuilt PTT Router and the control box from DXengineering which controls polarity switching. Also, the Green Heron rotator control box has been configured to control the new Alfa-Spid rotator.

POrtable Satellite Station 3.0 Computer Control via MacDoppler

Portable Satellite Station 3.0 Computer Control via MacDoppler

We are continuing to use the excellent MacDoppler software to control the 3.0 station. MacDoppler provides tracking controls for the antennas and doppler correction for the Icom-9100 transceivers uplink and downlink VFOs.

Satellite 3.0 Station Control Details

Satellite 3.0 Station Control Details

The image above shows a closer view of the 3.0 station controls. The box in the middle-left with four LEDs and the knob is used to select one of four polarity configurations for the 2m and 70cm yagis – RHCP/RHCP, LHCP/RHCP, RHCP/LHCP, or LHCP/LHCP. Just to the right in the middle stack is our homebrewed PTT Router which expands and improves the PTT sequencing performance of the station.

So how does the new 3.0 station perform? The new antennas have a tighter pattern requiring careful pointing calibration of the rotators during setup. This is easy to do with the Alfa-Spid rotator. The new antennas have noticeable more gain as compared to the LEO pack used on the 2.0 station. We are also surprised to see how much difference the polarity switching capability makes in certain situations – sometimes as much as two S units (12 dB) in certain situations. The combination of the new antennas and selection of the best polarity combination allows solid operation on many satellites passes with as little as 2 watts of uplink power. We have made a little over 50 QSOs on the new 3.0 station so far and it works great! For more information on the Portable 3.0 Station as well as the 2.0 and 1.0 stations that we’ve built – see the links below:

Fred, AB1OC

 

ISS Crew Contact

We have been working with Hudson Memorial School to help them secure and prepare for an ISS Crew Contact. We are hoping to support their ISS Crew Contact using an upgraded version of our Portable Satellite Ground Station. A school in Raleigh, North Carolina had their ISS Crew Contact today and I decided to record the downlink from the ISS to test our backup Portable 2.0 ISS/Satellite Ground Station.

The video above is a capture of the school’s contact. It was very easy to receive the ISS downlink on our portable backup ground station. I heard the downlink a few seconds before the ISS came up on the horizon and the audio was solid for the duration of the contact. We can only hear the astronaut’s side of the contact as we cannot receive the school’s uplink from Raleigh, NC. The ISS pass began here in New Hampshire part way through the school’s session so we did not hear the first few questions.

Update on Portable ISS/Sat Station 3.0

Portable ISS/Sat Station 3.0 Antenna System

Portable ISS/Sat Station 3.0 Antenna System

Work on our upgraded primary Portable 3.0 Station which includes a larger antenna system using switchable circular polarity is progressing well. The portable tower, upgraded rotator system, and the new, larger 2m and 70cm circularly polarized antennas are complete.  We are just waiting for a few additional components to arrive here and the upgraded portable ground station should be ready for its first test at our Technician License Class later this month.

More on Today’s ISS Crew Contact

You can see a live stream of the ISS Contact from the school above. There is a great deal of planning which goes into an ISS Crew Contact such as this. We are working closely with Hudson Memorial School on their project and their school is also beginning a High-Altitude Balloon Project with us in a few weeks.

The ISS Crew Contact today was exciting to listen too and we are looking forward to being able to share this experience with Hudson Memorial School in the near future.

Fred, AB1OC

A Portable Satellite Station Part 5 – Plans for Our 3.0 Station

Satellite Grids Worked

Satellite Grids Worked

We’ve made about 250 contacts with our Portable Satellite Station 2.0 and we have worked 106 grids which should be enough to earn a Satellite VUCC. The picture above shows the grids that we’ve worked via Satellites. We’ve learned a lot about satellite operation and had a great deal of fun in the process!

