Category: Amateur Radio

Building a Hydrogen Line Front End on a Budget with RTL-SDR and 2x LNA4ALL

Adam 9A4QV is the manufacturer of the LNA4ALL, a high quality low noise amplifier popular with RTL-SDR users. He also sells filters, one of which is useful for hydrogen line detection. Recently he’s uploaded a tutorial document showing how to use 2x LNA4ALL, with a filter and RTL-SDR for Hydrogen Line detection (pdf warning). 

Hydrogen atoms randomly emit photons at a wavelength of 21cm (1420.4058 MHz). Normally a single hydrogen atom will only very rarely emit a photon, but since space and the galaxy is filled with many hydrogen atoms the average effect is an observable RF power spike at 1420.4058 MHz. By pointing a radio telescope at the night sky and integrating the RF power over time, a power spike indicating the hydrogen line can be observed in a frequency spectrum plot. This can be used for some interesting experiments, for example you could measure the size and shape of our galaxy. Thicker areas of the galaxy will have more hydrogen and thus a larger spike.

In his tutorial Adam discusses important technical points such as noise figure and filtering. Essentially, when trying to receive the hydrogen line you need a system with a low noise figure and good filtering. The RTL-SDR has a fairly poor noise figure of about 6dB at 1420MHz. But it turns out that the first amplifier element in the receive chain is the one that dominates the noise figure value. So by placing an LNA with a low noise figure right by the antenna, the system noise figure can be brought down to about 1dB, and losses in coax and filters become negligible as well. At the end of the tutorial he also discusses some supplementary points such as ESD protection, bias tees and IP3.

One note from us is that Adam writes that the RTL-SDR V3 bias tee can only provide 50mA, but it can actually provide up to 200mA continuously assuming the host can provide it (keep the dongle in a cool shaded area though). Most modern USB 2.0 and USB3.0 ports on PCs should have no problem providing up to 1A or more. We’ve also tested the LP5907 based Airspy bias tee at up to 150mA without trouble, so the 50mA rating is probably quite conservative. So these bias tee options should be okay for powering 2xLNA4ALL.

Finally Adam writes that in the future he will write a paper discussing homebrew hydrogen line antennas which should complete the tutorial allowing anyone to build a cheap hydrogen line radio telescope.

One configuration with 2xLNA4ALL, 1x interstage filter, and 1x recceiver side filter with bias tee.
One configuration with 2xLNA4ALL, 1x interstage filter, and 1x recceiver side filter with bias tee.

CyberSpectrum Melbourne: Building a Cheap FSQ Transceiver with Arduino, Raspberry Pi and RTL-SDR

FSQ (Fast Simple QSO) is a relatively new ham band mode for making text QSO’s (contact or exchange of information with another ham) over HF frequencies. It is a low data rate mode similar to PSK31 but with some interesting features like relaying which allows signals to be relayed further via other FSQ stations.

Over at in Melbourne, Australia a Cyberspectrum SDR meetup is held every few weeks. At this weeks meetup @faulteh discusses the FSQ mode and some of it’s interesting features. He also shows how he can transmit FSQ using a Si5351 clock generator and Arduino (with filtering). In the future he hopes to also create a fully automated receive station using a Raspberry Pi and RTL-SDR dongle.

The Arduino FSQ code is available on GitHub, and more information is available on his hackaday.io page.

OpenWebRX Updates: 3D Waterfall and BPSK31 Demodulator

OpenWebRX has recently been updated and now includes a 3D waterfall display and a BPSK31 demodulator. OpenWebRX is a popular program which allows you to stream an SDR like the RTL-SDR over the internet efficiently. A number of clients can connect to your server and tune anywhere within a predefined bandwidth. Many examples of OpenWebRX running on RTL-SDRs and KiwiSDRs can be found on sdr.hu.

The 3D waterfall is quite an interesting feature as it allows you to visual signal strength, frequency and time all at once. BPSK31 is a popular amateur radio digital mode for making QSO’s (contacts). The new decoder allows you to zoom in closely on the band with high resolution and select with the mouse which BPSK31 channel you’d like to decode.

