Technology

Satellites used for television signals are generally in either naturally highly elliptical (with inclination of +/-63.4 degrees and orbital period of about 12 hours, also known as Molniya orbit) or geostationary orbit 37,000 km (23,000 mi) above the earth’s equator.

Satellite television, like other communications relayed by satellite, starts with a transmitting antenna located at an uplink facility. Uplink satellite dishes are very large, as much as 9 to 12 meters (30 to 40 feet) in diameter. The increased diameter results in more accurate aiming and increased signal strength at the satellite. The uplink dish is pointed toward a specific satellite and the uplinked signals are transmitted within a specific frequency range, so as to be received by one of the transponders tuned to that frequency range aboard that satellite. The transponder ‘retransmits’ the signals back to Earth but at a different frequency band (a process known as translation, used to avoid interference with the uplink signal), typically in the C-band (4–8 GHz) or Ku-band (12–18 GHz) or both. The leg of the signal path from the satellite to the receiving Earth station is called the downlink.

A typical satellite has up to 32 transponders for Ku-band and up to 24 for a C-band only satellite, or more for hybrid satellites. Typical transponders each have a bandwidth between 27 MHz and 50 MHz. Each geo-stationary C-band satellite needs to be spaced 2 degrees from the next satellite (to avoid interference). For Ku the spacing can be 1 degree. This means that there is an upper limit of 360/2 = 180 geostationary C-band satellites and 360/1 = 360 geostationary Ku-band satellites. C-band transmission is susceptible to terrestrial interference while Ku-band transmission is affected by rain (as water is an excellent absorber of microwaves at this particular frequency). The latter is even more adversely affected by ice crystals in thunder clouds.

Last but not least, there will be a sun outage when the sun lines up directly behind the geostationary satellite the reception antenna is pointing to. This will happen twice a year at around midday for a two-week period and affects both the C-band and the Ku-band. The line-up swamps out all reception for a few minutes due to the sun emitting microwaves on the same frequencies used by the satellite’s transponders. This happens in the spring and in the fall.

The downlinked satellite signal, quite weak after traveling the great distance (see inverse-square law), can be collected by using a parabolic receiving dish, which reflects the weak signal to the dish’s focal point. Mounted on brackets at the dish’s focal point is a device called a feedhorn. This feedhorn is essentially the flared front-end of a section of waveguide that gathers the signals at or near the focal point and ‘conducts’ them to a probe or pickup connected to a low-noise block downconverter or LNB. The LNB amplifies the relatively weak signals, filters the block of frequencies in which the satellite TV signals are transmitted, and converts the block of frequencies to a lower frequency range in the L-band range. The evolution of LNBs was one of necessity and invention.

The original C-Band satellite TV systems used a Low Noise Amplifier connected to the feedhorn at the focal point of the dish. The amplified signal was then fed via very expensive and sometimes 50 ohm impedance gas filled hardline coaxial cable to an indoor receiver or, in other designs, fed to a downconverter (a mixer and a voltage tuned oscillator with some filter circuitry) for downconversion to an intermediate frequency. The channel selection was controlled, typically by a voltage tuned oscillator with the tuning voltage being fed via a separate cable to the headend. But this design evolved.

Designs for microstrip based converters for Amateur Radio frequencies were adapted for the 4 GHz C-Band. Central to these designs was concept of block downconversion of a range of frequencies to a lower, and technologically more easily handled block of frequencies (intermediate frequency).

The advantages of using an LNB are that cheaper cable could be used to connect the indoor receiver with the satellite TV dish and LNB, and that the technology for handling the signal at L-Band and UHF was far cheaper than that for handling the signal at C-Band frequencies. The shift to cheaper technology from the 50 Ohm impedance cable and N-Connectors of the early C-Band systems to the cheaper 75 Ohm technology and F-Connectors allowed the early satellite TV receivers to use, what were in reality, modified UHF TV tuners which selected the satellite television channel for down conversion to another lower intermediate frequency centered on 70 MHz where it was demodulated. This shift allowed the satellite television DTH industry to change from being a largely hobbyist one where receivers were built in low numbers and complete systems were expensive (costing thousands of Dollars) to a far more commercial one of mass production.

Direct broadcast satellite dishes are fitted with an LNBF, which integrates the feedhorn with the LNB.

In the United States, service providers use the intermediate frequency ranges of 950-2150 MHz to carry the signal to the receiver. This allows for transmission of UHF band signals along the same span of coaxial wire at the same time. In some applications, (DirecTV AU9-S and AT-9) ranges the lower B-Band and upper 2250-3000 MHz, are used. Newer LNBFs in use by DirecTV referred to as SWM, use a less limited frequency range of 2-2150 MHz.

The satellite receiver or set-top box demodulates and converts the signals to the desired form (outputs for television, audio, data, etc.). Sometimes, the receiver includes the capability to unscramble or decrypt the received signal; the receiver is then called an integrated receiver/decoder or IRD. The cable connecting the receiver to the LNBF or LNB should be of the low loss type RG-6, quad shield RG-6 or RG-11, etc. RG-59 is not recommended for this application as it is not technically designed to carry frequencies above 950 MHz, but will work in many circumstances, depending on the quality of the coaxial wire.

A practical problem relating to satellite home reception is that basically an LNB can only handle a single receiver. This is due to the fact that the LNB is mapping two different circular polarizations – right hand and left hand – and in the case of the K-band two different reception bands – lower and upper – to one and the same frequency band on the cable. Depending on which frequency a transponder is transmitting at and on what polarization it is using, the satellite receiver has to switch the LNB into one of four different modes in order to receive a specific desired program on a specific transponder. This is handled by the receiver using the DiSEqC protocol to control the LNB mode. If several satellite receivers are to be attached to a single dish a so-called multiswitch will have to be used in conjunction with a special type of LNB. There are also LNBs available with a multiswitch already integrated. This problem becomes more complicated when several receivers are to use several dishes (or several LNBs mounted in a single dish) pointing to different satellites.

A common solution for consumers wanting to access multiple satellites is to deploy a single dish with a single LNB and to rotate the dish using an electric motor. The axis of rotation has to be set up in the north-south direction and, depending on the geographical location of the dish, have a specific vertical tilt. Set up properly the motorized dish when turned will sweep across all possible positions for satellites lined up along the geostationary orbit directly above the equator. The disk will then be capable of receiving any geostationary satellite that is visible at the specific location, i.e. that is above the horizon. The DiSEqC protocol has been extended to encompass commands for steering dish rotors.

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