Portable Satellite Station 2.0 Goals

Portable Satellite Station 2.0 Goals

We’ve met all of our original goals for our 2.0 Station and we’ve used it portable at License Classes, Field Day, and other Amateur Radio Demonstrations. We’ve also shared presentations about our 2.0 Station with Amateur Radio Groups here in the New England area. The question that we get most often about the 2.0 Station is “What are your plans for the Portable Satellite Station 3.0”?

Portable Satellite Station 3.0 Goals

Portable Satellite Station 3.0 Goals

Well, here is the plan. We are working with a local group to secure and host an ISS Crew contact. The ARISS folks have published ground station requirements for these contacts. Here are the primary station requirements:

  • Transceiver with 50–100 W output, 1 kHz tuning steps, and 21 memories capable of storing split frequencies
  • Low-loss coax (such as 9913 or LMR-400)
  • Mast-mounted receive pre-amplifier
  • 14-element yagi antenna with switched circular polarity
  • Antenna rotators for azimuth (0–360°) and elevation (0–180°), with an interface for computer control
  • Computer running tracking software for antenna control (including flip mode operation)

Fortunately, our 2.0 Station meets or exceeds almost all of the primary station requirements with the exception of the antennas. The required antenna upgrades will shape the plans for our Portable Satellite Station 3.0.

M2 Antenna Systems 2MCP14

M2 Antenna Systems 2MCP14

ISS Crew Contacts are conducted using 2m Simplex radios on the ISS. We choose the 14-element circularly polarized 2MCP14 yagi from M2 Antenna Systems to meet the ARISS requirements for 2m. Here are the specifications for this antenna:

2MCP14 Antenna Specifications

2MCP14 Antenna Specifications

The 2MCP14 antenna offers a good balance between gain (12.34 dBi) and boom length (10′-6″) and is near the size limit that is practical for use in our Portable Station. This antenna provides an additional 3.14 dBi of gain compared to the M2 Antenna Systems 2MCP8A yagi which we are currently using in the 2.0 Station.

M2 Antenna Systems 436CP30

M2 Antenna Systems 436CP30

While not required for an ARISS Crew Contact, we are also going to upgrade the 70cm yagi to a 30-element circularly polarized M2 Antenna Systems 436CP30 yagi. Here are the specifications for this antenna:

436CP30 Antenna Specifications

436CP30 Antenna Specifications

This antenna is a good match for the upgraded 2m yagi. The 436CP30 has a boom length of 9′-9″ and a gain of 15.50 dBi. This antenna will provide an additional 2.2 dBi of gain compared to the M2 Antenna Systems 436CP16 yagi which we are currently using in the 2.0 Station.

Satellite Antennas Setup Portable

Satellite Antennas Setup Portable

The new antennas will require some modifications to our portable antenna system arrangement. They will need to be mounted on a cross-boom near their centers. As a result, a non-conductive fiberglass cross boom will be required to avoid problems with pattern distortion.

FGCB60 Non-Conductive Cross Boom

FGCB60 Non-Conductive Cross Boom

We will be using an M2 Antenna Systems FGCB60 Cross Boom which has removable, non-conductive end sections made from fiberglass material. The removable ends will make it easier to transport the antenna system. We will also need to make a new mast which is 24″ longer than our current one in the 2.0 Station to create the needed ground clearance for the longer antennas.

Alfa Spid Az-El Rotator

Alfa Spid Az-El Rotator

We are also planning to use a larger Alfa Spid Az-El Rotator. This unit will handle the extra weight of the longer yagi antennas and cross boom assembly and is more precise than the Yaesu unit used on the 2.0 station.

PS-2M and PS-70CM Polarity Switches

PS-2M and PS-70CM Polarity Switches

The last piece of the 3.0 Station Antenna upgrade is to add switchable left-hand and right-hand circular polarity. This will be accomplished via M2 Antenna Systems PS-2M and PS-70CM switchable polarity feed point upgrades for the 3.0 yagis.

