CALL for HACKER SPACE PROGRAM
the HACKERSPACE GLOBAL GRID (HGG)
Hackers plan space satellites to combat censorship
by David Meyer / 4 January 2012
The scheme was outlined at the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin. The project’s organisers said the Hackerspace Global Grid will also involve developing a grid of ground stations to track and communicate with the satellites. Longer term they hope to help put an amateur astronaut on the moon. Hobbyists have already put a few small satellites into orbit – usually only for brief periods of time – but tracking the devices has proved difficult for low-budget projects. The hacker activist Nick Farr first put out calls for people to contribute to the project in August. He said that the increasing threat of internet censorship had motivated the project. “The first goal is an uncensorable internet in space. Let’s take the internet out of the control of terrestrial entities,” Mr Farr said. He cited the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the United States as an example of the kind of threat facing online freedom. If passed, the act would allow for some sites to be blocked on copyright grounds.
Although space missions have been the preserve of national agencies and large companies, amateur enthusiasts have launched objects into the heavens. High-altitude balloons have also been used to place cameras and other equipment into what is termed “near space”. The balloons can linger for extended amounts of time – but are not suitable for satellites. The amateur radio satellite Arissat-1 was deployed into low earth orbit last year via a spacewalk by two Russian cosmonauts from the International Space Station as part of an educational project. Students and academics have also launched other objects by piggybacking official rocket launches. However, these devices have often proved tricky to pinpoint precisely from the ground. According to Armin Bauer, a 26-year-old enthusiast from Stuttgart who is working on the Hackerspace Global Grid, this is largely due to lack of funding. “Professionals can track satellites from ground stations, but usually they don’t have to because, if you pay a large sum [to send the satellite up on a rocket], they put it in an exact place,” Mr Bauer said. In the long run, a wider hacker aerospace project aims to put an amateur astronaut onto the moon within the next 23 years. “It is very ambitious so we said let’s try something smaller first,” Mr Bauer added.
The Berlin conference was the latest meeting held by the Chaos Computer Club, a decades-old German hacker group that has proven influential not only for those interested in exploiting or improving computer security, but also for people who enjoy tinkering with hardware and software. When Mr Farr called for contributions to Hackerspace, Mr Bauer and others decided to concentrate on the communications infrastructure aspect of the scheme. He and his teammates are working on their part of the project together with Constellation, an existing German aerospace research initiative that mostly consists of interlinked student projects. In the open-source spirit of Hackerspace, Mr Bauer and some friends came up with the idea of a distributed network of low-cost ground stations that can be bought or built by individuals. Used together in a global network, these stations would be able to pinpoint satellites at any given time, while also making it easier and more reliable for fast-moving satellites to send data back to earth. “It’s kind of a reverse GPS,” Mr Bauer said. “GPS uses satellites to calculate where we are, and this tells us where the satellites are. We would use GPS co-ordinates but also improve on them by using fixed sites in precisely-known locations.” Mr Bauer said the team would have three prototype ground stations in place in the first half of 2012, and hoped to give away some working models at the next Chaos Communication Congress in a year’s time. They would also sell the devices on a non-profit basis. “We’re aiming for 100 euros (£84) per ground station. That is the amount people tell us they would be willing to spend,” Mr Bauer added.
Experts say the satellite project is feasible, but could be restricted by technical limitations. “Low earth orbit satellites such as have been launched by amateurs so far, do not stay in a single place but rather orbit, typically every 90 minutes,” said Prof Alan Woodward from the computing department at the University of Surrey. “That’s not to say they can’t be used for communications but obviously only for the relatively brief periods that they are in your view. It’s difficult to see how such satellites could be used as a viable communications grid other than in bursts, even if there were a significant number in your constellation.” This problem could be avoided if the hackers managed to put their satellites into geostationary orbits above the equator. This would allow them to match the earth’s movement and appear to be motionless when viewed from the ground. However, this would pose a different problem. “It means that they are so far from earth that there is an appreciable delay on any signal, which can interfere with certain Internet applications,” Prof Woodward said. “There is also an interesting legal dimension in that outer space is not governed by the countries over which it floats. So, theoretically it could be a place for illegal communication to thrive. However, the corollary is that any country could take the law into their own hands and disable the satellites.”
