Thursday, December 31, 2015

Capturing Weather Satellites Easily

I've been wanting to capture weather satellite signals for quite a while. This was one of my considerations when I chose the SDRPlay, since the high-quality digital mode is 4 MHz wide. Tonight I was able to capture the low-quality analog signal.

For this and most of my other experiments, I used TV rabbit ears. They're from Target and cost about $20. This is my go-to antenna, offering great performance on VHF and up. With it, I've been able to receive broadcast FM, 1900 MHz GSM, and everything in between. Just don't expect it to do HF very well.

I'm particularly interested in the digital HRPT signals, but since I'm not fully set up for that yet, I had to settle for the analog one. That's OK, because I didn't even see anything on the HRPT frequencies when NOAA-19 passed by this afternoon.

Unlike what I first expected, it's not hard to capture weather satellites, even though some online tutorials might look hard. My favorite radio projects are those that accept an audio signal through Stereo Mix and decode it live. I don't like having to record, transcode, feed IQ into complex software, etc. I will if necessary, like I did with GNURadio and ATSC, but I really prefer live audio-based decoders.

I did manage to capture a weak signal of NOAA-19's analog broadcast. It was too weak, so I didn't get a good decode. Later, NOAA-18 made a pass and I managed to tune it in. The funny thing was, Stellarium reported it as transmitting on 137.1 MHz. I didn't see anything when I tuned there, so I checked Wikipedia and it said that NOAA-18 is actually on 137.9125 MHz, having moved to that frequency in 2009. It's a good thing I didn't just wait for a signal, because I would've missed a great pass.

I tried to look up what LRPT looks like on, but there was nothing. Turns out the signal is actually called APT. LRPT is a Russian digital (but low-res) format. I've included pictures of APT below.

Very strong:

Really bad when it passed over my house:

I also would've appreciated a sound sample so I could positively identify it, so I've included one. It's recorded in NFM.


I managed to find a program called WXtoImg that can decode by sound instead of pre-recorded files. It's free but you can pay for more features if you want.

Next you need a program to tell you where and when the satellites will pass. I use Stellarium. Since I have an older video card, I have to use the 0.12.x series. Enable the satellites plugin and make sure it updates the orbital elements (it should do so automatically.)

Now zoom out and scroll in such a way that the ground wraps around so that the sky is a circle in the middle. This lets you see the whole sky at once. Go into Stellarium's Date and Time dialog, click in the minute, and push the Up arrow key. Stop when a weather satellite shows up (Hint: NOAA-17 is dead.) Try to find a good, high pass. I ignore any passes that just skim the horizon. You might want to look up which other NOAA satellites are dead. NOAA-15, -18, and -19 are functional at the time of this writing. Make a note of the time and direction the satellites rises. Try to find a window that faces that direction or go outdoors when it's time.

When the time comes, turn on HDSDR, set the mode to FM, bandwidth to about 30 KHz, tune to the proper frequency, and notice how it is a few kilohertz off. This is due to Doppler shift. Zoom in and tune to the actual center frequency. Since this is FM, being off-center will hamper the signal. Be sure that Stereo Mix is your default recording source and that the volume is about right.

You can also record 48 KHz IF and demodulate it later if you prefer. It's quite easy in HDSDR, just right-click the Record button and check the IF checkbox. This would let you go back and try different settings without missing the pass.

Be sure to turn on AFC in HDSDR. This tells HDSDR to automatically stay centered on the signal as the frequency shifts.

Open WXtoImg. Click File->Record. Under Record and auto process, click Create image(s). Then click Manual Test. It should now start scanning upwards. You should see test patterns on the side and be able to recognize clouds. If you're indoors, the signal will go away abruptly as the satellite passes directly over your house and sets, even if the antenna is in a window. It might work better if the antenna is outside with a clear view of the sky.

Here is the final, but unprocessed, picture:
(click to enlarge)

Notice how the lines in the waterfall above are slanted? As the satellite rises and sets, the Doppler shift constantly changes the signal's perceived frequency. This is why you need to enable AFC.

Friday, December 18, 2015

My opinion of Digital TV

I think digital TV is a great concept, but is not implemented correctly.

(Update 1/13/2016) I found out from the GNURadio mailing list that the ATSC group is working on a new version of ATSC (version 3) that uses OFDM. The new standard was exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week and will probably solve the unreliability issue.

In 2009, most TV stations in the United States were forced to turn off analog transmitters. In September 2015, the last few stations were told to turn off their analog channels. Cable and satellite are still allowed to use analog, but it's cheaper for them to use digital because they can pack more channels into the same bandwidth.

The government claimed it needed a lot of the old analog channels for mobile broadband (LTE) and public safety communications. It seems to me that TV broadcasters could have just been told, "We're kicking you off the high channels because a cell company offered us a lot of money," and let them keep transmitting analog in their new channels. Analog probably wouldn't have bothered the higher-frequency services. It isn't a "waste of bandwidth" as some say, because in terms of RF bandwidth, digital channels use the same amount (although they do multiplex multiple channels onto it.) Also, it makes no sense to ban analog on low bands like 50 MHz. Cell companies obviously have no use for those bands, so why waste spectrum by outlawing analog transmission in them? I'm pretty sure the ionosphere would never let ATSC work in a band like that.

I seem to remember reading, possibly on the FCC website, about how digital stations have increased coverage because they're more efficient. I even saw a map comparing coverage areas before and after the transition. Anyone who's watched over-the-air digital TV knows that's a lie. Far away, you could get a snowy picture. Even if you couldn't get the picture, the sound on analog was pretty reliable. Now it's all or nothing. If you don't get perfect reception, you get none at all.

But, assuming it was necessary to change to digital, how could things have been done better?

Whoever designed ATSC should have known that VSB (vestigial sideband) was a bad idea. VSB is a form of AM, and we all know AM isn't very reliable in bad conditions. Old analog channels used VSB for the picture and ordinary FM (the same format as broadcast FM) for the sound. I'd love to see digital TV get implemented in ultra-wide FM, maybe 10-20 MHz wide. I'm sure that would make the signal nearly unstoppable, but it would also take up too much spectrum.

We've had since the 1940's to figure out that VSB is prone to issues. Why would we choose it for our digital standard? In Europe they use OFDM for their DVB-T standard. Some say OFDM is better. It's what other services like Wi-Fi use. Wikipedia says it's more reliable in the presence of multipath and bad weather than digital VSB. Multipath is what keeps TV from working in a moving vehicle. And what about passing vehicles? If they reflect the signal just right, the signal will go out. If you look online, you can find a story about a US company that wanted the FCC to give TV broadcasters the choice of OFDM vs digital VSB. The FCC said no, so we're stuck with VSB.

I know analog was great because I remember one rainy day in the mountains with a portable TV. The FM sound came through, but the AM picture was obliterated by the rain.

I'd like to see analog come back as a broadcaster's choice, but that's not likely. It turns out I'm not the only one who wants analog back. Here's what someone commented at
A small majority of us, here, in the US are currently petitioning our congress to bring back analog since signal interference is caused by trains, snowmobiles, & autos. It's almost 2013 and the dtv has not become better for the millions of lower class who once had reception on functioning equipment.
There are many others online who feel the same way. There are some petitions you can sign online asking the government to allow analog TV again. The higher frequencies are gone to cell companies, but analog in the low bands would still be great. I'd sign them if I thought it would do any good, but if you're interested here are some links:

Petition2Congress: Bring Analog TV Back!!!!!!!
GoPetition: Bring back Analog for the people who can't afford to switch to Digital TV
thepetitionsite: bring back analog TV