The goal of this effort is to introduce students, educators, astronomers and others to the majesty of the radio sky, promoting radio astronomy education, without the need of building a large and expensive radio telescope.
Since the initial launch, PICTOR has gotten lots of updates and improvements, particularly in the software backend, providing more data to the users, using advanced techniques to increase the signal-to-noise ratio by calibrating spectra and mitigating radio frequency interference (RFI) (if present).
Here is an example observation with PICTOR, clearly showing the detection of 3 hydrogen-dense regions corresponding to 3 unique spiral arms in the Milky Way!
PICTOR is an open source and open hardware radio telescope that aims to promote radio astronomy on a budget. It consists of a 1.5 meter parabolic dish antenna, 1420 MHz feedhorn, a two stage low noise amplifier (LNA), high pass filter, and from what we gather, an RTL-SDR. Future designs may also use higher bandwidth SDRs. Currently there doesn't seem to be much information about the build and exact components used in their design, but we're hoping that those details will come in time.
The radio telescope allows a user to measure hydrogen line emissions from our galaxy. Hydrogen atoms randomly emit photons at a wavelength of 21cm (1420.4058 MHz). The emissions themselves are very rare, but since our galaxy is full of hydrogen atoms the aggregate effect is that a radio telescope can detect a power spike at 21cm. If the telescope points to within the plane of our galaxy (the milky way), the spike becomes significantly more powerful since our galaxy contains more hydrogen than the space between galaxies. Radio astronomers are able to use this information to determine the shape and rotational speed of our own galaxy.
PICTOR also has a very interesting web based interface which can be used to let users from anywhere in the world access the telescope and log an observation. The first PICTOR telescope is currently online and observations can be created simply by going to their website, and clicking on the "Observe" link. Users can then enter the frequency and other parameters for their observation, and the resulting graph will be emailed to you after the observation. The software source is available on their GitHub page, and is based on a GNU Radio flowgraph and Python plot script.
For more information about PICTOR, logging an observation, and radio astronomy in general, we recommend checking out their PDF guide. We test ran a short observation at the hydrogen line frequency, and we received a graph with the hydrogen line peak clearly visible (spliced in to the photo below). We note that the wavy shape is due the to shape of the filters they used.
AIS stands for Automatic Identification System and is used by ships to broadcast their GPS locations in order to help avoid collisions and aide with rescues. An RTL-SDR with the right software can be used to receive and decode these signals, and plot ship positions on a map.
The School Amateur Radio Club Network publishes a simple project aimed at promoting the deployment of maritime Automatic Information System (AIS) receiving stations around the world using cheap RTL-SDR dongles and Raspberry Pi computers. The purpose of the project is to improve the existing terrestrial AIS receiving network by encouraging enthusiasts to setup their own AIS receiving stations and to disseminate their local vessel traffic data freely to AIS Servers. This data can then be used by many organisations involved in monitoring and improving the safety and security of shipping.
The SARCNET project, which works on all models of Raspberry Pi, makes building the AIS receiving station simple by providing pictorial construction details with a pre-packaged Raspberry Pi image to download. The free project uses open-source software and a bootable Raspberry Pi image which has been updated to use the latest Raspbian Lite operating system.
One of the attractions of building your own AIS receiving station is that some AIS servers reward you when you freely upload your local vessel tracking data. They publish your station information, showing your station position on a map and your receiving statistics like messages per hour and coverage in nautical miles. Some give you free, premium access to their AIS data, which can be viewed on their mobile apps. Even so, by operating one of these AIS receiving stations, you will have the satisfaction of making the world a safer place.
Thank you to Apostolos for submitting information about his new open source program called "CygnusRFI". CygnusRFI is a tool designed for analyzing radio frequency interference (RFI) with a focus on how it affects satellite ground stations and radio telescopes. We note that in the past we've posted several times about Apostolos' other project called PICTOR, which is an open source radio telescope platform that makes use of RTL-SDR dongles.
Apostolos explains CygnusRFI in the following:
CygnusRFI is an easy-to-use open-source Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) analysis tool, based on Python and GNU Radio Companion (GRC) that is conveniently applicable to any ground station/radio telescope working with a GRC-supported software-defined radio (SDR). In addition to data acquisition, CygnusRFI also carries out automated analysis of the recorded data, producing a series of averaged spectra covering a wide range of frequencies of interest. CygnusRFI is built for ground station operators, radio astronomers, amateur radio operators and anyone who wishes to get an idea of how "radio-quiet" their environment is, using inexpensive instruments like SDRs.