Need for knowledge
Apart from the ground station scheme, other aspects of the Hackerspace project that are being worked on include the development of new electronics that can survive in space, and the launch vehicles that can get them there in the first place. According to Mr Farr, the “only motive” of the Hackerspace Global Grid is knowledge. He said many participants are frustrated that no person has been sent past low Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. “This [hacker] community can put humanity back in space in a meaningful way,” Farr said. “The goal is to get back to where we were in the 1970s. Hackers find it offensive that we’ve had the technology since before many of us were born and we haven’t gone back.” Asked whether some might see negative security implications in the idea of establishing a hacker presence in space, Farr said the only downside would be that “people might not be able to censor your internet. Hackers are about open information,” Farr added. “We believe communication is a human right.”
PREVIOUSLY on SPECTRE
CONSUMER USE: SURREY SATELLITES (SSTL)
DIY PERSONAL SATELLITES
BRAZILIAN SATELLITE SQUATTERS
RUSSIANS LAUNCHING SATELLITES from SUBS
COWS as COMPASS
SOLAR FLARES: a CARRINGTON EVENT
EARTH WILL HAVE RINGS
DIY SATELLITE INTERNET
by David Meyer / January 3, 2012
Hackers have announced work on a ground station scheme that would make amateur satellites more viable, as part of an aerospace scheme that ultimately aims for the moon. The Hackerspace Global Grid (HGG) project hopes to make it possible for amateurs to more accurately track the home-brewed satellites. As these devices tend to be launched by balloon, they are not placed at a precise point in orbit as professional satellites deployed by rocket usually are. Armin Bauer, one of the three German hobbyists involved in the HGG, said at the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin that the system involved a reversal of the standard GPS technique. The scheme was announced at the event, which is Europe’s largest hacker conference. “GPS uses satellites to calculate where we are, and this tells us where the satellites are,” Bauer said on Friday, according to the BBC. “We would use GPS co-ordinates but also improve on them by using fixed sites in precisely-known locations.”
According to the HGG website, enthusiasts would site the ground stations using coordinates not only from the US’s GPS system, but also those from the EU’s Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS and ground surveys. A major aim of the wider ‘Hacker Space Program’ is to create a satellite system for internet communication that is uncensorable by any country. The hackers also want to put someone on the moon by 2034 — something that has not been done since the Apollo 17 mission 39 years ago. Bauer described the moon mission as “very ambitious”. As for the anti-censorship aspects of the scheme, the HGG team said on their site that they are “not yet in a technical position to discuss details”. They also noted that the modular ground stations, which are intended to work out at a non-profit sales price of €100 (£84) each, would be able to work without the internet. “Then you will have to deploy four receiver stations and connect them to your laptop(s) or collect all storage media added to them, where all received data is stored on,” the team wrote. “Then you have to manage the data handling and processing by your own.” However, internet connectivity is the plan for most of the HGG’s usage. The team is working on the project alongside Constellation, an German aerospace research platform for academics that would use the distributed network to derive crucial data.
According to Bauer and his colleagues, the internet connectivity would be of “bare minimum” bandwidth that would be enough to keep basic communications going if needed. “The first step is establishing a means of accurate synchronisation for the distributed network,” the team explained. “Next up are building various receiver modules (ADS-B, amateur satellites, etc) and data processing of received signals. A communication/control channel (read: sending data) is a future possibility but there are no fixed plans on how this could be implemented yet.” The HGG team hopes to have working prototypes in the first half of the year, with production units ready for distribution by the end of 2012. These would be sold, but people would be able to build their own as well. If the Hacker Space Program really does take off, the satellites would be out of any country’s legal jurisdiction, but this would also leave any country that is capable of doing so free to disable them in some way. The HGG team admitted on their site that there would nothing they could do to stop this happening. “Since we don’t have actual satellites yet, this falls in the category of problems we’re going to solve once they occur,” they wrote. “We’re doing this because we want to and because it’s fun. We’re trying to concentrate on reasons why this will work, not why it won’t.”
INFRASTRUCTURE NEEDS – GROUND STATIONS
Building a Distributed Satellite Ground Station Network – A Call To Arms
Hackers need satellites. Hackers need internet over satellites. Satellites require ground stations. Let’s build them!
As proposed by Nick Farr et al at CCCamp11, we – the hacker community – are in desperate need for our own communication infrastructure. So here we are, answering the call for the Hacker Space Program with our proposal of a distributed satellite communications ground station network. An affordable way to bring satellite communications to a hackerspace near you. We’re proposing a multi-step approach to work towards this goal by setting up a distributed network of ground stations which will ensure a 24/7 communication window – first tracking, then communicating with satellites. The current state of a proof of concept implementation will be presented. This is a project closely related to the academic femto-satellite movement, ham radio, Constellation@Home.
