Category: Radio Astronomy

GPU Accelerated RTL-SDR Radio Interferometer Code For Radio Astronomy

Evan Mayer (@millijanskys) has recently released some code called “effex” that allows you to use two RTL-SDR dongles as an interferometer for radio astronomy and other experiments.

The hardware used is two RTL-SDR Blog V3 dongles with synchronized oscillators via the selectable clock headers, two 1420 MHz filtered LNAs, a splitter and noise source consisting of a 50 Ohm load and wideband LNA, and a NVIDIA Jetson Nano GPU single board computer. We note that Evans code should also run on our KerberosSDR with some modifications to enable the built in noise source during calibration.

To add to this Evan wrote to us explaining how this code might be used:

You could start to do some basic interferometric imaging by adding more coherent channels. This is exactly what Daniel Estévez just did with USRPs and GNU Radio at the Allen Telescope Array.

Did you see the “picture” of the supermassive black hole shadow released by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration in 2019? The “ring of fire” or “donut” image? Daniel’s image and that image were created by “aperture synthesis.”

In aperture synthesis, the signals from each pair of antennas distributed across an area can be cross-correlated to measure one component of the 2D Fourier transform of the radio brightness distribution on the sky. But, you need coherent receivers (or REALLY good time stamps) to cross-correlate the signals from the antennas. Get enough pairs of antennas, and you can start to more fully sample the 2D Fourier space of the sky brightness distribution, which you can then use to reconstruct a real image.

This is how distributed radio arrays like the EHT work, as well as localized ones like ALMA or LOFAR.

Building an 11.2 GHz Radio Telescope with an Airspy and 1.2m TV Satellite Dish

In the past we've posted several times about how 1.42 GHz Hydrogen Line amateur radio telescopes used with RTL-SDRs or other SDRs for Hydrogen line observations of the galaxy. Recently Hackaday ran a post highlighting a project from "PhysicsOpenLab" describing an 11.2 GHz radio telescope that uses an Airspy SDR as the receiver.

Celestial bodies emit radio waves all across the radio spectrum and typically observations can be made anywhere between 20 MHz to 20 GHz. Choosing an optimal frequency it is a tradeoff between antenna size, directivity and avoiding man made noise. For these reasons, observations at 10-12 GHz are most suitable for amateur radio telescopes.

The posts by PhysicsOpenLab are split into two. The first post highlights the hardware used which includes a 1.2m prime focus dish, and 11.2 GHz TV LNB, a wideband amplifier, a SAW filter, a bias tee, and the Airspy SDR. The LNB converts the 11.2 GHz signal down to 1.4 GHz which can be received by the Airspy. Once at 1.4 GHz it's possible then to use existing commercial filters and amplifiers designed for Hydrogen line observations.

The second post explains the GNU Radio based software implementation and the mathematical equations required to understand the gathered data. Finally in this post they also graph some results gathered during a solar and lunar transit.

Finally they note that even a 1.2m dish is quite small for a radio telescopic, but it may be possible to detect the emissions from the Milky Way and other celestial radio sources such as nebulae like Cassiopeia A, Taurus A and Cygnus A a radio galaxy.

A 11.2 GHz 1.2m Amateur Radio Telescope with GNU Radio and Airspy

Job’s Radio Telescope: Hydrogen Line Northern Sky Survey with RTL-SDR

We've posted about Job Geheniau's RTL-SDR radio telescope a few times in the past [1] [2] [3], and every time his results improve. This time is no exception as he's created his highest resolution radio image of the Milky Way to date. We have uploaded his PDF file explaining the project here.

Job used the same hardware as his previous measurements, a 1.5 meter dish, with 2x LNA's, a band pass filter and an RTL-SDR. Over 72 days he used the drift scan technique to collect data in 5 degree increments. The result is a map of our Milky Way galaxy at the neutral Hydrogen frequency of 1420.405 MHz.

JRT - Northern sky Hydrogen Line Survey with RTL-SDR

This image is quite comparable to an image shown in a previous post which was created by Marcus Leech from CCERA who used a 1.8m dish and Airspy.

If you're interested in exploring our Galaxy with an RTL-SDR via Hydrogen Line reception, we have a simple tutorial available here. The ideas presented in the tutorial could be adapted to create an image similar to the above, although with lower resolution.

Notes on Observing Pulsars with an SDR from CCERA

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 or directional antenna and a software defined radio. In the past we've posted a few times about Pulsars, and how the HawkRAO amateur radio telescope run by Steve Olney in Australia has observed Pulsar "Glitches" with his RTL-SDR based radio telescope.

Over in Canada, Marcus Leech has also set up a Pulsar radio telescope at the Canadian Centre for Experimental Radio Astronomy (CCERA). Marcus has been featured several times on this blog for his various amateur radio experiments involving SDRs like the RTL-SDR. In one of his latest memos Marcus documents his Pulsar observing capabilities at CCERA (pdf). His memo describes what Pulsars are and how observations are performed, explaining important concepts for observation like de-dispersion and epoch folding.

The rest of the memo shows the antenna dish and feed, the SDR hardware which is a USRP B210 SDR, the reference clock which is a laboratory 0.01PPB rubidium atomic clock and the GNU Radio software created called "stupid_simple_pulsar". The software DSP process is then explained in greater detail. If you're thinking about getting involved in more advanced amateur radio astronomy this document is a good starting point.