We've recently been testing methods to help budding amateur radio astronomers get into the hobby cheaply and easily. We have found that a low cost 2.4 GHz 100 cm x 60 cm parabolic WiFi grid antenna, combined with an RTL-SDR and LNA is sufficient to detect the hydrogen line peak and doppler shifts of the galactic plane. This means that you can create backyard hydrogen line radio telescope for less than US$200, with no complicated construction required.
If you don't know what the hydrogen line is, we'll explain it here. 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 the galaxy and even empty space is filled with many hydrogen atoms, so the average effect is an observable RF power spike at ~1420.4058 MHz. By pointing a radio telescope at the night sky and averaging 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, whereas the spike will be significantly smaller when pointing at empty space. You can also measure the rotational speed of our galaxy by noting the frequency doppler shift.
The 2.4 GHz parabolic WiFi grid dishes can be found for a cheap at US$49.99 on eBay and for around US$75 on Amazon. Outside of the USA they are typically carried by local wireless communications stores or the local eBay/Amazon equivalent. If you're buying one, be sure to get the 2.4 GHz version and NOT the 5 GHz version. If you can find 1.9 GHz parabolic grid dish, then this is also a good choice. Although we haven't tested it, this larger 2.4 GHz grid dish would probably also work and give slightly better results. WiFi grid antennas have been commonly used for GOES and GK-2A geosynchronous weather satellite reception at 2.4 GHz with RTL-SDRs as well and we have a tutorial on that available on our previous post.
These dishes are linearly polarized but that is okay as hydrogen line emissions are randomly polarized. Ideally we would have a dual polarization (NOT circular polarized) feed, but linear appears to be enough and is much simpler. In addition, the 2.4 GHz feed is obviously not designed for 1420 MHz, but just like with GOES at 1.7 GHz the SWR is low enough that it still works.
The Gyfcat animation below shows a hydrogen line "drift" scan performed with the 2.4 GHz WiFi dish, an RTL-SDR Blog V3 and a NooElec SAWBird H1 LNA. The scan is performed over one day, and we simply let the rotation of the earth allow the Milky Way to drift over the antenna. The Stellarium software on the left shows the movement of the Milky Way/galactic plane over the course of a day for our location. The dish antenna points straight up into the sky, and we have set Stellarium to look straight up too, so Stellarium sees exactly what our dish antenna is seeing.
You can clearly see that there is a lump in the radio spectrum at around 1420.40 MHz that grows when parts of the Milky Way pass over the antenna. This lump is the hydrogen line being detected. As our Milky Way galaxy is filled with significantly more hydrogen than empty space, we see a larger lump when the antenna points at the Milky Way, and only a very small lump when it points away.
It's important to ignore the very narrowband spikes in the spectrum. These narrowband spikes are simply radio interference from electronics from neighbors - probably TVs or monitors as we note that most of the interference occurs during the day. There is also a large constant spike which appears to be an artifact of the LNA. The LNA we used has a 1420 MHz filter built in, but LCD TVs and other electronics in today's suburban environment spew noise all across the spectrum, even at 1420 MHz.
You can also note that the hydrogen line peak is moving around in frequency as different parts of the galaxy pass overhead. This indicates the doppler shift of the part of the galaxy being observed. Because the arms of the galaxy and the hydrogen in it is rotating at significant speeds, the frequency is doppler shifted relative to us.
Using the power and doppler shift data of the hydrogen line is how astronomers first determined the properties of our galaxy like shape, size and rotational speed. If we continued to scan the sky over a few months, we could eventually build up a full map of our galaxy, like what CCERA have done as explained in this previous post.
Just a few days we posted an update on the PICTOR open source radio telescope project. That project makes use of an RTL-SDR and a small dish antenna to receive the Hydrogen line, and is able to measure properties of our galaxy such as determining the shape of our galaxy.
Now over on Hackaday another amateur radio telescope project has been posted, this one called the "Mini Radio Telescope" (MRT) which was made by Professor James Aguirre of the University of Pennsylvania. This project makes use of a spare Direct TV satellite dish and an RTL-SDR to make radio astronomy observations. What makes this project interesting in particular is the automatic pan and tilt rotor that is part of the design. Unlike other amateur radio telescopes, this motorized design can track the sky, and map it over time. This allows you to create actual radio images of the sky. The image on the right shows a geostationary satellite imaged with the dish.
In the past we saw a similar project by the Thought Emporium YouTube channel which used a tracking mount and a HackRF to generate images of the WiFi spectrum. This was to be a precursor to a motorized tracking mount for radio astronomy but it doesn't seem that they completed that project yet.