The area of small satellites (femto-satellite <0.1 kg up to mini-satellite 100-500 kg) is currently pressed forward by Universities and enables scientific research at a small budget. Gathered data, both scientific and operational, requires communication between satellites and ground stations as well as to the final recipients of the data. One either has to establish own transmission stations or rent already existing stations. The project “distributed ground station” is an extension to the project which will offer, at its final expansion state, the ability to receive data from satellites and relay them to the final recepients. It is therefore proposed that a world-wide distributed network of antennas is to be set up which will be connected via the internet allowing the forwarding of received signals to a central server which will in turn forward signals to further recepients. Individual antennas will be set up by volunteers (Citizen Scientists) and partner institutions (Universities, institutes, companies). The core objective of the project is to develop an affordable hardware platform (antenna and receiver) to be connected to home computers as well as the required software. This platform should enable everyone to receive signals from femto-satellites at a budget and in doing so, eradicating black patches where there is currently no ground station to receive signals of satellites passing over-head. Emphasise is put on contributions by volunteers and ham radio operators who can contribute both passively by setting up a receiver station or actively by shaping the project making it a community driven effort powered by open-source hardware and applications.
Purposes The distributed ground stations will enable many different uses. Using distributed ground stations one could receive beacon signals of satellites and triangulate their position and trajectory. It would therefore be possible to determine the kepler elements right after launching of a new satellite without having to rely on official reports made at low frequency. Beacon tracking is also not limited to just satellites but can be used to track other objects like weather balloons and areal drones and record their flight paths. Additionally, beacon signals (sender ID, time, transmission power) could be augmented with house-keeping data to allow troubleshooting in cases where a main data feed is interrupted. Details regarding the protocol and maximum data packet length are to be defined during the feasibility study phase. Furthermore, distributed ground stations can be used as “data dumping” receivers. This can be used to reduce load on the main ground station as well as to more quickly distribute data to final recipients. The FunCube project, an out-reach project to schools, is already using a similar approach. Another expansion stage would be increasing the bandwidth of the individual receivers. As a side-effect, distributed ground station could also be used to analyse meteorite scattering and study effects in the ionosphere by having a ground-based sender with a known beacon signal to be reflected off meteorites and/or the iononosphere and in turn received by the distributed ground stations. Depending on the frequency used further applications in the field of atmospheric research, eg. local and regional properties of the air and storm clouds, can be imagined. Depending on local laws and guidelines, antennas could also be used to transmit signals. The concept suggests the following expansion stages:
- Feasibility study for the individual expansion stages
- Beacon-Tracking and sender triangulation
- Low-bandwidth satellite-data receiver (up to 10 Kbit/s)
- High-bandwidth satellite-data receiver (up to 10 Mbit/s)
- Support for data transmission Each stage is again split up into sub-projects to deal with hardware and software design and develoment, prototyping, testing and batch/mass production, Network The networking concept demands that all distributed ground stations are to be connected via the internet. This can be achieved using the Constellation platform. Constellation is a distributed computing project used already for various simulations related to aerospace applications. The system is based on computation power donated by volunteers which is combined to effectively build a world-wide distributed super-computer. The software used to do this is BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) which also offers support for additional hardware to eg. establish a sensor network. Another BOINC-project is the Quake Quatcher Network which is using accelleration sensors built into laptops or custom USB-dongles to detected earthquakes. Constellation could be enhanced to allow use of the distributed ground station hardware. Constellation is an academic student group of the DGLR (german aerospace society) at Stuttgart University and is supported by Rechenkraft.net e.V and Selfnet e.V.. Ham radio and volunteers Special consideration is given to the ham radio community. Femto-satellites make use of the ham radio bands in the UHF, VHF, and S-Band range. As a part of the ham radio community ham radio operators should be treated as part of the network. Ham radio operators hold all required knowledge about the technology required to operate radio equipment and are also well distributed world-wide. To also make the system attractive to volunteers, hardware should be designed in a way that allows manufacturing and distribution on a budget. All designs should also be made public to allow own and improved builds of the system by the community. The hardware should be designed to be simple to use correctly and hard to be used wrong.
 Constellation Plattform, aerospaceresearch.net/constellation  shackspace Stuttgart, http://www.shackspace.de References  IRS Kleinsatelliten, Universität Stuttgart, kleinsatelliten.de  Constellation Plattform, aerospaceresearch.net/constellation  BOINC, Berkely University, boinc.edu  Quake Catcher Network, qcn.stanford.eu  DGLR Bezirksgruppe Stuttgart, stuttgart.dglr.de  Rechenkraft.net e.V., rechenkraft.net  Selfnet e.V., selfnet.de