Tagged: radio astronomy

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.

Using National Weather Service Stations for Forward Scatter Meteor Detection

Over on his blog Dave Venne has been documenting his attempts at using National Weather Service (NWS) broadcasts for forward scatter meteor detection with an RTL-SDR. Forward scatter meteor detection is a passive method for detecting meteors as they enter the atmosphere. When a meteor enters the atmosphere it leaves behind a trail of highly RF reflective ionized air. This ionized air can reflect far away signals from strong transmitters directly into your receiving antenna, thus detecting a meteor.

Typically signals from analog TV and broadcast FM stations are preferred as they are near the optimal frequency for reflection of the ionized trails. However, Dave lives in an area where the broadcast FM spectrum is completely saturated with signals, leaving no empty frequencies to detect meteors. Instead Dave decided to try and use NWS signals at 160 MHz. In the USA there are seven frequencies for NWS and they are physically spaced out so that normally only one transmitter can be heard. Thus tuning to a far away station should produce nothing but static unless a meteor is reflecting its signal. Dave however does note that the 160 MHz frequency is less than optimal for detection and you can expect about 14 dB less reflected signal from meteors.

So far Dave has been able to detect several ‘blips’ with his cross-dipole antenna, RTL-SDR and SDR#. He also uses the Chronolapse freeware software to perform timelapse screenshots of the SDR# waterfall, so that the waterfall can be reviewed later. Unfortunately, most of the blips appear to have been aircraft as they seem to coincide with local air activity, and exhibit a Doppler shift characteristic that is typical of aircraft. He notes that the idea may still work for others who do not live near an airport.

A possible meteor detection in SDR#.
A possible meteor detection in SDR#.
Aircraft detection doppler
Aircraft detection doppler

We note that if you are interested in detecting aircraft via passive forward scatter and their Doppler patterns, then this previous post on just that may interest you.

A Screenshot based Meteor Scatter Detector for HDSDR

Over on our forums Andy (M0CYP) has posted about his new meteor scatter detection program which works with HDSDR and any supported SDR like an RTL-SDR. It works in an interesting way, as instead of analyzing sound files for blips of meteor scatter activity it analyzes screenshots of the HDSDR waterfall. The software automatically grabs the screenshots and determines if a signal is present on any given frequency. You can set a preconfigured detection frequency for a far away transmitter, and if the waterfall shows a reflection it will record that as a meteor.

Meteor scatter works by receiving a distant but powerful transmitter via reflections off the trails of ionized air that meteors leave behind when they enter the atmosphere. Normally the transmitter would be too far away to receive, but if its able to bounce off the ionized trail in the sky it can reach far over the horizon to your receiver. Typically powerful broadcast FM radio stations, analog TV, and radar signals at around 140 MHz are used. Some amateur radio enthusiasts also use this phenomena as a long range VHF communications tool with their own transmitted signals. See the website www.livemeteors.com for a livestream of a permanently set up RTL-SDR meteor detector (although that site does not use Andy’s software).

Andy writes that his meteor scatter detection software is still in beta so there might be some bugs. You can write feedback on the forum post, in the comments here, or contact Andy directly via the link on his website.

Andy's screenshot based meteor detection software
Andy’s screenshot based meteor detection software

An Overview of Neutron Star Group Pulsar Detection Projects with the RTL-SDR

Earlier in April we posted about Hannes Fasching (OE5JFL)’s work in detecting pulsars with an RTL-SDR. Thanks to Steve Olney (VK2XV), administrator of the Neutron Star Group for pointing out that there are actually several amateur radio astronomers who are using RTL-SDR dongles for pulsar detection. 

A pulsar is a rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. If this beam points towards the earth, it can then be observed with a large dish antenna and a radio, like the RTL-SDR. Pulsars create weakly detectable noise bursts across a wide frequency range. They create these noise bursts at precise intervals (milliseconds to seconds depending on the pulsar), so they can be detected from within the natural noise by performing some mathematical analysis on the data. Typically a few hours of data needs to be received to be able to analyze it, with more time needed for smaller dishes.