Professor James Aguirre 's project including designs for the rotor is fully open source and can be found over on GitHub.
He uses a FlightAware dongle, which is an RTL-SDR optimized for best ADS-B reception when placed directly at the mast/antenna. For an antenna he uses the FlightAware ADS-B antenna, which we've reviewed in the past and found to be one of the best value ADS-B antennas available on the market. To process the data, a Raspberry Pi is used and it is powered via power over Ethernet (POE). If you didn't already know, power over Ethernet (not to be confused with Ethernet over powerline) is simply running power through unused wires inside an Ethernet cable. It is a convenient method of powering remote devices and giving them a network connection at the same time. The whole package is enclosed in a waterproof case, and the antenna attached to the top.
Putting the RTL-SDR and computing device at the antenna removes any loss from long coax runs, and the POE connection provides a tidy cabling scheme. The FlightAware dongle is a good choice for mounting directly at the mast or antenna because it has a built in low noise figure LNA. If using coax cabling instead, and keeping the RTL-SDR and Raspberry Pi inside, then it would be better to mount an LNA at the mast and power it through the coax via a bias tee.
There are now dozens of software defined radio packages that support the ultra cheap RTL-SDR. On this page we will attempt to list, categorize and provide a brief overview of each software program. We categorize the programs into general purpose software, single purpose software, research software and software compatible with audio piping.
If you know of a program that is missing please leave a comment in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
SDR# (pronounced "SDR Sharp") is the most popular free RTL-SDR compatible software in use at the moment. It is relatively simple to use compared to other SDR software and has a simple set up procedure. We have a full overview of the installation procedure on our Quick Start Page. SDR# is designed to be use with the $199 Airspy SDR, but works just fine with the RTL-SDR.
SDR# is a simple to use program that also has some advanced features. It has a useful modular plugin type architecture, and many plugins have already been developed by third party developers. The basic SDR# download without any third party plugins includes a standard FFT display and waterfall, a frequency manager, recording plugin and a digital noise reduction plugin. SDR# also decodes RDS signals from broadcast FM.
HDSDR is based on the old WinRAD SDR program. HDSDR supports the RTL-SDR through use of an ExtIO.dll module. To install HDSDR, download the program from the link on the main HDSDR page, then to use the RTL-SDR you will need to download the ExtIO_RTL2832.dll file an place it into the HDSDR folder. When opening HDSDR, select the newly copied ExtIO_RTL2832.dll. The other dlls that come with HDSDR will not work with the RTL-SDR, even though they have RTL-SDR in their filename. The official installation instructions can be found here.
Along with a FFT display and waterfall, HDSDR has some extra advanced features. Users will also find an Audio FFT and waterfall display on the bottom of the screen. The output audio can also be bandpass filtered by dragging the filter borders on the display. Bandpass filtering the audio can really help clean up a noisy signal. The audio processing also supports placing of notch filters either manually or automatically. There are also noise reduction and noise blanker features and an automatic frequency centering algorithm which will automatically center the signal, so you don't need to click exactly in the center of a signal. Traditional ham radio users will also enjoy the S-units signal strength meter and the built in frequency manager.
SDR-RADIO.COM V2 and the newer V3 is a popular SDR program with many advanced features. As such is it a fair amount more difficult to learn and use compared to SDR# and HDSDR. Be sure you install version 2 and not V1.5 as only V2 has RTL-SDR support.
Once sdr-radio is installed, to get it working with the RTL-SDR you will need to compile or download three .dll files (SDRSourceRTL2832U.dll, rtlsdr.dll and libusb-1.0.dll) and place them into the sdr-radio folder. To compile your own dlls see the instructions here, otherwise download the dlls directly from the bottom of this link. If the dlls were placed in the correct folder you will be able to add your RTL-SDR as a receiver by clicking on the +Definitions button, and then finding and adding the RTL SDR (USB) option under the search drop down menu.
Like HDSDR, not only does sdr-radio have a RF FFT signal and waterfall display, but also an optional audio spectrum FFT and waterfall display. Built in are also several DSP features like a noise blanker, noise reduction filter, notch filter and squelch options. The EMNS noise reduction filter is particularly good at automatically cleaning up and clarifying voice signals.
To add to the feature list, sdr-radio also has built in PSK, RTTY and RDS decoders, and also comes with a satellite tracker. Furthermore, sdr-radio V2 (not V3 yet) has an excellent remote server which will allow you to easily set up and connect to a remote RTL-SDR server over a network or the internet. Finally, sdr-radio is capable of listening to up to 6 signals in the same chunk of visible spectrum at a time.