DXEngineering EC-4 Control Box

DXEngineering EC-4 Control Box

We have a DXEngineering EC-4 Control Box from a previous project and we can use it to control the relays in the Polarity Switches which will be part of the 3.0 Station antennas. The box will allow us to select any combination of left and right-hand circular polarization on the 3.0 Station uplink and downlink antennas.

We should have all of the parts here for the 3.0 upgrade by the end of the year. We’ll post more as the project proceeds. Other articles in the Portable Satellite Station series include:

You may also be interested in the satellite station at our home QTH. You can read more about that here.

Fred, AB1OC

Students Analyze HAB-2’s Flight Data – Nashua Area Radio Society

The HAB team members in NARS have created a five-session curriculum to teach physics, atmospheric science, and radio technology that we use as part of our HABlaunches. The last session is the most fun of all – analyzing the telemetry data from our HAB’s flight to see what the students can learn from it.

Source: Students Analyze HAB-2’s Flight Data – Nashua Area Radio Society

We got together with the students who did our HAB-2 launch this week to analyze the data from the flight and to preview some of the videos that HAB-2 captured during its flight. You can read more about what we learned from the flight data on the Nashua Area Radio Society website via the link above

Fred, AB1OC

HAB-2 Sets Altitude Record! – Nashua Area Radio Society

We flew our High-Altitude Balloon for the second time this past weekend. Our second High-Altitude Balloon Flight (HAB-2) was part of a STEM learning project that we did with STEM club students at Bishop-Guertin High School in Nashua, NH. The students did all of the flight prep and launched HAB-2 at approximately 11 am ET from a school in Winchester, NH. Parents, teachers and local students joined us for the launch as did several members of our HAB team.

Source: HAB-2 Sets Altitude Record! – Nashua Area Radio Society

Our students prepared, launched, and tracked HAB-2 this past weekend. Their HAB made it to almost 118,000 ft! You can read more about the launch and the flight on the Nashua Area Radio Society’s website via the link above.

Fred, AB1OC

Raspberry Pi Satellite Rotator Interface

MacDoppler and GHTracker

MacDoppler and GHTracker

We’ve been using our Portable Satellite Station 2.0 for some time now and it works great. One area that can be improved is the interface between the MacDoppler Satellite Tracking program we use and the GHTracker application which controls the Green Heron Engineering RT-21 Az/El Rotator Controller in our setup. Our initial approach was to run the GHTracker app under Windows/VMWare on the same MacBook Air laptop that runs MacDoppler. While this approach works ok, it was more complex and less reliable than we had hoped.

Fortunately, the interface between MacDoppler and GHTracker uses a UDP-based interface which will run over an IP network.

GHTracker Running On A Raspberry Pi 3

GHTracker Running On A Raspberry Pi 3

Anita, AB1QB got great results using a Raspberry Pi 2 with a Touch Screen for her DX Alarm Clock Project so I decided to do something similar with GHTracker. The new Raspberry Pi 3 Model B boards feature a built-in WiFi networking interface and four USB ports which made the RPi 3 a perfect platform for this project. An email exchange with Jeff at Green Heron Engineering confirmed that GHTracker could be made to run under Linux on the Raspberry Pi (RPi).

We wanted a compact package that did not require anything but a power supply to run the final project. There are lots of great choices of parts to build a Raspberry Pi system. Here’s what we used:

Total cost for all of the parts was $120.

Assembly of the case and the hardware was straightforward. The folks at Adafruit provide a pre-built Jesse Linux image for the RPi which includes the necessary driver for the Touch Screen Display.

After a bit of configuration work and the creation of a few shell scripts to make it easy to boot the RPi to a HDMI display or to the Touch Display, we were ready to install the GHTracker App. we also enabled the VNC Server on the RPi so that we could use a VNC Client application on our MacBook Air in place of directly connecting a display, keyboard, and mouse to the RPi. Finally, we installed Samba on our RPi to allow files to be moved between our other computers and the RPi.