 

One problem is that pulsar signals can suffer from ‘dispersion’ due to many light years of travel through the interstellar medium. This simply means that higher frequencies of the noise burst tend to arrive before the lower frequencies. Mathematical de-dispersion techniques can be used to eliminate this problem enabling one to take advantage of wideband receivers like the RTL-SDR and other SDRs. The more bandwidth collected and de-dispersed, the smaller the dish required for detection.

Over on the Neutron Star Group several amateur pulsar detection projects are listed, and entries denoted with the “^” symbol make use of the RTL-SDR. Below we show a brief overview of those projects:

Andrea Dell’Immagine (IW5BHY) – Based in Italy Andrea often uses a 3D corner reflector antenna which is equivalent to a 2.5 meter diameter dish to observe pulsars in the 70cm band (~420 MHz). The antenna is in a fixed position so he can only detect pulsars that drift into the beam width of the antenna. With this antenna, a 0.3dB NF LNA, an RTL-SDR and de-dispersion techniques he’s been able to detect the Pulsar B0329+54 which is 2,643 light years away with an integration time of about 3 hours.

Andrea (IW5BHY)'s 3D Corner Reflector Pulsar Detection Antenna.
Andrea (IW5BHY)’s 3D Corner Reflector Pulsar Detection Antenna.

Andrea has also used a 4M dish to detect Pulsar B0329+54 also at 70cm with an RTL-SDR. With the larger dish he’s able to detect it within about 40 minutes of integration time.

Andrea (IW5BHY)'s 4M dish.
Andrea (IW5BHY)’s 4M dish.

Hannes Fasching (OE5JFL) – Based in Austria Hannes has a 7.3M dish that he uses for pulsar detection with his RTL-SDR. With this large dish he’s been able to receive 22 pulsars at both 70cm (424 MHz), and 23cm (1294 MHz) frequencies. With such a large dish, detecting a strong pulsar like B0329+54 only needs less than a minute of integration time.

Mario Natali (I0NAA) – Based in Italy Mario uses a 5M dish to observer pulsars at both 409 MHz and 1297 MHz. Combined with a low noise figure LNA and his RTL-SDR he’s been able to receive the B0329+54 pulsar with an integration time of about 2 – 2.5 hours.

Mario Natali (I0NAA)’s 5M Dish

Michiel Klaassen – From the Dwingeloo Radio Observatory in the Netherlands Michiel has used their large 25M dish and an RTL-SDR to detect B0329+54 at 419 MHz.

Peter East & Guillermo Gancio  Peter and Guillermo have used the large 30M dish at El Instituto Argentino de Radioastronomía (IAR) in Argentina and an RTL-SDR to detect the Vela pulsar (B0833-45) at 1420 MHz.

In terms of hardware required, from the above projects we see that you’ll need an RTL-SDR dongle (other more costly SDR’s could also be used), a dish as large as you can get (along with some sort of dish pointing system), a low noise figure amplifier (0.5dB or less is desired) to be placed right by the dish, a few line amps if the cable run is long and perhaps a filter if you are seeing interference from terrestrial signals.

An overview of software for detecting pulsars with the RTL-SDR can be found over on the Neutron Star Groups software page. Essentially what you need is an analysis program which can work on the raw IQ data that is collected by the RTL-SDR and dish antenna. This software ‘folds’ the data, looking for the regular noise bursts from the pulsars. The output is data that can be used to create a graph indicating the spin period of the pulsar, and thus confirming the detection.

Graph showing the half-period of B0329+54. 350 * 2 = 700 ms which is about what matches on the B0329+54 Wikipedia page.
Graph showing the half-period of B0329+54. 350 * 2 = 700 ms which is about what matches on the B0329+54 Wikipedia page.

