Category: Antennas

Updates on the PICTOR Low Cost Open Source Radio Telescope Based on RTL-SDR

Back in July we posted about PICTOR, an open source and RTL-SDR based radio telescope project. The owner of the project recently wrote in and wanted to share some updates. His text is below:

A few months ago, PICTOR was launched. PICTOR is a free to use open source radio telescope that allows anyone to observe the sky in the 1300~1700 MHz range at any time via the easy-to-use online platform.

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!

Graphs from the PICTOR RTL-SDR Radio Telescope showing the 3 unique spiral arms in the Milky Way.
Graphs from the PICTOR RTL-SDR Radio Telescope showing the 3 unique spiral arms in the Milky Way.

If you’re new to radio-astronomy, the developer of PICTOR has provided a PDF including some introductory radio astronomy information and instructions on how to observe the radio sky with PICTOR: https://www.pictortelescope.com/Observing_the_radio_sky_with_PICTOR.pdf

L-Band Patch Antenna Set Preorder Sale Ending Soon – Shipping Begins Next Week

Just a heads up that the preorder sale on our new L-Band Patch antenna set will be ending October 21 as we are almost ready to ship the units out. After the preorder sale ends the pricing will rise from $34.95 to $39.95 USD.

PREORDER PRICING: 34.95 USD incl. free shipping.
PREORDER ENDS OCTOBER 21!

Please see our store to preorder the unit.

Preorder has now ended and shipping will begin shortly. Thank you!

The product is a ready to use active patch antenna set that is designed to receive L-Band satellites such as Inmarsat, Iridium and GPS. It is enclosed in a waterproof plastic case, and can easily be mounted to a window using the provided suction cup and 2M coax extension cable. It can also be mounted to almost anything else using the included flexible tripod legs, or if you prefer, use the standard 1/4" camera screw hole to connect it to any mount that you like.

The antenna is powered via 3.3V - 5V bias tee power, so any bias tee capable SDR such as our RTL-SDR Blog V3 can be used to power it.

In terms of performance see our previous post that announced the product for sample screenshots and reception tips.

The RTL-SDR Blog L-Band Satellite Patch Antenna Set
The RTL-SDR Blog L-Band Satellite Patch Antenna Set
Inmarsat Reception
Iridium Reception

SignalsEverywhere: Testing out NooElecs PCB L-Band Patch Antenna

Over on his YouTube channel Corrosive from the SignalsEverywhere YouTube channel has uploaded a video where he tests out the new US$29.95 NooElec PCB patch antenna for receiving L-band satellite signals. In the video he shows how it can be combined with one of their SAWBird L-band low noise amplifiers in order to receive L-band satellite signals such as Inmarsat STD-C and AERO.

We note that our own RTL-SDR Blog Active L-band patch antenna will be ready to ship out before the end of this month, and while waiting for it we are currently having a preorder sale for US$34.95 including free shipping over on our store. For US$34.95 our patch antenna is fully contained in a waterproof enclosure, includes an LNA built in, and comes with several mounting options, so we believe that it is really a great deal. The patch design is based on the Outernet ceramic patch that was compared against the NooElec PCB patch shown in Corrosives video, so performance will be very similar.

Nooelec NEW Inmarsat Patch Antenna with Airspy SDR

New Product in Store: RTL-SDR Blog Magnetic Whip Antenna Set (Great for KerberosSDR Direction Finding)

We've recently released a new Magnetic Whip Antenna Set in our store. The set consists of a heavy duty magnetic mount antenna base with 2M RG59, a 9.5cm fixed whip antenna (usable from 400 MHz to 2 GHz+), and a 17cm to 1m telescopic whip (usable from 100 MHz - 400 MHz).

Click Here to Visit our Store

The antenna set costs US$14.95 each with free shipping. And if you buy four sets you will receive a 15% discount. Currently available to ship worldwide right now from our warehouse in China, and they will be on Amazon in 2-3 weeks.

