ACE RTSW Telemetry Demodulator v3.0.2 (3 Jan 2000)

This package implements a pure software demodulator and decoder for the S-band 434 bps Real Time Solar Wind telemetry stream from the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft located at the L1 libration point between the earth and sun.

I wrote this code to help NOAA, the operator of the spacecraft, close coverage gaps with additional groundstations around the world. They didn't have the budget to buy the necessary hardware decoders, so I volunteered to do it in software to demonstrate the powerful digital signal processing that can now be done on garden-variety PCs.

Demodulating the Signal

The program acedemod performs the demodulation.  It expects a baseband manchester-encoded receive signal sampled at 9600 Hz with 16 bits per sample, in signed little-endian (PC) byte order. Another sample rate can be specified with the -s or --sample-rate command line option. (The Linux brec utility can be used to read from the sound card and pipe its output to the input of acedemod).

The demodulator takes three options:
-d|--debug to specify the debug level;
-f|--full-frame to specify full frame output, including sync and RS parities (normally only the data is output)
-m|--no-mmx to disable the automatic use of MMX, if present (x86 machines only)
-s|--sample-rate to specify the input sample rate (default 9600 Hz).
-o|--no-offset disables repeated decoding attempts with increasing subcarrier phase offsets on frames that do not initially decode
-v|--no-mmx-vd disables the MMX version of the Viterbi decoder without totally disabling the use of MMX instructions.

The program as supplied simply demodulates the data and sends it to standard output; comments in the source indicate where code can be added to further format the data and send it over the Internet to a central collection point as desired.

Note that acedemod expects its input at baseband. It assumes that a receiver with a PLL is tracking the residual carrier on the spacecraft downlink and downconverting the signal to audio with the carrier at zero frequency. A to-do project is to implement such a receiver in DSP that can be run in a UNIX pipe ahead of acedemod, thus allowing the RF equipment to consist merely of a fixed-frequency downconverter that shifts the composite telemetry to within the passband of a standard PC sound card's A/D converter.

Generating Test Signals

The program gensig is provided to generate a test signal in the ACE format. I wrote it because the SNR on the test tapes I was given was so high that I never had a chance to see how my demodulator worked at low SNR. The gensig program reads data from standard input, encodes and bi-phase modulates this data into 16-bit signed little-endian baseband audio samples and sends them to standard output in a format that can be piped directly into acedemod. Noise can be added to simulate any desired Eb/No ratio. gensig is invoked as follows:

gensig [-a amplitude] [-f subcarrier freq] [-e ebno] [-s samplerate]

where the amplitude is the peak signal output amplitude in sample units (32767 being full scale for signed 16-bit samples), the subcarrier frequency defaults to 996 Hz (and probably shouldn't be changed), and the ebno is specified in decibels (default 10 dB, a very strong signal).

The coding used here will operate pretty solidly down to EbNo = 3dB, and will start breathing hard below that. At about 2.6-2.7 dB, you'll start to see a few RS blocks that cannot be corrected. Below 2.5 dB, lots of blocks are lost. This steep error curve is typical of systems with strong FEC.

ACE Telemetry Format

Here we get into the gory details of the telemetry format and how I decode it. The CCSDS telemetry stream is formed as follows:

  • Each fixed-size RTSW frame contains 6912 bits (864 bytes) of user telemetry data.
  • To this is appended 1024 bits (128 bytes) of parity information from a (248,216) Reed-Solomon code over GF(256) derived by shortening the CCSDS standard (255,223) RS code and applying 4-way interleaving. This produces 7936 bits (992 bytes).
  • A 32-bit CCSDS-standard sync vector (0x1acffc1d) is added to the front of the RS-coded block, producing 7968 bits (996 bytes). Note that the sync vector is not included in the Reed-Solomon codeword.
  • The resulting data frame, including the sync vector, is run through a rate 1/2 constraint length 7 convolutional encoder, producing 15936 channel symbols.
  • The output of the convolutional encoder is biphase-level (Manchester II) encoded.
  • The biphase-encoded signal phase-shift-keys the main S-band beacon with a phase shift of about +/-64 degrees. This leaves substantial residual carrier for receiver tracking.
  • Telemetry FEC

    The Reed-Solomon coding, the sync vector and the convolutional encoder are all specified by CCSDS standards, specifically CCSDS 131.0-B1: TM Synchronization and Channel Coding. I started with my own Viterbi and Reed-Solomon decoders, but found I had to make several changes.