Amateur Pulsar Observations with an RTL-SDR

Back in September 2015 we made a posted that discussed how some amateur radio astronomers have been using RTL-SDR’s for detecting pulsars. A pulsar is a rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. If this beam points towards the earth, it can then be observed with a large dish antenna and a radio, like the RTL-SDR.

In their work they showed how they were able to detect and measure the rotational period of the Vela pulsar, one of the strongest and easiest to receive pulsars. They also noted how using several RTL-SDR dongles could reduce the required satellite dish size.

Recently we came across Hannes Fasching (OE5JFL)’s work where he shows that he has detected 15 pulsars so far using RTL-SDR dongles. His detection system specs include:

Antenna: 7.3m homemade offset dish, OE5JFL tracking system
Feeds: 70cm (424 MHz) dual-dipole with solid reflector, 23cm (1294 MHz) RA3AQ horn
Preamplifiers: 23cm cavity MGF4919, 70cm 2SK571 (30 years old!)
Line Amplifier: PGA103+
Interdigital filter: designed with VK3UM software, 70cm 4-pole, 23cm 3-pole
Receiver: RTL-SDR (error <1ppm), 2 MHz bandwidth
Software: IW5BHY, Presto, Tempo, Murmur

Furthermore, from looking at the Neutron Star Group website, it seems that the majority of amateur radio astronomers interested in pulsar detection are currently using RTL-SDR dongles as the receiver. Some of them have access to very large 25m dishes, but some like IW5BHY, IK5VLS and I0NAA use smaller 2.5m – 5m dishes which can fit into a backyard.

If you are interested in getting into amateur pulsar detection, check out the Neutron Star Group website as they have several resources available for learning.

OE5JFL's 7.3m pulsar detection dish with an RTL-SDR receiver.
OE5JFL’s 7.3m pulsar detection dish with an RTL-SDR receiver.

YouTube Videos: NOAA Satellite Tutorial and Building a Radio Telescope

Over on the Thought Emporium YouTube channel the team have uploaded two videos that may be of interest to radio hobbyists. The first video shows a nice overview about receiving NOAA weather satellite images. They explain everything from scratch for complete novice, so the videos are great for almost anyone to watch and learn about radio and SDR concepts. The blurb of the first video reads:

Over the past 2 months, me and my friend Artem have been building antennas to receive signals from weather satellites as they pass overhead. This video chronicles our progress through this project and goes through some of the science involved in working with radio and receiving transmissions. We explore how dipoles work and how to build them, and how we built our final double cross antenna. We used an SDR (software defined radio) called a HackRF to do the work of interpreting the received signals and then decoded them with some special software. We pulled images from 4 satellites: NOAA 15, 18 and 19 as well as METEOR M2. The satellites broadcast immediately as they take the images and no images are stored, so we’re likely the only ones on earth with these images.

The second video is about building a radio telescope. Like the NOAA video, they explain all concepts in a simple and easy to understand way, so that anyone even without any radio knowledge can understand what the project is about. In the video they also show how they use a 3D printer to create a tracking mount which can point a satellite dish. They then use the dish to create a satellite heat map. The blurb reads:

Over the last 2 months me and my friend Artem (you met him in the last video) built our first radio telescope. It was built mostly out of off the shelf components, like a satellite dish and Ku band LNB, as well as some parts we 3d printed. When all was said and done we had a system that could not only take images of the sky in radio frequencies (in this case 10-12ghz), but could also be used to track satellites. With it, we were able to see the ring of satellites in geosynchronous orbit, over 35,000km away, This is only the first of what I suspect will be many more telescopes like this. Next time we’ll be building ones that are far larger and can see things like the hydrogen lines so we can image the milky way.