GHTracker Running on the Raspberry Pi

GHTracker Running on the Raspberry Pi

Jeff at Green Heron Engineering provided a copy of GHTracker V1.23 and the necessary serial interface library to enable its use on the RPi. Jeff is planning to make a tar file available with GHTracker and the library in the near future. We did some configuration work on LXDE (the GUI interface for Linux that runs on the RPi) automatically run GHTracker whenever the RPi is booted up. We also optimized the GUI for the sole purpose of running GHTracker on the Touch Screen Display. Finally, we configured the Ethernet and WiFi interfaces on the RPi to work with our home network and with our LTE Hotspot modem.

RPi GHTracker Test Setup

RPi GHTracker Test Setup

With all of the software work done, it was time to test the combination with our Satellite Rotator System. The setup worked on the first try using a WiFi network connection between the MacBook Air Laptop running MacDoppler and the RPi. The USB-based serial ports which control Azimuth and Elevation direction of the rotators worked as soon as they were plugged into the RPi. Also, the touchscreen interface works well with the GHTracker App making the combination easy to use.

MacDoppler and GHTracker via VNC

MacDoppler and GHTracker via VNC

The VNC Client/Server combination allows us to work with the software on the RPi right form our MacBook Air laptop. It also makes for a nice display for monitoring the GHTracker App’s operation from the Mac.

Other articles in the Portable Satellite Station series include:

You may also be interested in the satellite station at our home QTH. You can read more about that here.

Thanks to the help from Jeff at Green Heron Engineering, this project was very easy to do and worked out well. The Raspberry Pi 3 platform is very powerful and relatively easy to work with. It makes a great start for many Ham Radio projects. Also, there is a wealth of online documentation, how-to information, and open source software for the RPi. I hope that some of our readers will give the RPi a try!

Fred, AB1OC

Orionid Meteor Shower: Friday Night Brings Excellent Conditions In Eastern US

Orionid Meteor Shower Forecast

Orionid Meteor Shower Forecast

One of the best meteor showers of the fall, the Orionid Meteor Shower, will peak on Friday night with over a dozen meteors streaking across the night sky every hour.

Source: Orionid meteor shower: Friday night to bring excellent viewing conditions in the Eastern US.

It looks like this weekend is going to be a good time to work Meteor Scatter contacts on 6m! The Orionid’s peak tonight (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday) night, October 20th and 21st. We’ll be operating using WSJT-X MSK144 mode on 6m. We are planning to use our Remote Operating setup to take advantage of our SDR’s receiver capabilities and the connected 500w amplifier.

Fred, AB1OC

High-Altitude Balloon Launch and Tracking

Our HAB at the Edge of Space (GoPro Capture)

Our HAB at the Edge of Space (GoPro Capture)

We made it to the edge of space! The image above was taken from our HAB at an altitude of over 90,000 ft!

After many months of work, raising funds to finance the project, teaching STEM sessions in local High Schools, and an open-house to test the Balloon Platform and to learn about Amateur Radio; our High-Altitude Balloon Project (HAB) Team finally got the chance to launch and track our Balloon. We launched our Balloon from the Elementary School in Winchester, NH.

Setting Up Our Gear

Setting Up Our Gear

Students, Teachers and Club Members came out to be part of the launch and to track our HAB. The first step was to move all of our gear to the center of the athletic fields at the school and organize all of our equipment.

Assembled Flight Platform

Assembled Flight Platform

Next, we attached the GoPro video cameras, satellite tracker and the battery pack for the Flight Computer and 2M APRS transmitter to the flight platform. We used an APRS capable HT to confirm that the flight computer and APRS transmitter were working.

Rigging the Flight Line

Rigging the Flight Line

We rigged the 40 ft. flight line which connected the HAB’s flight platform, recovery parachute and the balloon.

