Copyright 2017 Robert Clark
In the blog post "Combined amateur telescopes for asteroid detection", I suggested using multiple small amateur telescopes in concert to act as a giant astronomical instrument to make dim observations in the optical range. Could we do the same with multiple satellite dishes or satellite phones to make dim radio observations?
There is a technique called "passive radar" that uses reflected radio waves from aircraft that originate from surrounding radio transmissions such as from television and radio stations:
3. Typical illuminators
Passive radar systems have been developed that exploit the following sources of illumination:
Analog television signals
FM radio signals
Cellular phone base stations
Digital audio broadcasting
Digital video broadcasting
Terrestrial High-definition television transmitters in North America
GPS satellites (GPS reflectometry).
Satellite signals have generally been found to be inadequate for passive radar use: either because the powers are too low, or because the orbits of the satellites are such that illumination is too infrequent. The possible exception to this is the exploitation of satellite-based radar and satellite radio systems. In 2011, researchers Barott and Butka from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University announced results claiming success using XM Radio to detect aircraft with a low-cost ground station.
The difficulty in using satellite transmissions for the detections previously is that they just use a single ground station for the reception of the reflected signals. Instead of this, suppose we used millions of satellite dishes or radios or satellite phones to make the detections?
As with the case of multiple amateur telescopes, you couldn't form a coherent signal from this method. But like in the optical case you could make correlations from which you could make a probabilistic estimate of the likelihood of an actual detection.
There is an additional difficulty however. We are envisioning using satellites at geosynchronous orbit, about 35,000 kilometers out in space. We would detect asteroids closer than this distance by their blocking the satellite signals from being detected by satellite dishes or phones.
However, the asteroids would tend to direct the reflected signals back out to space rather than towards the Earth, except for the case where the asteroid is along a line from the satellite towards the limb of the Earth, and with the dishes/phones along the limb. But this would be relatively few asteroids and dishes/phones so precisely placed in the right position.
So in actuality for this method to work we would be looking for holes, deletions, in the signal. Such deletions in the satellite signal would be small for each dish or phone. But by correlating the signals of millions of them we can determine statistically that it represents a real detection.
This would only be for detecting asteroids rather close in, since they would be inside the distance of geosynchronous orbit. This would still be useful since from multiple observations we could determine their orbits. And such asteroids that came so close in would have a higher probability of presenting an impact hazed on a future orbital pass.
But could we also detect asteroids further out? Some proportion of the signal from the GEO satellites likely escapes past the sides of the Earth to proceed to the other side. And this proportion of the signal likely is increased by the signals bouncing off the ionosphere. Then these signals could proceed further outwards to be reflected back to Earth by more distance asteroids.
The strength of the signal leaking past Earth would be reduced so the reflected signals would also be reduced. But in this case you are making actual positive detections rather than looking for holes in the signal so all in all the results could be just as effective as in the close in asteroid case.
A problem with detecting aircraft on intercontinental flights is that when they fly over the oceans they fly too far from the radar stations on land to be detected. Then perhaps the method of satellite signal detections by multiple dishes/phones can be used to track such aircraft as well. This may give a us a method to finally locate the missing airliner Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The flight was lost three years ago but there may have been some satellite TV, radio or phone customers who saved programs or phone conversations at that time for which the recorded digital data can be reviewed to reconstruct a detection of the aircraft.