Searching for giga-Jansky fast radio bursts from the Milky Way with a global array of low-cost radio receivers (RTL-SDRs)

A few days ago a University research paper titled “Searching for giga-Jansky fast radio bursts from the Milky Way with a global array of low-cost radio receivers” was uploaded to the Cornell University Library. In this paper authors Dan Maoz of Tel-Aviv University and Abraham Loeb of Harvard suggest that citizen science enabled mobile phones and RTL-SDR dongles placed around the world could be used to detect fast radio bursts (FRBs) originating from within our own galaxy. The abstract reads:

If fast radio bursts (FRBs) originate from galaxies at cosmological distances, then their all-sky rate implies that the Milky Way may host an FRB on average once every 30-1500 years. If FRBs repeat for decades or centuies, a local FRB could be active now. A typical Galactic FRB would produce a millisecond radio pulse with ~1 GHz flux density of ~3E10 Jy, comparable to the radio flux levels and frequencies of cellular communication devices (cell phones, Wi-Fi, GPS). We propose to search for Galactic FRBs using a global array of low-cost radio receivers. One possibility is to use the ~1GHz communication channel in cellular phones through a Citizens-Science downloadable application. Participating phones would continuously listen for and record candidate FRBs and would periodically upload information to a central data processing website, which correlates the incoming data from all participants, to identify the signature of a real, globe-encompassing, FRB from an astronomical distance. Triangulation of the GPS-based pulse arrival times reported from different locations will provide the FRB sky position, potentially to arc-second accuracy. Pulse arrival times from phones operating at diverse frequencies, or from an on-device de-dispersion search, will yield the dispersion measure (DM) which will indicate the FRB source distance within the Galaxy. A variant of this approach would be to use the built-in ~100 MHz FM-radio receivers present in cell phones for an FRB search at lower frequencies. Alternatively, numerous “software-defined radio” (SDR) devices, costing ~$10 US each, could be plugged into USB ports of personal computers around the world (particularly in radio quiet regions) to establish the global network of receivers.

‘Fast radio bursts’ or FRBs are very brief pulses of extremely strong radio waves which have the transmit power of 500 million suns, though by the time they reach the earth they can only be picked up by radio telescopes. Radio astronomers have so far been mystified by the cause of these FRBs, and research has been hampered by the fact that the source of FRBs is notoriously difficult to pinpoint because they are unpredictable, and their energy appears to originate from all over the sky and not from a single point. Many scientists think that most FRBs must originate from outside of our galaxy, and in 2016 one was finally pinpointed as coming from a dwarf galaxy 2.5 billion light years away from earth. But the authors of the paper speculate from the rate of how often FRBs are seen, that our Milky Way galaxy could host its own local FRB event once every 30 – 1500 years.

If an FRB occurs within our own galaxy then they speculate that the received power could be strong enough to be detected by consumer level mobile phones or RTL-SDR radios, meaning that no large radio telescope dish is required for detection. By continuously monitoring for FRBs on mobile phones and/or RTL-SDRs spread around the world, a local FRB source could one day be pinpointed thanks to the high resolving power of multiple detectors spread apart.

[Also discussed at cfa.harvard.edu/news/2017-07]
The Very Large Array in Mexico was used to pinpoint an FRB in 2016.
The Very Large Array in Mexico was used to pinpoint an FRB in 2016.
Illustration of an FRB. Certain frequencies arrive faster than others.
Illustration of an FRB. Certain frequencies arrive faster than others.

Helping to Raise Funds for the Canadian Centre for Experimental Radio Astronomy (CCERA)

Patchvonbraun (aka Marcus Leech) is one of the pioneers in using low cost SDR dongles for amateur radio astronomy experiments. In the past he’s shown us how to receive things like the hydrogen line,  detect meteors and observe solar transits using an RTL-SDR. He’s also given a good overview and introduction to amateur radio astronomy in this slide show.