Balloon Inflation

Balloon Inflation

And then came the inflation of the balloon from the Helium tank. The winds were gusting to about 12 mph at this point which made inflating the balloon a little tricky. When filled, the balloon was about 6 ft. in diameter on the ground.

Launch!

Launch!

With both GoPro cameras running on the flight platform, we were ready to launch. A 10 second countdown and the balloon was up and away!

Tracking the HAB

Tracking the HAB

We watched the balloon from the ground as it soared off into the clouds. The 2M APRS tracking system worked perfectly and we spent the next several hours at the launch site, at lunch, and in our cars tracking the HAB on aprs.fi.

HAB’s Flight Path On APRS.fi

HAB’s Flight Path On APRS.fi

Our HAB’s flight path took it across Massachusetts where it reached a maximum altitude of 91,700 ft. above sea level (ASL).

Looking Upward at the Balloon (Near Burst)

Looking Upward at the Balloon (Near Burst)

The balloon reached a diameter of approximately 30 ft before it burst. After the balloon burst, the parachute deployed and the payload descended to a landing in the northeast corner of Rhode Island.

HAB at Recovery Site in Rhode Island

HAB at Recovery Site in Rhode Island

A combination of the APRS transmitter data and the on-board sounder allowed the landing location to be pinpointed and the flight platform recovered with help from a local resident.

The on-board GoPro video cameras captured some awesome video during our HAB’s ascent! All of the media captured by everyone who participated in the launch as well as the APRS data allowed us to produce the video above. Turn up your speakers and give it a play in full-screen mode to enjoy the experience what we shared!

By the time we had launched, school was at an end so we will have to wait until the fall to work with the students and teachers who were part of our STEM project to analyze the data from the flight. All in all, our HAB project has been an amazing experience for all involved. We are planning another HAB STEM experience and launch with additional schools in the fall.

We want to especially thank all of our donors whose generous contributions made this project possible.

Fred, AB1OC

 

A Portable Satellite Station Part 3 – 2.0 Station Radio and Supporting Equipment

Satellite Station Transceiver and Related Equipment

Satellite Station Transceiver and Related Equipment

With the Antenna System for our 2.0 Portable Satellite Station complete, we turned our attention to assembling the Transceiver and supporting equipment. The equipment used for this part of the project includes:

The Icom IC-9100 provides 100W on 2M and 75W on 70 cm which is more than enough power for our application. It also has some nice satellite features such as support for synchronized VFO tracking between the 2M and 70 cm VFOs in the radio. This radio also uses a single USB connection to allow computer control of the radio and creation of a sound card interface on the host computer. A Heil Pro 7 Headset will be used for operator audio to avoid feedback due to our audio coming back from the satellite. The Icom SP-23 speaker is included to allow observers to hear satellite contacts while they are in progress.

Radio Management via MacDoppler

Radio Management via MacDoppler

The MacDoppler software provides automated control of the IC-9100 including mode selection and automatic correction of both VFOs for doppler shift. These features greatly simplify the operation of the radio, especially when satellites with SSB/CW transponders are used.

The video above shows MacDoppler’s management of the IC-9100 Transceiver during a pass of AO-73. The constant adjustments of the VFOs takes care of doppler shift correction and ensure that our signal stays at a fixed position in the transponder passband of linear transponder satellites.

Preamp Sequencers and Output Monitoring

Preamp Sequencers and Output Monitoring

M2 Antenna Systems S3 Sequencers are used to provide control of the Advanced Receiver Research low-noise preamps on our portable tower. One of the nice features of the Icom IC-9100 is that it can be configured to provide separate keying lines for the 2M and 70cm VFOs. This allows a preamp to remain enabled on the receive VFO while the other VFO is in transmit mode with its preamp shutdown by the sequencer. This arrangement is very useful during tuning when one needs to hear your own signal coming back from a satellite. A custom-made cable assembly was made to interconnect the S3 Sequencers with the ACC socket on the IC-9100, the Weatherpack connector on the tower preamp control cable, and DC power.