Dish Antenna + Feed used for receiving Pulsars

Using an RTL-SDR to Measure the Basis for the Dark Matter Hypothesis

From calculations depending on the distribution of visible star mass in our galaxy, a certain galactic rotational velocity vs distance from center curve is expected. However, when scientists actually measure the galactic rotation, another curve is found - a curve which should result in the galaxy flying apart. This mismatch in expected vs measured data has given rise to the theory of "dark matter". The theory essentially states that in order to get the measured curve, the galaxy must have more mass, and that this mass must come from non-luminous matter scattered amongst the galaxy which is difficult or impossible to observe.

In the past we have posted about Job Geheniau's radio astronomy projects a few times on this blog. So far he has used an RTL-SDR and radio telescope dish to generate a full radio image of the galaxy at the Hydrogen Line frequency of 1.42 GHz. This project worked by pointing the telescope at one section of the galaxy, measuring the total Hydrogen line power with the RTL-SDR over a number of minutes, then moving the telescope to the next section.

Job's Radio Telescope + Laptop and RTL-SDR Setup

Using the same hardware and techniques to observe the Hydrogen Line frequency, he was now able to measure the rotational curve of our galaxy. When the telescope points to different arms of the galaxy, the Hydrogen line measurement will be doppler shifted differently. The measured doppler shift can be used to figure out the rotational velocity of that particular arm of the galaxy. By measuring the rotational velocity from the center of the galaxy to the outer edges, a curve is created. Job's measured curve matches that seen by professional radio astronomers, confirming the mismatch in expected vs measured data.

Job's document explaining his setup and measurement procedure can be found here (pdf file).

Job's Measured vs Expected Curve

If you'd like to get started with Hydrogen line radio astronomy with an RTL-SDR, we have a tutorial over here.

Conference Talk on PICTOR A Free-to-Use Open Source Radio Telescope based on RTL-SDR

At this years FOSDEM 2020 conference Apostolos Spanakis-Misirlis has presented a talk on his PICTOR open source radio telescope project. We have posted about PICTOR in the past [1, 2] as it makes use of an RTL-SDR dongle for the radio observations. The PICTOR website and GitHub page provide all the information you need to build your own Hydrogen line radio telescope, and you can also access their free to use observation platform, where you can make an observation using Apostolos' own 3.2m dish radio telescope in Greece.

The PICTOR radio telescope allows a user to measure hydrogen line emissions from our galaxy. Neutral 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: A free-to-use open source radio telescope

Imaging the Milky Way in Neutral Hydrogen with an RTL-SDR Part 2

Last month we shared information about Job Geheniau's success with using an RTL-SDR dongle to image our galaxy in neutral Hydrogen. Our galaxy is full of neutral Hydrogen, and lots of neutral Hydrogen together results in a detectable radio peak at 1.42 GHz. This peak is called the Hydrogen line. By scanning the galaxy at the Hydrogen line frequency with a 1.5 meter dish on a motorized mount, an RTL-SDR, and a few filters and LNAs, Job is able to create a radio image of our galaxy.

In Job's previous attempt he created an image by pointing the dish antenna at 168 predefined grids calculated to cover the Milky Way, resulting in 168 points of exposure data. In his latest work Job has created an even higher resolution image by taking 903 points of exposure data. Each exposure took 150s and the total 903 exposures took 8 nights to record. Once all data was collected he uses the same process as before, which is to input all the Hydrogen line data into a standard 2D excel sheet, then use conditional formatting to create a heatmap which reveals the image. He then applies a blur and stretches the image into the Mollweide Cartographic which can represent the entire Universe in one image.

Job has shared with us his PDF where he documented his process and shares his images (note 16 MB PDF file). We also share his full resolution images below, just click to open. We think that these images are quite amazing and an excellent achievement for a backyard radio astronomer.

If you're interested in Hydrogen line radio astronomy we have a tutorial that will help you observe the Hydrogen line peak on a budget. The tutorial could be improved upon by motorizing the dish, allowing you to create images like the ones above. You might also be interested in a similar project by Marcus Leech who took 5 months of hydrogen line observations with an RTL-SDR in order to create an even higher resolution image.

A Talk on 21cm Hydrogen Line Amateur Radio Astronomy

The Amateur Radio Experimenters Group (AREG) recently held an online talk with guest speakers Phil Lock and Bill Cowley, talking about amateur radio astronomy. In the talk they note how they use an RTL-SDR as their radio.

Cheaper electronics has created great possibilities for Amateur Radio Astronomy. This talk will describe a local project to receive and map the distribution of 1420 MHz signals from neutral hydrogen in our galaxy. We briefly describe the history of 21cm RA and why it’s still of great interest to astronomers. We outline some challenges over the last few years in assembling a 2m dish with custom feed, electronics and signal processing, then show recent results from our project.

The image in the thumbnail shows recent signals (May 17th) recorded over a 24 hour period for dish elevation of 53 degrees. The signal changes as the antenna points to different parts of the Milky Way.

https://www.areg.org.au

21cm (1420MHz) Amateur Radio Astronomy