András Retzler, creator of OpenWebRX also writes that he’s now completed his Masters Thesis (congratutions!) on the topic of “Integrating digital demodulators into OpenWebRX”. His thesis is available for download here and looks to be an interesting read.

OpenWebRX BPSK31 Mode
OpenWebRX BPSK31 Mode

Decoding the LilacSat-1 FM to Digital Voice Transponder

LilacSat-1 is an educational CubeSat built by students from the Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) in China. It was recently launched from the ISS on 25 May 2017 as part of the QB50 science experiment to explore the lower thermosphere, and it is expected to stay in orbit for about 3 months. Apart from BPSK telemetry at 145.935 MHz, LilacSat-1 is interesting because it contains on board an FM to Codec2-BPSK digital voice amateur radio transponder at 145/436 MHz (uplink/downlink). It is probably the first amateur radio satellite to contain an FM to digital voice transponder.

To decode LilacSat-1 digital voice and telemetry you can use a Linux live CD provided by HIT, or download the GNU Radio decoder directly from the LilacSat-1 information page on the HIT website. The GNU Radio program can be used with any GNU Radio compatible SDR, such as an RTL-SDR.

Over on his blog, destevez has also created a lower latency digital voice decoder for LilacSat-1 that can found in the gr-satellites GNU Radio package, which contains decoders for multiple satellites as well. Destevez has also written about the Codec2 implementation used in LilacSat-1 in one of his previous posts.

An example of LilacSat-1 being decoded has also been uploaded by YouTube by Scott Chapman. In his test he used an RTL-SDR to work the pass live, but in the video shows an offline decoding received by his SDRplay which was also monitoring the same pass.

DK8OK Review of the Airspy and SpyVerter

Recently DK8OK wrote in to us and wanted to share his latest review of the Airspy and SpyVerter combo (pdf). His review focuses on HF usage and he shows various examples of HF signals that he has received with the Airspy+SV such as the CHU time station, STANAG, DRM, ALE, HFFAX, VOLMET and HFDL. He also shows some tricks for optimizing HF reception, a tutorial on performing multi-channel audio recording and decoding in SDR-Console, a tutorial on playing and analyzing recorded files as well as some examples of weak signal reception.

Overall DK8OK praises the Airspy+SV combo citing it’s excellent dynamic range as one of the reasons it performs so well.

We should note that for prospective buyers, the Airspy team is currently working on a new complimentary solution for HF monitoring called the Airspy HF+. This will have extremely high dynamic range (even higher than the Airspy+SV combo), but it will have a smaller bandwidth. So the Airspy+SV combo will still be the best for monitoring a wide 9 MHz chunk of the HF band, whilst the HF+ will be the best for getting into those very hard to receive signals.

Update: The paper is now also available in French.

Multi-channel decoding in SDR-Console with the Airspy+SypVerter
Multi-channel decoding in SDR-Console with the Airspy+SpyVerter

Testing SSTV Transmission with the HackRF and Portapack

Last week we made a post about the HackRF Portapack, and gave some examples of it in action. Recently the furtek Havoc firmware for the portapack was updated, and it now supports SSTV transmission. Over on Twitter, Giorgio Campiotti‏ @giorgiofox has uploaded a video showing an example transmission in action.

In the video the HackRF with Portapack transmits a test SSTV image to an Elecraft K3 ham radio, which is linked to a PC. SSTV decoding software on the PC turns the data back into an image.

SSTV stands for ‘Slow Scan TV’, and is a method used by hams to send images over radio. Typically this activity occurs on HF frequencies. Sometimes the ISS transmits SSTV images down to earth as well to commemorate special events.

Listening to February 2017 HAARP Experiments with an HF Capable SDR

This year at the end of February HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) scientists are planning to run several experiments that involve transmission. HAARP is a high power ionospheric research radio transmitter in Alaska, which typically transmits in the 2.7 – 10 MHz frequency region. The transmissions are powerful enough to create artificial auroras in the sky. Due to a lack of funding HAARP research was shut down in May 2013, and then later given to the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) in 2015.