We used the excellent WaveNode WN-2 Wattmeter again in our portable satellite setup. This is a modular output monitoring system which has sensor for VHF/UHF use as well as voltage, signal quality and other monitoring functions.

DC power for the setup is provided via a Powerwerx SS-30DV Power Supply and a RigRunner 40007U distribution unit. We use this power supply in all of our portable setups. It is light weight, provides plenty of power for a 100W station and accessories, and is quiet from an RF perspective.

Equipment Packing and Protection

Equipment Packing and Protection

With the transceiver test of the station complete, we turned our attention to transporting the setup. Proper protection of the equipment during transport was provided via a large case from Pelican. We combined this with a roller bag and an inexpensive storage bin for documentation and accessories which are not very fragile. We also included our RigExpert antenna analyzer in the setup to make testing of the station during setup in a portable environment easier.

Station Packed and Ready for Transport

Station Packed and Ready for Transport

With all of the assembly and testing of the components of our 2.0 Portable Satellite Station complete, we packed up all the components. We used an inexpensive furniture dolly to allow us to roll the tower around to load and unload it.

We are ready to test our new station in a portable application. More on that in the final article in this series. Other articles in the series include:

You may also be interested in the satellite station at our home QTH. You can read more about that here.

Fred, AB1OC

A Portable Satellite Station Part 2 – 2.0 Station Goals and Antenna System

M2 Antenna Systems LEO Pack On Display at Dayton 2016

M2 Antenna Systems LEO Pack on Display at Dayton 2016

We came upon the M2 Antenna Systems booth while walking around the exhibit halls at Dayton last year. M2 had one of their LEO Pack satellite antenna systems on display there. This got us thinking about building a new, more capable version of our portable satellite station. The LEO Pack is a relatively lightweight circularly polarized antenna system for working satellites using the 2 m and 70 cm bands. It turns out that AMSAT members can purchase the LEO Pack at a discount. Starting with the LEO Pack in mind, I began to lay out some goals for a new, 2.0 Portable Satellite Station:

  • Be capable of working all active Amateur LEO Satellites including those using linear transponders and digital modes
  • Be portable and manageable enough to be set up in an hour or less
  • Be simple enough to operate so that HAMs who are new to satellites can make all types of satellite contacts with a relatively short learning curve
  • Be manageable to transport and store
  • Utilize computer controlled antenna tracking to aim the antennas
  • Utilize computer control to manage radio VFOs to compensate for doppler shift
  • Be easy to transport and store
Computer Controlled Satellite Station Via MacDoppler

Computer Controlled Satellite Station via MacDoppler Software

We decided to take a computer controlled approach for both antenna aiming and Transceiver VFO management to meet our goal of making the station simple to operate for new satellite operators. After some research on the available options, we choose MacDoppler from Dog Park Software Ltd. for this purpose. MacDoppler runs under Mac OS/X and works well on our MacBook Air laptop computer which is very portable. This program also has broad support for many different rotator and transceiver platforms and is very easy to understand and use. Finally, the program features high-quality graphics which should make the station more interesting to folks with limited or no experience operating through Amateur Satellites.

With the satellite tracking software chosen, we made selections for the other major components in the 2.0 Portable Satellite Station as follows:

I will explain these choices in more detail as our article series proceeds.

Glen Martin Roof Tower

Glen Martin 4.5′ Roof Tower

Our solution to making the antenna system portable is built around a Glen Martin 4.5′ Roof Tower. This short tower is a high-quality piece made of extruded aluminum parts. The tower is very sturdy when assembled and is light in weight. We added a pair of extended “feet” to the tower which are fabricated from 36″ x 2″ x 1 /4″ strap steel. This gives the tower a firm base to sit on and allows us to use sandbags to weight it down (more on this later).

