1. The Doppler Shift of Satellite Radio Beacons


This project extends the acoustic Doppler analysis I developed to the analysis of Doppler shifts in radio frequency beacons from earth orbiting satellites. It is a low key, collaborative effort with my older son who suggested that we try it when he and his wife visited us at Christmas 2009.

We captured two passes of an amateur radio microsatellite (VO-52, HAMSAT) operating in a near circular polar low earth orbit. On the evening of December 25th (Dec 26 UTC) there were two useful passes, one to the east and one to the west of our location. We used the first to find the beacon and set up our recording and monitoring equipment. The second pass we took our first serious data. Then on the evening of December 26th (Dec 27 UTC) we took our serious data on the first pass of the evening using a modified recording setup.

We compare the satellite’s range as calculated from the Doppler shift analysis to that predicted by satellite tracking software. We found that in this example, the linear path model for the Doppler shift that I developed predicts the range remarkably well.

Data Acquisition

The data acquisition system was very simple, consisting of a Kenwood TS-700 S 2-meter all mode transceiver, a four-element, 2-meter Yagi antenna, and one or two MacBook computers. The radio was operated using the upper sideband (USB) filter so the actual frequency was taken to be the sum of the carrier frequency readout on the radio plus the audio frequency we measured in the audio analysis. We found that the beacon signal on the VO-52 satellite was strong enough and the beam on the antenna wide enough that we did not have to actively track the satellite. The antenna was repositioned once or twice during the pass.

The Doppler shift of the signal was much greater than the USB passband so the receiver had to be tuned downward several times during each pass.

The audio from the radio headphone jack was connected to the line input of the MacBook(s). A shortcoming of the Raven Lite software is that it has a one minute limit on the length of the recording. Since the satellite pass is several minutes long this required multiple recordings. This was the method we used on the first night. On the next night we split the audio to two computers, using one to monitor and record the signal with Raven Lite and using the other to make a continuous recording using a program called Audacity. Raven Lite also required a sampling rate of 44100 samples per second. Since the USB passband was less than 3 kHz that sampling rate was mostly wasted. Audacity allowed sampling at 8000 samples per second that was much better suited to these data.

Data Analysis

As has been done previously with the audio Doppler projects, a number of time/frequency pairs were extracted from the Raven Lite spectrograms of the audio recordings. The audio frequency was added to the radio frequency that the receiver was tuned to at the time. Recall that the radio had to be retuned several times during each pass. The spectrogram for the recording made with Audacity shows the effect of the receiver retuning.

For the curve fit, the time was taken to be the number of seconds into the pass from some arbitrarily chosen point. When the range data were compared, we scaled the seconds data to real time based on the file creation time. This is not an accurate timing method as will be discussed below.

The linear path Doppler shift function that I derived for the audio shifts was then fit to the time/frequency data using the curve fitter in Igor Pro. The only change to the function was to replace the speed of sound with the speed of light, 299, 792.458 km/sec

The fit results are shown:

Because the curve fit gives the time of closest approach, the distance or range at that time, and the velocity, we can calculate the range at other times during the pass. We used a satellite tracking program called PREDICT to estimate the range of the satellite based on the orbital elements and compared the two predictions. The comparisons are shown graphically:


The linear path Doppler function fit to the satellite data remarkably well and the range data derived from the fit was also remarkably close to the range predicted by the orbital elements.

The velocity estimates are reasonably close to each other, especially when the differences in recording methods between the two nights are considered. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have data from the second pass on the evening of the 27th UTC using the continuous recording method. The continuous recording is obviously the preferred method.

All of the passes we studied were relatively low in the sky with a maximum elevation of roughly 30 degrees so the distance at closest approach was not the altitude but rather the “slant range”. Those values cannot be compared from pass to pass.

The beacon frequency is listed at 145.936 MHz. The Igor Pro curve fitter estimated the frequency on the Dec 26 UTC pass as 145.93726 MHz and on Dec 27 UTC as 145.93744 Mhz.  During the week after we made these estimates, my son made a recording of a terrestrial GPS disciplined beacon located in the Blue Ridge Mountains which showed his receiver to read about 661 Hz too high which explains about half the difference.

The measurement timing is an obvious issue for the segmented recording made with Raven Lite with our real time estimates being fast by about 40 seconds. The range comparison to the orbit based range are shown below with the Doppler estimates shifted backward by that amount.

The timing of the continuous Dec 27 UTC recording was much better.  A general solution would be to inject an accurate timing pulse based on GPS or WWV into the audio signal at every minute.

This project was done as an experiment. As with most experiments it raises more questions. With accurate timing, can data from two or more stations spaced a hundred miles or more apart be used to plot the actual orbit?  I was surprised by how well the linear model fit to the data.  On close examination though, the range estimates are only to within 10s of kilometers.  At least two factors would contribute to an improved model, definition of the orbital path and consideration of the observer motion due to the Earth’s rotation.

6 thoughts on “1. The Doppler Shift of Satellite Radio Beacons

  1. Thanks for your comment Carol. While our analysis is not rocket science, I think it is a little beyond what is typically done in high school, although it is simple enough to be done there. If you didn’t notice, our analysis is based on a model I derived for acoustical sources moving along a straight line with the observer displaced some distance away. I have used this model to estimate the speed and altitude of a couple of different aircraft using a non-linear least squares curve fitter. Of course the same model can be used for radio signals by replacing the speed of sound in the function with the speed of light. That’s what we did. The curve fitter returns the stationary frequency, the speed, the slant range at closest approach (which is close to the altitude for overhead satellite and aircraft passes), and the exact time of closest approach. Given the errors inherent in the straight line path I was quite happy with results compared to the prediction based on the orbital elements.

  2. Hello Haris,

    I am still working on that problem! Using the Doppler Shift data and the curve fitter loaded with my simple model, I estimated the actual (stationary) beacon frequency, the speed of the satellite, and the time and range at closest approach. Using the speed, the time and range at closest approach, and an assumed path I then estimated the range for times before and after the time of closest approach. On this page I am comparing those estimates to those given by the PREDICT satellite prediction software gave for the pass that I recorded.

    Although I am not ready to publish anything yet, I am now thinking about doing this at three observing locations and using trilateration to estimate the actual path the satellite follows. Once I have that, I will start thinking about the more difficult problem of determining the orbital elements from that estimated path.

    The unfortunate reality is that HAMSAT was decommissioned this past summer (2014) due to failure of its lithium ion batteries. It was a perfect satellite for this work because of its nearly circular polar low earth orbit and CW beacon.

    Thank you for your interest!

  3. Hallo,

    I am working on this problem too. Searching papers and stuff, most valuable papers I find are from the early stages of the space race. Since then few people care because norad publishes the tles for the sats, but norad uses radars and telescope cameras.
    But since I am working on this problem too, maybe we can work or collaborate together. There two satellites in polar orbits operating on the ham radio band, check them out: https://www.qb50.eu/index.php/precursor-flight

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