One application of our KerberosSDR 4-Tuner Coherent RTL-SDR is radio direction finding. This requires four quality omni-directional antennas. We were disappointed to find that there were no high quality magnetic whip antennas available on the market for a low price that we could use with KerberosSDR so we made our own.

The magnetic base is designed carefully with conductive metal that is properly connected to the shield of the coax cable. Most cheap antenna bases just leave the shield connection floating and this causes insufficient coupling to the underlying ground plane resulting in poor performance and poor results when it comes to direction finding and reception.

We've tested this set with KerberosSDR and it is known to work well. The antenna can also of course be used for any other receiving purpose if you prefer to use a whip antenna over our multipurpose dipole antenna set.

In the first two images in the image slider below you can see a comparison between a black base that is not properly bonded to the coax shield, vs the RTL-SDR Blog silver base which is correctly bonded to the coax shield. Both tests used the 9.5cm whip antenna. You can see that the RTL-SDR Blog silver base provides a much lower noise floor and higher signal SNR due to the better ground plane. Also we note that when placing the antenna bases on a metallic surface to create a larger ground plane, the black base showed no further improvement, whereas the RTL-SDR Blog silver base did.

The final three images in the slider show the SWR plots of the two whips on the base. We can see that the 9.5cm whip provides an SWR of less than six below 412 MHz. The telescopic whip can be adjusted to provide better SWR for lower frequencies.

RTL-SDR Blog Antenna Base (Coax shield properly connected to base)

RTL-SDR Blog Antenna Base (Coax shield properly connected to base)

Generic Black Antenna Base (Coax shield not connected to base)

Generic Black Antenna Base (Coax shield not connected to base)

9.5cm Whip SWR Plot

9.5cm Whip SWR Plot

Telescopic Whip Collapsed SWR Plot

Telescopic Whip Collapsed SWR Plot

Telescopic Whip Fully Expanded SWR Plot

Telescopic Whip Fully Expanded SWR Plot

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Updates on the PICTOR Low Cost Open Source Radio Telescope Based on RTL-SDR

Back in July we posted about PICTOR, an open source and RTL-SDR based radio telescope project. The owner of the project recently wrote in and wanted to share some updates. His text is below:

A few months ago, PICTOR was launched. PICTOR is a free to use open source radio telescope that allows anyone to observe the sky in the 1300~1700 MHz range at any time via the easy-to-use online platform.

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!

Graphs from the PICTOR RTL-SDR Radio Telescope showing the 3 unique spiral arms in the Milky Way.
Graphs from the PICTOR RTL-SDR Radio Telescope showing the 3 unique spiral arms in the Milky Way.

If you’re new to radio-astronomy, the developer of PICTOR has provided a PDF including some introductory radio astronomy information and instructions on how to observe the radio sky with PICTOR: https://www.pictortelescope.com/Observing_the_radio_sky_with_PICTOR.pdf

L-Band Patch Antenna Set Preorder Sale Ending Soon – Shipping Begins Next Week

Just a heads up that the preorder sale on our new L-Band Patch antenna set will be ending October 21 as we are almost ready to ship the units out. After the preorder sale ends the pricing will rise from $34.95 to $39.95 USD.

PREORDER PRICING: 34.95 USD incl. free shipping.
PREORDER ENDS OCTOBER 21!

Please see our store to preorder the unit.

Preorder has now ended and shipping will begin shortly. Thank you!

The product is a ready to use active patch antenna set that is designed to receive L-Band satellites such as Inmarsat, Iridium and GPS. It is enclosed in a waterproof plastic case, and can easily be mounted to a window using the provided suction cup and 2M coax extension cable. It can also be mounted to almost anything else using the included flexible tripod legs, or if you prefer, use the standard 1/4" camera screw hole to connect it to any mount that you like.

The antenna is powered via 3.3V - 5V bias tee power, so any bias tee capable SDR such as our RTL-SDR Blog V3 can be used to power it.

In terms of performance see our previous post that announced the product for sample screenshots and reception tips.

