Steve Olney VK2XV is the creator and administrator of the Neutron Star Group website which collects a listing of confirmed amateur attempts at pulsar detection, many of which have been made with a humble RTL-SDR dongle. 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.
Now after more than four years of trying, Steve has finally been able make his own confirmed pulsar detection by using a 42-elment circularly polarized Yagi antenna tuned for 436 MHz and an RTL-SDR. Typically a large dish antenna is used to receive a pulsar, but Steve has instead used a fixed position circularly polarized Yagi antenna, which he writes has an equivalent aperture to a 2.8 meter diameter dish. His antenna can point directly upwards as his target is the Vela pulsar which happens to pass almost directly overhead at his location.
Detection of a pulsar involves determining its rotational period from the regular wideband noise pulses that they produce. Pulsar detections with large aperture dish antennas can easily be confirmed due to high SNR, but smaller weaker detectors require some use of some mathematical techniques to confirm a positive detection. This is especially important as it’s possible for terrestrial signals to mimic a pulsar.
In order to detect and confirm the pulsar detection from a weak signal, Steve uses a technique called epoch folding, which makes use of the fact that the period of pulsar pulses are extremely regular. To verify the results he also makes use of techniques such as folding at the predicted period, de-dispersion and plotting daily results against the predicted results. These techniques are explained in more depth in his results post.