Our chosen Yaesu G-500 AZ/EL Rotator is a relatively inexpensive Azimuth/Elevation rotator which is suitable for light-weight satellite antennas such as those in the LEO Pack. This rotator can be installed as a single unit on the top of a tower or separated using a mast. We choose the latter approach as it is mechanically more robust and helps to keep the center of gravity for our portable antenna system low for improved stability.

Yaesu G-5500 Elevation Rotator

Yaesu G-5500 Elevation Rotator

Separating the Yaesu AZ/EL rotator requires a short mast and a thrust bearing to be used. The mast was made from an 1-3/4″ O.D. piece of EMT tubing from our local hardware store. The thrust bearing is a Yaesu GS-065 unit. Both of these pieces fit nicely in the Glen Martin Tower. The thrust bearing provides support for the LEO Pack and G-500 elevation rotator and greatly reduces stress on the azimuth rotator. We also added a Yaesu GA-300 Shock Absorber Mount to the azimuth rotator. This part provides shock isolation for and reduces strain on the azimuth rotator during the frequent starts and stops which occur during satellite tracking.

LMR-400 Feed-lines And Antenna Connection Jumpers

LMR-400UF Feed-lines and Antenna Connection Jumpers

We decided to use LMR-400 UltraFlex coax throughout our antenna system. LMR-400UF coax provides a good balance between size, flexibility, and loss for our application. To keep feed-line losses reasonable, we choose to limit the total length of the coax from the transceiver output to the antenna feed point to 50′. This results in a loss of about 1.3 dB on the 70 cm band. The result is that our planned IC-9100 Transceiver which has a maximum output of 75W on 70 cm will deliver a little more than 50W maximum at the feed point of the 70 cm yagi. This should be more than enough power to meet our station goals. Allowing a total of 15′ for antenna rotator loops and transceiver connections, we settled upon 35′ for the length of our coax feed-lines between the tower and the station control point.

Portable Tower Cable Connections and Base Straps

Portable Tower Cable Connections and Base Straps

We added some custom fabricated plates to the tower to act as a bulkhead for feed line and control cable connections and to mount our low-noise preamplifiers. The control connections for the rotators and preamps were made using 6-pin Weatherpack connectors and rotator control cable from DXEngineering. The control cables are also 35′ long to match the length of our coax feed lines. This length should allow the tower and the control point to be separated by a reasonable distance in portable setups.

Low-Noise Preamplifiers From Advanced Receiver Research

Low-Noise Preamplifiers from Advanced Receiver Research

We added tower-mounted Low-Noise Preamplifiers from Advanced Receiver Research to improve the receive sensitivity and noise figure for our satellite antenna system. Two preamps are used – one each for the 2 m and one for 70 cm antennas. While these units can be RF switched, we decided to include the preamp control lead in our control cable to allow for control of the preamp switching via sequencers. This was done to provide an extra measure of protection for the preamps.

Levels And Compass For Tower Setup

Levels and Compass for Tower Setup

We added a compass and pair of bubble levels to the tower assembly to make it easier to orient and level it during setup. This picture above also shows the Yaesu shock absorbing mount for the azimuth rotator.

Weight Bags To Anchor Portable Tower

Weight Bags to Anchor Portable Tower

Finally, we added a set of weight bags to securely anchor the tower when it is set up in a portable environment. These bags are filled with crushed stone and fasten to the legs of the Glen Martin tower with velcro straps.

LEO Pack Antenna Parts

LEO Pack Antenna Parts

With the tower and rotator elements complete, we turned our attention to the assembly of the M2 LEO Pack. The LEO pack consists of two circularly polarized yagis for the 2m and 70 cm bands. The 2m Yagi is an M2 Systems 2MCP8A which has 8 elements (4 horizontal and 4 vertical) and provides 9.2 dBic of forward gain. The 70 cm Yagi is an M2 Systems 436CP16 with 16 elements (8 horizontal and 8 vertical) and provides 13.3 dBic of forward gain. Both Yagi’s are meant to be rear mounted on an 8.5′ aluminum cross boom which is included in the LEO Pack. The picture above shows all of the parts for the two antennas before assembly. It took us about a 1/2 day to assemble and test the antennas and both produced the specified SWR performance when assembled and test in clear surroundings.

