Tuning into a GPS satellite is nothing new. Your phone and your car probably do that multiple times a day. But [dereksgc] has been listening to GPS voice traffic. The traffic originates from COSPAS-SARSAT, which is a decades-old international cooperative of 45 nations and agencies that operates a worldwide search and rescue program. You can watch a video about it below.
Nominally, a person in trouble activates a 406 MHz beacon, and any of the 66 satellites that host COSPAS-SARSAT receivers can pick it up and relay information to the appropriate authorities. These beacons are often attached to aircraft or ships, but there are an increasing number of personal beacons used by campers, hikers, and others who might be in danger and out of reach of a cell phone. The first rescue from this system was in 1982. By 2021, 3,632 people were rescued thanks to the system.
The satellites that listen to the beacon frequencies don’t process the signals. They use a transponder that re-transmits anything it hears on a much higher downlink frequency. These transponders are always payloads on other satellites like navigation or weather satellites. But because the transponder doesn’t care what it hears, it sometimes rebroadcasts signals from things other than beacons. We were unclear if these were rogue radios or radios with spurious emissions in the translator’s input range.
The video has practical tips on how to tune in several of the satellites that carry these transponders. Might be a fun weekend project with a software-defined radio.
We’ve seen homebrew satellite devices, but none for an emergency beacon — we aren’t sure what the legal aspects of that would be. There are other satellites that unknowingly host pirate radio stations, too.