The RTL-SDR has been used for some time now as an amateur radio astronomy tool. Radio astronomers Peter W East and GM Gancio have recently uploaded a paper that details their experiments with detecting Pulsars with an RTL-SDR (doc file).
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. The abstract of the paper reads:
This project sought to determine the minimum useful antenna aperture for amateur radio astronomers to successfully detect pulsars around the Hydrogen line frequency of 1420MHz. The technique relied on the collaboration with GM Gancio, who provided RTL SDR data of the Vela pulsar (B0833-45, J0835-4510) and others, collected with a 30m radio telescope. This data was processed to determine the achievable signal-to-noise ratio from which, the minimum useful dish size necessary for some effective amateur work, could be calculated. Two software packages were developed to do synchronous integration, a third to provide a power detection function and a fourth for spectrum analysis to recover pulsar rotation rate.
With their system the authors were able to detect and measure the rotation period of the Vela pulsar. Also, from their data they were able to estimate that the minimum dish aperture required to observe the Vela pulsar would be 6m, noting that the Vela pulsar is probably the strongest pulsar ever detected. They also write that by utilizing 5 RTL-SDRs to gather 10 MHz of bandwidth together with some processing that the minimum required dish aperture could be reduced to 3.5m.
In addition to these Pulsar experiments, Peter has also uploaded new papers about improving his Hydrogen Line RTL-SDR Telescope (pdf), and has updated his paper on improving the frequency stability of RTL-SDR’s with air cooling (doc file). Peter found that the frequency stability of the RTL-SDR (with standard oscillator) could be significantly improved by adding heat sinks and aircooling them. The graph from his paper below summarizes his results.
All of Peters papers can be found on his website at y1pwe.co.uk/RAProgs/index.html. He has many RTL-SDR radio astronomy related resources there, so check it out if you are interested.