How would you like to have a complete, cheap computer controlled rotator system for working the current half dozen (soon to be at least 8) active ham radio satellites for a total cost of around $200 including rotator – with excellent satellite tracking software and rig control included for free?
Thanks to friend Robin Moseley, G1MHU, I’ve been able to finally and cheaply implement computer control tracking with my equally cheap TV rotor that I use for working the AMSAT satellites.
On top of that, I even ended up with excellent satellite tracking software, as a bonus, that actually works exactly the way it is supposed to, for no extra charge!
I know there are a lot of newbies and even a lot of oldies that might have an interest in getting on the amateur satellites – but who have been turned off by the high cost of a computer controlled antenna system. This approach might be a game changer for those with limited dollars who still want to work the birds without spending $2,000 or more on the antenna system.
Did I Mention Cheap?
You may notice the above preponderance of the word “cheap.” If you’re like me, you have so many interests that you end up with limited resources by the time you try to buy all of the necessary toys for each interest.
Ham radio has been one of my primary hobbies since I was 11 years old and probably my most enjoyable hobby that I do without my wife. Since my wife has zero interest in ham radio, for some reason, she seems to prefer that we allocate more resources toward those things that she and I do together. Go figure.
Then and Now – My Ham Radio Satellite Setup
Over two dozen years ago I had a full set up for working the ham radio satellites including big circularly polarized beams, mast mounted preamps and a Yaesu G 5400 AZ EL rotor.
Now as I get back into this aspect of the hobby, I am on a tighter, semi-retired budget and didn’t want to spend $1,000 for another computer controlled Yaesu rotor system to move around less than 10 pounds of antenna.
Instead, I’m currently using two small, linear polarized Diamond antennas that have a total cost of $130 ( the A430S10 70 cm 10 element element Yagi and the A144S5 two meter five element Yagi), $120 Channel Master 9521A Antenna TV Rotor (see above photo) and about $20 of PVC as you can see in the photo.
(Yes, I know that this rotor is only for azimuth and not for elevation also. As it turns out, if you attach your antennas with a fixed elevation of about 20°, you can work 70% or more of the satellite passes that come your way.)
Note: This whole approach will work with just about any infrared controlled rotator. It does not have to be the Channel Master 9521A Antenna TV Rotor.
Note this also works well for non-satellite computer controlled rotor applications like TV rotators for HF spider antennas, other small antennas like VHF/UHF beams, etc.
The nice thing about this particular rotor is that it is infrared controlled. Infrared is nice but the question is how to computer control this rotor?
Cheap Computer Control of My Cheap TV Antenna Rotor – PstRotator and the USB-UIRT
Friend Robin recommended that I check out a program called PstRotator. I chatted with the developer, Codrut YO3DMU, in Romania and he said all I needed was his software and the magic hardware that made all this work: the Jon Rhees USB-UIRT USB Universal Infrared Receiver and Transmitter that cost me about $65 delivered.
One nice thing about the USB – UIRT is that it allows for an external IR emitter. As it turns out, I happen to have one of these left over from an old Windows Media Center remote that worked fine for this application after I attached it with a little rubber cement to the Channel Master 9521A Antenna TV Rotor control.
The great thing is that the USB – UIRT is totally plug-and-play once you download the drivers from the USB – UIRT website. There is no programming or software involved with the gizmo.
Add to this the €20 (about $21) for Codrut’s PstRotator software and the combination of this hardware and this software was as close to plug-and-play as I’ve seen in a while.
On top of this, as it turns out, PstRotator also includes its own Satellite Tracking Module for no extra charge!
For setup, you will need to go to the set up procedure with PstRotator once you download the software.
(He also offers a second program that is included in the same license called PstRotatorAZ that is intended just for azimuth rotors. I did make the mistake of assuming that that was the right one for me since I only have an azimuth rotor. That was wrong. Because we want to track satellites, you need to choose the non-azimuth version called simply PstRotator.)
For set up: Choose Setup/AZ Controller and then choose USB-UIRT Channel Master at the bottom of the list.
If you want to use the built in Satellite Tracking software, use the drop down menu Tracker and then select Satellites at the top of the list right below Sun. That will bring up the Satellite Tracking software shown below:
To set up the Satellite tracking module, click on TLE and choose your dataset such as amsat.org then go to the drop down menu Name to choose a satellite such as Jas-2 (FO-29)….then highlight which setting you want for each satellite:
(e.g. FO29:435850,145951,USB,LSB,Rev,0,0) ….
then click add/modify (this step is easy to miss.) Once you have done this, then the satellite shows up on the main Satellite Tracking display on the right.
Oh, one other thing: If you have no other software for rig control such as Ham Radio Deluxe, the install subdirectory that comes with PstRotator includes Omni Rig which is pretty trivial to set up.
That’s all there is to it! PstRotator with the USB – UIRT interface makes a great combo for cheaply and easily getting on the birds.
Conversely, I have been struggling for months to try to get the Satellite Tracking Module of the paid version of Ham Radio Deluxe to work right – especially with the linear birds since the manual tuning for HRD does not operate correctly. (It still doesn’t – although I understand they are finally starting to address the Satellite Tracking Module with some increased priority.)
Likewise, I’ve used SatPC32 which is directly linked with AMSAT. It’s a good program but I find it overly complex and I don’t believe that it’s been updated since 2013 – which means that it does not include support for my new Yaesu FT 991.
PstRotator – Highly Recommended for Your Satellite Tracking Needs
Instead, I find that PstRotator just works. No hassles, no complexities and it seems to work equally well with the linear birds as well as the FM birds. It is now easy for me to work the satellites with a single radio – my Yaesu FT 991.
I really wish that the Satellite Tracking Module of Ham Radio Deluxe worked just like the Satellite Module for PstRotator.
I still greatly prefer the original graphics of Simon Brown for Ham Radio Deluxe over the graphics in PstRotator. However, substance over form wins out and PstRotator is my current go to program for working the amateur satellites.
Hopefully, someday soon, the HRD folks will be able to at least mimic Codrut’s great satellite tracking software. Even if and when they do, I’ll continue to use PstRotator as my rotor control software.
Irrespectively, PstRotator with the USB – UIRT interface already works now and works right.
With at least a half dozen current ham radio satellites circling the earth that you can work and with at least two more scheduled to be launched in 2016, this is a great time for you to finally get active on the satellites!
PS: The photos with the snow are from what we Washingtonians call “Snowzilla” which dumped 3 feet of snow at our QTH during January 2016.
PPS: I’m currently running half duplex with the Yaesu FT 991 to find out how well that works as a single radio. Eventually, I’ll pull the Yaesu FT857D from the car and try operating full-duplex. In the meantime, forward apologies for any and all dumbass mistakes I make trying to remember all the things I’m supposed to do to be a good satellite operator after nearly two dozen years of virtually no satellite activity!
PPPS: Be forewarned, when it comes to working the ham radio satellites, I sometimes feel like the quote from Apollo 13: “Jim Lovell: All right, there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order. We are on number eight. You’re talking about number six hundred and ninety-two.”
I have been playing with the satellites for years and I am now up to number ten.