Assembled LEO Pack On Portable Tower

Assembled LEO Pack on Portable Tower

The picture above shows the assembled LEO pack on the portable tower. We attached a short 28″ piece of mast material to the cross boom as a counterweight to provide better overall balance and to minimize strain on the elevation rotator. The antennas and the two outer sections of the mast can be easily removed to transport the antenna system.

2m Circularly Polarized Yagi Feed Point

2m Circularly Polarized Yagi Feed Point

The LEO Pack yagis achieve circular polarization via a matching network which drives the vertical and horizontal sections of the antennas with a 90-degree phase shift. The phase shift (and a final 50-ohm match) is achieved using 1/4 wave delay lines made of coax cables. We configured our antennas for right-hand circular polarization. The choice between right and left-hand circular polarization is not a critical one in our LEO satellite application as most LEO satellites are not circularly polarized. The advantage of circular polarization in our application is the minimization of spin fading effects.

Green Heron RT-21 Az/El Rotator Controller

Green Heron RT-21 AZ/EL Rotator Controller

The final step in the construction of our antenna system was to add the rotator controller and test the computer aiming system. We have had very good results using Green Heron Engineering rotator controllers in our home station so we selected their RT-21 AZ/EL rotator controller for this application. The RT-21 AZ/EL rotator controller is really two rotator controllers in a single box. The rotator control parameters such as minimum and maximum rotator speed, ramp, offset, over travel and others can be independently set for each rotator.

Rotator Test Using MacDoppler

Rotator Test Using MacDoppler

The RT-21 AZ/EL Rotator Controller connects to our computer via a pair of USB cables. We run Green Heron’s GH Tracker software on our MacBook Air laptop to manage the computer side of the rotator controller and to provide a UDP protocol interface to the MacDoppler tracking software. The picture above shows the test setup used to verify the computer controlled antenna pointing system.

Mixed OS/X and Windows Software Environment

Mixed OS/X and Windows Software Environment

One challenge associated with selecting a Mac OS/X platform for computer control is what to do about the inevitable need to run Windows software as part of the system. In addition to the GH Tracker software, the WaveNode WN-2 Wattmeter and digital modem software for satellite/ISS APRS and other applications require a Windows run-time environment. To solve this problem, we use a virtual machine environment implemented using VMware Fusion and Windows 10 64-bit on our MacBook Air Laptop along with Mac OS/X. Using the Unity feature of VMware Fusion allows us to run windows apps such as GH Tracker as if they were native Mac OS/X apps. The picture above shows an example of this.

Rotator Controller and Software Configuration

Rotator Controller and Software Configuration

With the antennas removed from the cross boom, we tested the operation of the computer controlled tracking system. The Yaesu G-5500 AZ/EL Rotator have some limits as to its pointing accuracy and backlash performance.  Experimentation with the combination of the RT-21 AZ/EL rotator controller, GH Tracker, and MacDoppler setups were required to achieve smooth overall operation. We finally settled on a strategy of “lead the duck” tracking. The idea here is to set up the rotators so that they over-travel by a degree or so when the computer adjusts them and couple this with a relatively wide 2-3 degree tracking resolution. This maximizes the overall accuracy of the pointing system and minimizes the tendency towards the constant start-stop operation of the rotators during satellite tracking. Our current configuration for all of the elements involved in the tracking system is shown above.

With the antenna system complete and tested, we can move onto the next step in our project – the construction of a computer controlled transceiver system. We will cover this element in the next part in this series. Other articles in the series include:

You may also be interested in the satellite station at our home QTH. You can read more about that here.

Fred, AB1OC