Now Marcus and others are starting up a new project called the “Canadian Centre for Experimental Radio Astronomy (CCERA)”. They write that this will be an amateur radio astronomy research facility that will produce open source software and hardware designs for small scale amateur radio astronomers. Currently they also already have a hydrogen line telescope set up, which is producing live graphs and data. From their recent posts it also looks like they’re working on building antennas for pulsar detection. They also have a GitHub available for any software they produce at https://github.com/ccera-astro.

Currently CCERA is looking for donations over at gofundme, and they are hoping to eventually raise $25k. They write:

About CCERA:

Radio astronomy is one of the most important ways to observe the cosmos. It is how we learned about the existence of the afterglow of the big bang (the cosmic microwave background), it is how we observe huge swaths of the universe that are otherwise obscured by dust. Most of what’s going on out there can’t be seen with visible light.

Astronomy has traditionally been one of the areas in science where dedicated non-professionals have continued to make an enormous contribution to the field. Optical astronomy requires little more than a telescope and knowledge.

Radio astronomy has, up until recently, required a lot more skill and resources. However, technology has advanced enough that small groups could be making serious contributions to radio astronomy. With the right sorts of software and information, many dedicated non-professionals could be doing good work in the area, and CCERA intends to help make that a reality.

CCERA will be producing open source software and hardware designs to help non-professional and professional radio astronomers alike, documenting them, and helping people get up to speed so that they can use these powerful tools themselves. Our GitHub repository is: https://github.com/ccera-astro

CCERA will also be operating its own radio astronomy facilities, initially in Ontario, Canada. These will serve as a test-bed for our own designs, as a place for us to train interested people in the operation of low cost radio astronomy equipment, and will also be used for real radio astronomy work. All our data will be publically-available.

About us:

Roughly 10 years ago, I and a number of others started a project to restore a large, historic, satellite earth station antenna at Shirleys Bay in Ottawa. Our goal was to bring the dish back on-line for use in amateur radio astronomy, research, and importantly, educational outreach about science, and radio astronomy.

The project came to a sudden end back in 2013/14 when the owner of the dish (The Canadian Space Agency) needed to dismantle it to make way for other occupants of the site.

However, during that period, we became fascinated with the possibilities that opening up radio astronomy to skilled non-professionals could bring.

Since then, our group has been working on another far lower cost project to build our own a specialized radio telescope somewhere in the Rideau Valley area. Many of our group live in the area, and Marcus lives in Smiths Falls. With good attention to the usability of our designs and open publication of our tools under appropriate open source licenses, our work should be replicable by others. We thus hope to kick off a new era in non-professional radio astronomy.

What we need the money for:

We’ve secured a small office in the Gallipeau Center outside of Smiths Falls, and will be able to erect our specialized antenna arrays over the coming year.

While we have a lot of the equipment we’ll need, we’ll have more equipment to buy, and on-going expenses to cover, including rent, insurance, miscellaneous mechanical construction materials (lumber, metal, etc). We also need to cover expenses relating to incorporation as a not-for-profit.

Our goal is to provide a test facility for small-scale radio astronomy research, and to develop techniques that allow small organizations and educational institutions to run their own small-scale radio astronomy observing programs.

If we are successful, in addition to making our designs and software available under open source licenses, we’ll be holding regular public lectures, host training seminars, host school groups, etc. We will also produce videos of our work for those who cannot visit us directly in Ottawa. We want to make some of the techniques of “big science” accessible and understandable.

We can’t do it without the help of the public, who, we hope, will become our students, collaborators, and ongoing supporters.

We will also make all of our data available to the public without fee or restrictions. We believe in openness in scientific endeavours, even small ones such as ours.

Marcus Leech
(tentative) Director
Canadian Centre for Experimental Radio Astronomy
www.ccera.ca

If you have even a passing interest in radio astronomy please consider donating, as CCERA’s work may open up exciting new possibilities for amateur radio astronomers with low cost SDR dongles.

The pulsar antenna being built at CCERA.
The pulsar antenna being built at CCERA.