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 since space and the galaxy is filled with many hydrogen atoms the average effect is an observable RF power spike at 1420.4058 MHz. By pointing a radio telescope at the night sky and integrating 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.
In his tutorial Adam discusses important technical points such as noise figure and filtering. Essentially, when trying to receive the hydrogen line you need a system with a low noise figure and good filtering. The RTL-SDR has a fairly poor noise figure of about 6dB at 1420MHz. But it turns out that the first amplifier element in the receive chain is the one that dominates the noise figure value. So by placing an LNA with a low noise figure right by the antenna, the system noise figure can be brought down to about 1dB, and losses in coax and filters become negligible as well. At the end of the tutorial he also discusses some supplementary points such as ESD protection, bias tees and IP3.
One note from us is that Adam writes that the RTL-SDR V3 bias tee can only provide 50mA, but it can actually provide up to 200mA continuously assuming the host can provide it (keep the dongle in a cool shaded area though). Most modern USB 2.0 and USB3.0 ports on PCs should have no problem providing up to 1A or more. We’ve also tested the LP5907 based Airspy bias tee at up to 150mA without trouble, so the 50mA rating is probably quite conservative. So these bias tee options should be okay for powering 2xLNA4ALL.
Finally Adam writes that in the future he will write a paper discussing homebrew hydrogen line antennas which should complete the tutorial allowing anyone to build a cheap hydrogen line radio telescope.
Over on YouTube Adam 9A4QV has been testing out his HackRF and Portapack with his LNA4ALL. The LNA4ALL is able to be powered inline via the bias tee on the HackRF. In the first video Adam shows that the HackRF and LNA4ALL is capable of receiving L-band satellites easily. The antenna he uses is a homemade circularly polarized antenna with a cooking pot being used as the reflector.
In the second video Adam shows the HackRF, Portapack and LNA4ALL receiving a telemetry signal on 442 MHz.
Finally in the last video Adam shows himself making a full QSO contact using the HackRF, Portapack and LNA4ALL. The software he uses on the Portapack is Furtek’s ‘Havoc’ firmware which has microphone to TX functionality. The LNA4ALL is able to work in transmit mode without trouble. Adam has written instructions for modifying the LNA4ALL so that it can transmit and use the HackRF’s bias tee power at the same time over on his website lna4all.blogspot.com.
On his post Tony tests the LNA4ALL and compares his measured gain specs against the claimed gain specs on the LNA4ALL website. At 5V power supply he found that the real vs claimed gains matched quite nicely.
Although the LNA4ALL is only specified to run down to 3.3V, Tony found that he could still get usable performance out of it with only a 1.2V supply. However, the gain was reduced by a few dB’s, and we also assume that the IP3 characteristics would also be sufficiently degraded at the low voltage.
Testing the LNA4ALL with his NASA Engine AIS receiver, he found that the LNA4ALL boosted his reception range from 15nm without the LNA, to 22nm with the LNA, and also tripled his received messages.
Over on YouTube Adam 9A4QV has uploaded a video showing how good L-band reception can be with only a cheap home made patch antenna, RTL-SDR dongle and LNA4ALL. The video is in response to a question on our previous post, which discussed the prototype Outernet downconverter. The question asked what difference can we expect with the downconverter compared to just using an LNA, like the LNA4ALL.
In the video Adam shows that L-Band reception with the LNA4ALL can be as good as with the downconverter. The main problem with L-band reception on the RTL-SDR is that some units tend to fail to receive properly at around 1.5 GHz. The downconverter bypasses this problem by receiving L-band at around 200 MHz instead. Though we believe that this problem is solved on the units we sell as we heatsink to a metal enclosure, and if that is not enough, it can be solved further by using this modified driver. The other advantages of the downconverter is that it includes filtering, an LNA, and allows you to use much longer runs of lossy cable, which is useful if for instance you want to put a permanent L-band antenna on the roof.
Akos reminds us that the LNA4ALL can actually be bought from Adam with the bias tee enabled already which saves you from the difficulty of needing to source the required inductor and perform surface mount soldering. The post also explains why you might want to use an LNA in the first place and how to enable the bias tee on our RTL-SDR.com dongles.
The bias tee allows you to inject DC power into the coaxial cable in order to easily power an LNA (like the LNA4ALL) or other device that is placed near the antenna. The antenna could be far away from a power source, such as on your roof or up a mast. It ensures DC power reaches the LNA, but at the same time does not enter the RTL-SDR dongle, as DC current on the antenna input could destroy the RTL-SDR. For best performance it is recommended to use an LNA near the antenna, especially if you have a long run of coaxial cable between the antenna and RTL-SDR.
The filter uses Low Temperature Co-fired Ceramics (LTCC) type components as opposed to the seemingly more commonly used SAW and microstrip filters. Adam writes that each type of filter has its tradeoffs, but he believes the LTCC filter is the best for this application.
The insertion loss of the filter in the pass band is about 2.4 dB and the filter will significantly attenuate broadcast band FM, TV stations, WiFi and 1.8 GHz+ cell phones. However, it does not do so well with 950 MHz cell towers and possible radar on 1.2-1.3 GHz as the LTCC filter is not as sharp as a SAW filter. In Adams own tests he shows that the addition of the filter improves ADS-B decoding performance by about 20%, but the improvement you see will vary greatly with your RF environment.
Over on YouTube Adam Alicajic the designer of the LNA4ALL low noise amplifier has uploaded a video showing the effect of an LNA on reception of a weak signal. He shows an example of how a very weak signal cannot be received by the RTL-SDR even when the gain is set to maximum unless an LNA is connected.
Adam has posted this video in regards to some statements saying that an LNA will only increase the noise floor and cannot bring signals out of the noise floor. There is a discussion about this on this Reddit thread.
Recently a reader named Fabio wrote in to let us know about his new Low Noise Amplifier (LNA) design for the RTL-SDR. Fabio writes that his design is similar to the LNA4ALL, but is small enough to fit inline with an antenna. An LNA can help improve reception especially if you have long runs of coax cable between the antenna and RTL-SDR.
Fabio’s design requires that the LNA be powered inline with a bias-tee power injector circuit which can be easily built from an inductor and capacitor. But instead of building an external bias-tee he modified the RTL-SDR dongle itself to provide the required 5V output power from the USB bus. He writes that with this modification the RTL-SDR could also be used to power an active antenna.