The RTL-SDR Blog L-Band Satellite Patch Antenna Set
The RTL-SDR Blog L-Band Satellite Patch Antenna Set
Inmarsat Reception
Iridium Reception

SignalsEverywhere: Testing out NooElecs PCB L-Band Patch Antenna

Over on his YouTube channel Corrosive from the SignalsEverywhere YouTube channel has uploaded a video where he tests out the new US$29.95 NooElec PCB patch antenna for receiving L-band satellite signals. In the video he shows how it can be combined with one of their SAWBird L-band low noise amplifiers in order to receive L-band satellite signals such as Inmarsat STD-C and AERO.

We note that our own RTL-SDR Blog Active L-band patch antenna will be ready to ship out before the end of this month, and while waiting for it we are currently having a preorder sale for US$34.95 including free shipping over on our store. For US$34.95 our patch antenna is fully contained in a waterproof enclosure, includes an LNA built in, and comes with several mounting options, so we believe that it is really a great deal. The patch design is based on the Outernet ceramic patch that was compared against the NooElec PCB patch shown in Corrosives video, so performance will be very similar.

Nooelec NEW Inmarsat Patch Antenna with Airspy SDR

New Product in Store: RTL-SDR Blog Magnetic Whip Antenna Set (Great for KerberosSDR Direction Finding)

We've recently released a new Magnetic Whip Antenna Set in our store. The set consists of a heavy duty magnetic mount antenna base with 2M RG59, a 9.5cm fixed whip antenna (usable from 400 MHz to 2 GHz+), and a 17cm to 1m telescopic whip (usable from 100 MHz - 400 MHz).

Click Here to Visit our Store

The antenna set costs US$14.95 each with free shipping. And if you buy four sets you will receive a 15% discount. Currently available to ship worldwide right now from our warehouse in China, and they will be on Amazon in 2-3 weeks.

One application of our KerberosSDR 4-Tuner Coherent RTL-SDR is radio direction finding. This requires four quality omni-directional antennas. We were disappointed to find that there were no high quality magnetic whip antennas available on the market for a low price that we could use with KerberosSDR so we made our own.

The magnetic base is designed carefully with conductive metal that is properly connected to the shield of the coax cable. Most cheap antenna bases just leave the shield connection floating and this causes insufficient coupling to the underlying ground plane resulting in poor performance and poor results when it comes to direction finding and reception.

We've tested this set with KerberosSDR and it is known to work well. The antenna can also of course be used for any other receiving purpose if you prefer to use a whip antenna over our multipurpose dipole antenna set.

In the first two images in the image slider below you can see a comparison between a black base that is not properly bonded to the coax shield, vs the RTL-SDR Blog silver base which is correctly bonded to the coax shield. Both tests used the 9.5cm whip antenna. You can see that the RTL-SDR Blog silver base provides a much lower noise floor and higher signal SNR due to the better ground plane. Also we note that when placing the antenna bases on a metallic surface to create a larger ground plane, the black base showed no further improvement, whereas the RTL-SDR Blog silver base did.

The final three images in the slider show the SWR plots of the two whips on the base. We can see that the 9.5cm whip provides an SWR of less than six below 412 MHz. The telescopic whip can be adjusted to provide better SWR for lower frequencies.

RTL-SDR Blog Antenna Base (Coax shield properly connected to base)

RTL-SDR Blog Antenna Base (Coax shield properly connected to base)

Generic Black Antenna Base (Coax shield not connected to base)

Generic Black Antenna Base (Coax shield not connected to base)

9.5cm Whip SWR Plot

9.5cm Whip SWR Plot

Telescopic Whip Collapsed SWR Plot

Telescopic Whip Collapsed SWR Plot

Telescopic Whip Fully Expanded SWR Plot

Telescopic Whip Fully Expanded SWR Plot

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G8JNJ Reverse Engineers and Reviews the MLA-30 HF Loop Antenna

Last month we posted a collection of reviews about the MLA-30 which is a budget magnetic loop antenna designed for receiving HF signals. The overall consensus from the reviews was that it worked decently for the price, but of course could never live up to the high end loops that cost hundreds of dollars.