UAF plans to activate HAARP again at the end of Feburary, so it seems that it would be interesting to receive the waveforms with an HF capable SDR such as the RTL-SDR v3, or with an upconverter like the SpyVerter. Under some conditions the signal could propagate all over the world. It seems that the researchers are also interested in reception reports from listeners and they plan to post updates closer to the dates of transmission. The full press release reads:

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute is planning its first research campaign at the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program facility in Gakona.

The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program facility near Gakona includes a 40-acre grid of towers to conduct research on the ionosphere. The facility was built and operated by the U.S. Air Force until August 2015, when ownership was transferred to UAF’s Geophysical Institute.

At the end of February, scientists will use the HAARP research instrument to conduct multiple experiments, including a study of atmospheric effects on satellite-to-ground communications, optical measurements of artificial airglow and over-the-horizon radar experiments.

Members of the public can follow one of the experiments in real time. Chris Fallen, assistant research professor in space physics, will be conducting National Science Foundation-funded research to create an “artificial aurora” that can be photographed with a sensitive camera. Observers throughout Alaska will have an opportunity to photograph the phenomenon, which is sometimes created over HAARP during certain types of transmissions.

Under the right conditions, people can also listen to HAARP radio transmissions from virtually anywhere in the world using an inexpensive shortwave radio. Exact frequencies of the transmission will not be known until shortly before the experiment begins, so follow @UAFGI on Twitter for an announcement.

For more details on the dates and times of Fallen’s experiments, as well as information on how to observe, visit https://sites.google.com/alaska.edu/gakonahaarpoon/. Information is also available at the HAARP website, the UAF http://gi.alaska.edu/haarp-0 and the official UAF HAARP Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/UAFHAARP/.

Operation of the HAARP research facility, including the world’s most capable high-power, high-frequency transmitter for study of the ionosphere, was transferred from the U.S. Air Force to UAF in August 2015.

On their Google sites page they write how to participate:

Anybody who wants to participate and follow HAARP experiments should follow the official and unofficial announcements linked at the top of this page. There are two main ways to participate in the campaign: by listening to the radio transmissions from HAARP itself or by photographing artificial auroras created by HAARP. Amateur (Ham) radio operators can also use temporary ionosphere irregularities created by HAARP to open new propagation modes for their own transmissions.

A shortwave radio and knowledge of the time and frequency of the HAARP transmissions provides opportunities to “listen in” since the radio wave energy often (but not always) propagates very large distances, sometimes worldwide! Shortwave radios capable of receiving frequencies in the same range that HAARP can transmit, between approximately 2.7 and 10 MHz (2700 and 10,000 kHz) allow anyone to hear HAARP transmissions provided long-distance radio propagation conditions are sufficient and the radio is tuned to one of the frequencies where HAARP is transmitting. Ham radio operators also have an opportunity to reflect (or “bounce”) their own transmissions, typically in the HF, VHF or UHF bands, off ionosphere irregularities created above HAARP during high-power experiments. This creates propagation modes that would normally only be possible during certain space weather events such as aurora.

The video below shows one of the last scheduled HAARP transmissions from when it was still under the control of the US Air Force.

[First seen on swling.com]

 

A Pre-Built Raspberry Pi Image for using an RTL-SDR as an APRS RX iGate

Keith Maton (G6NHU) wrote in and wanted to share his new ready to go APRS RX iGate image for the Raspberry Pi. APRS stands for “Amateur Packet Reporting System”, and is a type of packet radio communications system used by Amateur Radio operators. They often use them to transmit short mail messages, weather sensor updates, track vehicles and for various other purposes. An iGate allows APRS messages to be transmitted over the all world via the internet via a signal chain such as: RF->iGate RX->Internet->iGate TX->RF.  To run an iGate you should be a radio amateur with a callsign. A global aggregation of APRS broadcasts received by iGates can be seen at aprs.fi.

An RTL-SDR can be used to receive APRS packets easily and many amateur radio enthusiasts have been setting up APRS RX only iGates using the “direwolf” decoding software. Keith’s image simplifies the process of installing and configuring software significantly by proving a plug and play image that you just burn to an SDcard and plug into your Raspberry Pi. His post also explains how to configure the iGate correctly.

iGate Raspberry Pi Image Running
iGate Raspberry Pi Image Running