    I had already implemented a Viterbi decoder for the CCSDS k=7 r=1/2 polynomials, but the CCSDS convention for the polarity and order of the two symbols for each input bit was different. This was a relatively straightforward change.

    The Reed-Solomon decoder took more work. The CCSDS standard calls for a "dual basis" representation of the 8-bit symbols. I implemented this with a pair of 256-byte lookup tables, one to convert from dual-basis to conventional representation before decoding, and an inverse table to convert back to dual-basis after decoding. The CCSDS standard also specifies a palindromic generator polynomial; this by itself was relatively easy to accomodate. A bigger problem was that the roots of the CCSDS generator polynomial are not consecutive, and in my decoder I had assumed they always would be. I made the necessary generalizations to support this.


    The actual demodulation takes significant advantage of the structure of the ACE telemetry frame. I start by generating a local replica of the convolutionally encoded, manchester-modulated 32-bit sync vector and dragging that across 16 seconds worth of raw data looking for the biggest correlation peak. But because of the 7-bit memory of the convolutional encoder, the first 14 channel symbols out of the convolutional encoder when the sync vector begins transmission are "contaminated" by the last few bits of the preceeding telemetry frame. So I actually look only for the trailing (32-7) * 2 = 50 symbols of the encoded sync vector. This still leaves sufficient energy (nearly 16 dB SNR) for reliable detection at an operating EbNo of 2.5 dB.

    The sync vector correlator is quite compute intensive, especially on the initial acquisition where a full 16 second window must be searched. Version 2.0 of acedemod automatically uses the Intel MultiMedia eXtensions (MMX) instructions, if available, to speed this operation substantially.

    Carrier Recovery and Demodulation

    Since the ACE telemetry frame is exactly 16 seconds long, I know that a sync vector will be somewhere in my 16 second search window -- if it's there at all. So when I find the peak correlation peak in the 16 second search window, I skip ahead 16 seconds and find the biggest correlator peak in a much smaller window (e.g., +/- 100 samples) looking for the next sync vector -- the window allowing for frequency errors in the sound card and/or spacecraft. Once I have these two peaks, I can quickly compute the symbol clock frequency referred to the A/D converter clock. And since I know that there are exactly 15936 symbols between these two peaks, I simply interpolate the clock through the frame to undo the Manchester encoding and to produce soft decision samples for the Viterbi decoder.

    Viterbi Decoding

    One could use a continuous stream-mode Viterbi decoder on this signal at this point, but it seemed more elegant to use a packet-mode decoder modified to account for the known starting and terminal states of the convolutional encoder at the transmitter. (The starting state is the last 7 bits of the sync vector at the front of the frame, and the terminal state is the first 7 bits of the sync vector at the start of the next frame.) This turned out to be a relatively trivial change to my existing packet-mode Viterbi decoder.

    Version 3.0 of acedemod includes a Viterbi decoder that uses MMX instructions, if available. The speedup is approximately 3x on the Intel Pentium-II and somewhat less on MMX-enabled Pentiums and AMD K-6s.

    Reed-Solomon Decoding

    Once the Viterbi decoder has done its job, the decoded symbols are 4-way deinterleaved for the Reed-Solomon decoding step. Since each RS block has 32 parity symbols, up to 16 errors can be corrected in each of the 4 RS blocks in the telemetry frame. If more than 16 errors occur, the error count is set to -1 to indicate that the frame is uncorrectible.