Recently Martin (G8JNJ) reverse engineered the active circuit used on the loop from photos taken by M0LMK and has made some observations on it's performance, noting that it's design isn't very good. First he notes that the amplifier chip is a Texas TL592B two stage video amplifier which isn't that great for this application. His measurements show an OIP3 of 20dBm, a P1 saturation of -3dBm and a noise figure of 12dB.

Of interest, he explains that the creator of this loop has designed it poorly as the impedance match of the loop to low pass filter is very wrong, resulting in a very poor amplitude/frequency response. He shows how the response can be improved with a few termination resistors, but is still not great.

MLA-30 Frequency Response. Ideally should be flat.
MLA-30 Frequency Response. Ideally should be flat.

If you're interested in a cheap magnetic loop antenna, Martin suggests DIYing the M0AYF design which he says works a lot better.

We note that the "YouLoop" design is also in the works as a product that will apparently sell at close to manufacturing cost. The YouLoop is a passive loop idea by the creator of the Airspy that consists only of a simple 1:1 transformer and coax cable as the loop. It works best with high sensitivity radios like the HF+ Discovery.

PREORDER SALE: Active L-Band 1525-1637 Inmarsat to Iridium Patch Antenna Set For $34.95

Over the last several months we've been working on a versatile active L-band patch antenna that can cover Inmarsat to Iridium satellite frequencies. That antenna is now almost ready, and should be able to ship out from our Chinese storage warehouse by week 1 or 2 of October NOTE: Due to an unfortunate Typhoon near the factory in Taiwan, and the Chinese National Week long holidays and Taiwan National day we are expecting them to ship out in week 3 or 4 of October now. Apologies for the delays. No other components like filters or amplifiers are required to be able to use this antenna, as it is an all in one system.

The expected price will be US$39.95, but right now we're releasing it for a discounted PREORDER price of US$34.95 incl. free shipping.

Please see our store to preorder the unit.

Your preorder will ship out as soon as it's stocked in the warehouse in China. If you prefer to wait we'll also have this product on Amazon (at retail $39.95) about 2-3 weeks after it is stocked in our Chinese warehouse.

The antenna is based on the active (low noise amplified with built in filter) ceramic patch design that was used by Othernet (aka Outernet), back when they had their L-band service active. We've asked them to modify the antenna to cover a wider range of frequencies, and include an enclosure that allows for easier mounting.

The antenna is 3.3 - 5V bias tee powered, so you will need a bias tee capable RTL-SDR like our RTL-SDR Blog V3, or a 5V external bias tee. It draws about 20-30mA of current, so it is compatible with other SDRs like the SDRplay, HackRF and Airspy too.

With this antenna we've paid close attention to the mounting solutions. One major difficulty with these patch antennas is finding a convenient place to mount them. The patch is designed with a built in 1/4" camera screw hole, so any standard camera mount can be used. In the kit we're including a window suction cup, a flexible tripod and 2 meters of RG174 cabling to help with mounting. Your own longer coax cabling can be used, however we'd recommend using lower loss cabling like RG59/58 or RG6 for anything longer than 3 meters.

The patch is also fully enclosed in an IP67 weather proof plastic case, so it can be kept mounted outdoors in the rain.

The RTL-SDR Blog L-Band Satellite Patch Antenna Set
The RTL-SDR Blog L-Band Satellite Patch Antenna Set
Ways to mount the patch antenna
Ways to mount the patch antenna

Performance

With the patch receiving AERO, STD-C and GPS should be a breeze. Simply point up at the sky, or towards the Inmarsat antenna, apply bias tee power and receive. Below are some sample screenshots showing reception.

Inmarsat Reception
Inmarsat Reception
Iridium Reception

Reception Tips

  • The patch is designed to be used with a 1m+ length of coax cable. It may perform poorly if the RTL-SDR is placed right at the antenna due to interference.
     
