Hackers In Space: Hackerspace Global Grid Interview


At the Chaos Communication Camp 2011 Jens Ohlig, Lars Weiler, and Nick Farr proposed a daunting task: to land a hacker on the Moon by 2034. The plan calls for three separate phases:

  1. Establishing an open, free, and globally accessible satellite communication network
  2. Put a human into orbit
  3. Land on the Moon

Interestingly enough, there is already considerable work being done on the second phase of this plan by the Copenhagen Suborbitals, and Google’s own Lunar X Prize is trying to spur development of robotic missions to the Moon. But what about the first phase? Answering the call is the “shackspace”, a hackerspace from Stuttgart, Germany, who’ve begun work on an ambitious project they’re calling the “Hackerspace Global Grid“.

Hadez Img

We recently caught up with one of the core team members, hadez, who took some time to talk with us a bit about the current state of the project and what we should expect going forward.

Hackerspace Global Grid Concept

The Powerbase: There seems to have been a lot of miscommunication about what the Hackerspace Global Grid (HGG) really is, and what your goals are. So perhaps the best question to start off with, especially for readers who may only just be hearing about the HGG, is pretty straightforward: What exactly is the HGG?

hadez:  We want to build a distributed satellite ground station network or to be more precise, a distributed measurement platform. One major goal of the project is also learning about everything required to actually accomplish this. For instance electronic design, radio communications, high accuracy timing, etc.

The ground station itself will be a fairly compact and modular system. We’ll start out with modules like a power supply, a high accuracy timing source based on GPS, an ADS-B receiver as a proof of concept to prototype the satellite tracking software and so on. Our plan is to end up with a base system that can easily be built upon and extended with more modules. It’s all going to be open source, the software, hardware and documentation.

The Powerbase: In your documentation you stress how important it is for this ground station network to have very high resolution timers in order to track the satellites. Why is it so important that we have such precise satellite tracking?

hadez: If you want to use high gain antennas for high-speed broad band communication you naturally end up with an antenna that has a fairly narrow field of view.  This  implies that you know the location of your satellite very accurately.

The Powerbase:  Couldn’t you use the data published by NORAD? Doesn’t that work for the amateur (ham) radio operators who communicate with satellites?

hadez: Yes and no, once data from NORAD is available it can of course be used and continuously refined by repeatedly tracking the sat and adjusting the Keplerian elements. However, one ambitious goal we have as part of the Constellation project is trying to track satellites right after orbit insertion.

Data from NORAD and the likes usually only becomes available with a two week delay which will be two weeks in which you do not know where your sat is, if it reached the correct orbit or if it is working at all.

HGG Logo
Hacerkspace Global Grid

Ground Station Design

The Powerbase:  So the ground station network will give us information on satellite position without waiting on NORAD, which will be important when we start dealing with our own satellites. Is that all? Will the ground station units also be able to communicate with the satellites, or are they just tracking devices?

hadez:  The ground station is more of a platform really. You can build and plug in whatever module you want. What you’ll get by doing this is access to the ground stations high accuracy timing source which will be synchronized between all ground stations since it’s (for the time being) based on GPS. GPS by itself is not much more than a time distribution system. The fact that you can determine your location if you know the exact time from multiple satellites is kind of a byproduct 😉

But what this means is that you can add whatever you want, be it a weather station, a radio receiver or sender.

The Powerbase:  So eventually, when somebody adds satellite radio capability to the ground station hardware, would it be to receive or to transmit? Wouldn’t transmission require an amateur radio operators license?

hadez: You’re free to add sending capabilities at any point in time. Right now the HGG core team based out of the Stuttgart hackerspace “shackspace” is focusing on getting a first version of a proof of concept hardware up and running. So building a transmit module isn’t on our immediate roadmap just yet.

In any case, once you start transmitting checking applicable laws covering the frequency range you’re planning on using is probably a good idea 😉

The Powerbase: When your ground station device is completed, are you planning to make it available as a kit or a completed product? Or is your goal only to design it, and let others build their own or turn it into a marketable product?

hadez: Whether or not we’ll be selling kits at any point in the future isn’t clear yet, we’ll think about that once we have to. But since everything is open source from the get-go everyone is free to build their own based on our designs or improve upon them.

About Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .