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.
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