    If at least one of the RS blocks decodes successfully, the demodulator assumes that it synchronized correctly and it proceeds to search for the trailing sync vector at the end of the next frame using the same narrow search used to find the vector that ended the current frame. But if none of the RS blocks decoded, the demodulator assumes this was due to a loss of synchronization so it repeats the full 16-second sync vector search procedure. This is by far the most CPU-intensive part of the demodulator.  Version 2.0 of the demodulator uses the Intel MMX (Multi-Media eXtensions) instructions, if available and enabled, to speed up this step.

    Offset Searching

    If the telemetry frame does not fully decode on the first try (i.e., one or more of the Reed-Solomon blocks does not decode), then acedemod will attempt to repeat the demodulation and decoding process after making small adjustments to the subcarrier phase. The offsets alternate in sign and increase in magnitude until either the frame fully decodes or the magnitude of the phase offset reaches an upper limit (less than one A/D sample).

    Since the sync vector correlator can only estimate subcarrier phase to the nearest A/D sample, this technique is especially beneficial with low A/D sampling rates. It can be disabled with the -o or --no-offset command line option.

    Further Experiments with Iterative Decoding

    I have experimented a bit with some of the iterative decoding techniques that can be applied to a concatenated Reed-Solomon/convolutional scheme like this one. (These are not in the released code, though.) One trick is error forecasting, based on the fact that when a Viterbi decoder makes an error, it usually makes a burst of them several constraint lengths long. This is several Reed-Solomon symbols for the parameters used here. Because of the interleaving, these bursts will be spread across different Reed-Solomon codewords (in fact, this is precisely the reason for the interleaving).

    Sometimes some but not all of the RS blocks in the frame will decode. When this happens, the RS decoder can tell you where it found and corrected errors in the blocks that did decode (it cannot tell you anything about the blocks that didn't decode, though). But with this information, and the knowledge that a RS decoder can correct up to twice as many errors if you can tell it in advance where the errors are, you can try telling the RS decoder to try the failed block(s) again, this time marking as erasures the symbols corresponding to those that were successfully corrected in the adjacent blocks.

    This works often enough to give you a few tenths of a dB of improvement in Eb/No performance, but you have to be careful. Every time you erase RS symbols before decoding a block, you increase the chances of the decoder succeeding but you also increase its chances of making an undetected error! For this reason I have not released the iterative decoding stuff until I can further characterize its undetected error rate.

    Another form of iterative decoding involves repeating the Viterbi decoder step. It's known that a Viterbi decoder is less likely to make errors when decoding in the vicinity of data it already knows (such as the first or last few bits of a frame with known starting and terminal encoder states). We can apply the same principle to RS code blocks that fail to decode when they're straddled by RS blocks that did decode. We simply use the decoded RS data (which is highly reliable because of the redundancy in that code) to "pin" the Viterbi decoder in a second run over the data that didn't decode. In this case, I actually perform 248 separate runs of the Viterbi decoder, one for each byte in the failed RS frame. I used the same feature I had already added to the Viterbi decoder to handle the non-zero starting and terminal encoder states in the first decoding pass on the frame.

    Surprisingly enough, this technique seemed to help little, if at all. The Viterbi decoder almost never "changed its mind" when given firm knowledge of the adjacent data. The one exception occurred occasionally in the very last byte of the frame. It turned out that I had made a fencepost error in my original Viterbi decoding pass (the terminal state was shifted off by one bit), but I was giving it the correct terminal state in the redecoding pass. Funny how FEC can sometimes be so strong that it even corrects for programming errors!

    This is somewhat consistent with the literature, which gives a much smaller EbNo improvement (.1-.2 dB) for the iterated Viterbi decoding with state pinning than for the iterated Reed-Solomon coding.

    Copyright 1999 Phil Karn, KA9Q
    This software may be used under the terms of the GNU Public License.

    Updated: 19 June 2006