The Powerbase: With commercial entities like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic competing for launch contracts, it seems we are well on our way to lowering the cost of space travel into the practical realm. We may be only a few years away from seeing a time when any university or well funded group of individuals can have their own satellite. What kind of impact do you think this will have for us here on Earth?
Alexandru: I don’t know. I don’t like trying to predict the future. I just hope this will make (sub)orbital flights be affordable within my lifetime and without winning the lottery.
The Powerbase: Do you have any concerns about increased access to space? Do you think we run the risk of further contributing to space junk and creating new hazards for existing spacecraft if anyone with enough money can launch their own payload into orbit? There was concern in 2010 when the Galaxy 15 satellite went rogue, could these sort of events become more common in the coming years?
Alexandru: I suppose so, however, I have the impression that regulatory agencies are now well aware of such issues and AFAIK measures are being taken to reduce the problem, for example, most cubesats are placed in a decaying orbit. On the other hand, looking at how much trash the human race produces every day on Earth and how little we generally care about it, the “space junk” issue shouldn’t be underestimated.
The Powerbase: Your software fits a very specific niche. Gpredict is an excellent package for tracking satellites, and Gqrx is well on its way to becoming the best Software Defined Radio (SDR) receiver on GNU/Linux. What is the future like for these pieces of software? Do you have any other planned projects we can look forward to?
Alexandru: I plan to make a much needed gpredict release by the end of the year. It will include many accumulated bug fixes and the gpsd support. I’m not sure what to do with gpredict in the long term. I feel like rewriting it from scratch (for the second time) using a different toolkit, since portability og Gtk+ applications has turned out to be a mixed success.
Work on Gqrx continues. I have two contributed branches on Github (FM stereo and horizontal zoom) that need some work and be merged into the master branch. I also have a few undisclosed ideas for new functionality that is going to kick ass, plus finmishing RTL-SDR support and re-enabling portability to Mac.
I do have a few new projects in the loop for the coming season, but I’d prefer not to talk about them yet.
Future of Amateur Radio
The Powerbase: Lack of interest and “new blood” is an issue the ham radio scene has been struggling with for awhile. It seems like the magic of being able to communicate with others over long distances is lost on younger generations, who have never known what it was like to not be able to communicate with others instantly on a global scale. Do you think there is anything we can do to get younger people interested in ham, or does it risk becoming a lost art?
Alexandru: I don’t know – I’ve always been a nerd so doing outreach and PR is really not my thing, though I’m not surprised that kids don’t find grandpa’s hobby interesting… I can imagine that targeting those who like to tinker with electronics, robotics, high altitude balloons etc. would make sense. This group already uses radio communications in form of various wireless devices. For them, getting a ham radio license would bring upgraded capabilities in terms of wider frequency access and higher RF power compared to what is allowed without any license.
The Powerbase: You’ve done quite a bit of work with Software Defined Radio (SDR), first with the USRP, then the FUNcube dongle, and now of course the very popular RTL-SDR. With the cost of SDR dropping so rapidly, and with the increased availability of software like Gpredict and Gqrx, do you think SDR is going to be one of the key technologies in private space programs?
Alexandru: SDR is already a key technology in pretty much anything wireless. It’s like a PC with an office suite versus a typewriter kind of question. I think people misunderstand and believe that SDR means using a PC, but that is not the case. In my opinion, SDR means that some radio functionality is performed by software that can be replaced without altering the hardware. The software can run on anything; a PC, a DSP chip sitting inside a handheld radio, and FPGA, and so on. In fact, many of the current communication radios from Yaesu, Kenwood, Icom, Elecraft, … are SDRs since they contain a DSP running SDR code. The functionality can be changed by uploading new code to the DSP – at least theoretically; whether manufacturers choose to do that is a different matter.
The Powerbase: Talking about software defined radio on the PC specifically, do you believe that low cost hardware such as the FUNcube dongle or RTL-SDR devices are a good way for someone new to radio communications to get a feel for it? Being able to pick up NOAA satellites with nothing more than a $20 USD device and a simple antenna seems like an excellent way to get people interested in the hobby.
Alexandru: I suppose so, but I think introducing someone to radio communications on VHF and up really requires a specific project. Unlike short waves that are full of funny signals, there is really not much you can hear on VHF/UHF unless you know what you want to listen for. So I think it requires a specific tasks, e.g. receive weather satellite imagery, receive data from a wireless weather station, listen to airport traffic, receive data from the Funcube satellite, receive telemetry from your quadcopter and so on. In such cases one can present an RTL-SDR or Funcube dongle as cheap alternatives. Also if someone wants to learn signal processing then these dongles are great to get hands on experience with real signals. I remember few years ago I had to buy a USRP from Ettus to get that experience, and even that was cheap compared to alternatives. I think universities in poor countries find the rtl-sdr devices very handy.
A very sincere thanks to Alexandru for making time in his busy schedule of launching rockets to answer our questions. Alexandru’s professional and private accomplishments are a true inspiration to those of us who dream of one day looking back on Earth from a distance.