  • If receiving Inmarsat, the patch antenna should ideally be angled to face the satellite.
    • Rotate the patch until the signal strength is maximized. Rotating the patch optimizes the polarization of the antenna for the satellite and your location. NOTE: Using the wrong orientation could result in 20 dB attenuation, so please do experiment with the rotation.
    • You can also use the patch on a flat surface for Inmarsat (and rotate for best reception), but signal strength may be a little reduced. Depending on your location and the satellites elevation it should still be sufficient for decoding.
       
  • For receiving Iridium and GPS signals you can use the antenna flat, pointing straight up towards the sky. Try to get it seeing a clear view of the sky horizon to horizon to maximize the satellites that it can see.
     
  • If you happen to have a very marginal signal, you can clamp on a flat sheet of metal behind the patch antenna for improved performance.
     
  • AERO C-Channel: C-Channel transmissions are at 1647-1652 MHz which are outside of the advertised range of this antenna. However, the filter cut off is not that sharp, and you may be able to get results, although we cannot guarantee this. (If you want to test this for us and can demonstrate that you can receive C-Channel already, please contact us at [email protected] for a sample)

  • If you want to mount this on a car roof, you can use a standard magmount camera adapter.

What Can you do with this antenna?

Inmarsat STD-C EGC Decoding

AERO Satellite ACARS Decoding

Iridium Decoding

GPS Experiments

Reviews of the Low Cost MLA-30 Wide Band HF Magnetic Loop Antenna

Recently Chinese manufacturers have begun producing a low cost wide band (100 kHz - 30 MHz) magnetic loop HF antenna known as the MLA-30. The loop can be found on eBay for under US$45 with free shipping. In the past wide band HF loop antennas have not been cheap, normally costing $300+ dollars from manufacturers like Wellbrook.

RF signals are electromagnetic waves that consist of an electric and magnetic component.  A magnetic loop antenna mostly receives the magnetic portion of the wave. This is useful as most unwanted interference from modern electronic devices is generated in the electric component only.  So, a magnetic loop antenna may be preferable in city and suburban environments over other antennas like wires and miniwhips. Magnetic loops are also directional, and can be rotated to avoid interference.

One of the biggest costs to a magnetic loop antenna is the shipping, because a large hula hoop sized piece of metal needs to be sent. The MLA-30 cuts costs on shipping by providing a folded up thin loop wire and no physical support for the loop. You are expected to provide your own support, or simply hang the loop wire on something. If you like you can also replace the included loop wire with a larger loop.

The MLA-30 comes with 10m of RG174 coax, is bias tee powered, and comes as a set with a bias tee injector that is powered over 5V USB. We tested our own unit with the RTL-SDR Blog V3, Airspy and SDRplay bias tee's and found that they all worked well instead of the included bias tee. So if you have one of those SDRs using the loop is as simple and neat as plugging it in and turning on the bias tee.

In terms of build quality, the unit is sturdy and the PCB is fully potted and protected against rain/weather. It is yet to be seen how the external screw terminals holding on the loop will age over a longer period of time however.

So how does the very cheap MLA-30 compare to higher end magnetic loop antennas? Below are some reviews by various hams and SWLs. The general consensus is that it works well for the price, but as you'd expect, falters on handling very strong signals and produces a higher noise floor compared to the more expensive loops, especially in the higher HF bands. But overall we'd say that it's probably still better than using a miniwhip, especially in suburban/city environments, and is probably the best compact HF antenna that you can get on a budget.

What's included in the MLA-30 set. Photo from David Day's Review.
What's included in the MLA-30 set. Photo from David Day's Review.

MLA-30 Magnetic Loop Antenna Review and Comparison by David Day (N1DAY)

In this review David compares the MLA-30 against a 30-ft ground loop and a Wellbrook ALA1530-LF. His results show that while the loop is capable of receiving the same signals that the two comparison loops can, the SNR is much lower. He also notes that the much thinner loop wire used on the MLA-30 seems to result in a much deeper null, and that IMD was a problem for him.

Inside the MLA-30 Active Loop Antenna by Matt (M0LMK)

This post is a complete teardown of the antenna. As the PCB is fully potted Matt had to boil down the epoxy in order to get to the actual PCB. He notes that the PCB is a simple single amplifier design with the exposed pot working as a gain control.

Cheap Chinese Magnetic Loop Antenna (MegaLoop aka MAGALoop) MLA-30 by John

In this review John compares the MLA-30 against a $345 W6LVP and Wellbrook ALA1530LN. His findings are very favorable concluding that it is an adequate performer, perfect for cash strapped SWLs.

First hour battle of the antennas W6LVP loop VS MLA 30 loop test by OfficialSWLchannel

This is a YouTube video where OfficialSWLchannel compares his MLA-30 against a W6LVP loop. He notes that his initial testing shows that the MLA-30 performs as well as the W6LVP loop.

First hour battle of the antennas W6LVP loop VS MLA 30 loop test

MLA-30 Loop vs 80M EFHW by Matthew Payne

In this YouTube video Matthew compares his MLA-30 against a 80M end fed halfwave antenna with an SDRplay RSP1a. 

MLA-30 Loop vs 80M EFHW

MLA-30 Magnetic Loop Modifications by Scanner and Sdr Radio

In this video the Scanner and Sdr Radio YouTube channel uses an RSPduo to compare the MLA-30 against a Wellbrook loop. His results show that the MLA-30 definitely has a higher noise floor compared to the Wellbrook, but still receives signals decently although chasing weak signals it's not good enough. He also shows how to improve the MLA-30 by replacing the cheap coax that it comes with, noting that the modification reduced his noise.

MLA-30 Magnetic Loop Modifications

 

Testing a PCB Patch Antenna and Radiosonde QFH Antenna for Inmarsat and Iridium Reception

Over on his YouTube channel Tech Minds has been testing some antennas for Inmarsat and Iridium L-Band satellite reception. Inmarsat is a satellite service that runs on geostationary satellites, and one can be received from almost anywhere in the world. There are various services, but the ones that are easily decodable are STD-C EGC and AERO. EGC contains text information search and rescue (SAR) and coast guard messages as well as news, weather and incident reports, and AERO is a form of satellite ACARS, and typically contains short messages from aircraft.

In the first video Tech Minds tests what appears to be an as of yet unreleased prototype PCB patch antenna being designed by NooElec. The PCB patch antenna is combined with a SAWBird Inmarsat LNA and an RTL-SDR. With it he's able to receive STD-C and AERO signals.

In the second video Tech Minds tests an L-Band QFH antenna salvaged from a Vaisala weather balloon radiosonde. The QFH is designed for GPS frequencies, but can potentially be used at the slightly higher Inmarsat and Iridium frequencies. Tech Minds combines the QFH antenna with a SAWBird Inmarsat LNA, but unfortunately finds that reception is too weak for any AERO decoding to be possible. However, when used on the higher Iridium frequencies the antenna works well, and he's able to decode packets with Iridium Toolkit.

New Inmarsat Antenna from NooElec

Testing A QFH Antenna For Inmarsat And Iridium

RTL-SDR Blog L-Band Patch Antenna Preview

We note that over the last several months we have been working on our own L-band patch antenna that will cover Inmarsat, GPS and Iridium frequencies all in one. We expect manufacturing to be completed near the end of the month, or early next month.

The antenna is a ceramic patch, and will come in a waterproof enclosure. It will be possible to easily mount the antenna on a window or elsewhere using the standard suction cup and bendy legs tripod included with our dipole kits. Target price is US$39.95 including the suction cup, tripod, 2M coax and shipping, but we may have it initially on sale for a lower price.

This is cheaper than buying an Inmarsat & Iridium LNA, but a bit more than the SDR-Kits patches that they brought out a few weeks ago. Although performance of our patch is much better. Keep an eye out for the initial information post coming in the next few days.

RTL-SDR Blog L-Band Patch Preview (RTL-SDR for Scale)
RTL-SDR Blog L-Band Patch Preview (RTL-SDR for Scale)