Tagged: meteor scatter

Live: Perseids Meteor Shower with RTL-SDR

The annual Perseids meteor shower is peaking right now (this Wednesday and Thursday), and with the right equipment (and location) you can detect these meteors with an RTL-SDR dongle and appropriate antenna. When a meteor enters the atmosphere it leaves behind a brief trail of ionized air which is highly reflective to RF signals. These trails can reflect carrier waves from distant transmitters towards your antenna, allowing you to detect a meteor entering the atmosphere. This is called meteor scatter.

If you live in Europe, you can use the powerful Graves radar at 143.050 MHz as the transmitter. In other locations and the USA you can also use analogue TV broadcasts like in this post where the observer uses a TV tower in Canada. For Graves all you’ll need is a dipole antenna and perhaps LNA, but for TV transmissions you may need a directional Yagi antenna. More information can be found in our previous posts about meteor scatter and is this document.

But for now if you just want to observe others then currently there is this temporary live stream (now offline) shown below from Poland on YouTube and this always running live stream from the USA.

Equpment used by Reddit user Maxworm to detect Perseids meteors using the Graves radar: Dipole, LNA, Bias-Tee RTL-SDR.
Equipment used by Reddit user Maxworm to detect Perseids meteors using the Graves radar: Dipole, LNA, Bias-Tee and RTL-SDR.
Meteor detected by MaxWorm.
Meteor detected by MaxWorm

Detecting meteor radio echoes using the RTL-SDR USB dongle

At the recent 2015 Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers (SARA) Conference Ciprian Sufitchi (N2YO) presented a paper titled “Detecting meteor radio echoes using the RTL/SDR USB dongle” (pdf). His paper introduces the RTL-SDR, the theory behind forward scatter meteor detection as well as the practical application of the RTL-SDR to meteor detection. Ciprian summarizes meteor scatter as the following:

When a meteor enters the Earth’s upper atmosphere it excites the air molecules, producing a streak of light and leaving a trail of ionization (an elongated paraboloid) behind it tens of kilometers long. This ionized trail may persist for less than 1 second up to several minutes, occasionally. Occurring at heights of about 85 to 105 km (50-65 miles), this trail is capable of reflecting radio waves from transmitters located on the ground, similar to light reflecting from a mirrored surface. Meteor radio wave reflections are also called meteor echoes, or pings.

In the paper he explains how analog TV transmissions are the best for meteor scatter, but unfortunately these been discontinued within the USA. Instead he has been able to use analog TV transmitters from Canada, who still transmit this type of signal. He shows that about half of the USA could use the transmitter he is using for meteor scatter, which is based in Ontario, Canada.

Ciprian is also running a very cool live meteor detection stream on his website at livemeteors.com. His setup is located in the DC Metropolitan area and uses a directional Yagi antenna pointed at the Canadian analog TV tower which is broadcasting at 55.237 MHz. The receiver is an RTL-SDR dongle coupled with SDR# and the ARGO software.

Live meteor detection stream from livemeteors.com
Live meteor detection stream from livemeteors.com

Determining the Radiant of Meteors using the Graves Radar

With an RTL-SDR or other radio it is possible to record the echoes of the 143.050 MHz Graves radar bouncing off the ionized trails of meteors. This is called meteor scatter and it is usually used to count the number of meteors entering the atmosphere. Amateur radio astronomers EA4EOZ and EB3FRN decided to take this idea further and synchronised their separate receivers and recordings with a PPS GPS signal in order to determine the radiant of the meteors they detected. They write:

The idea was to analyze the Doppler from the head echoes and and see if something useful can be extracted from them.

We detected a meteor from two distant locations and measured Doppler and Doppler slope at those locations. The we tried to find solutions to the meteor equation by brute force until we obtain a big number of them. Then we plotted those solutions in the sky and we see some of them pass near a known active radiant at the time of observation. Then, we checked the velocity of those solutions near the known radiant and found they are quite similar to the velocity of the known radiant, so we concluded probably they come from that radiant.

But they can come from everywhere else in the sky along the solution lines! There is not guarantee these meteors to be Geminids, although probabilities are high. Once all the possible radiants of a meteor are plotted into the sky, there is no way to know who of all them was the real one. Doppler only measurement from two different places is not enough to determine a meteor radiant. But don’t forget with some meteors, suspect to come from a known shower, the possible results includes the right radiant at the known meteor velocity for that radiant, so there seems to be some solid base fundamentals in this experiment.

Initially they ran into a little trouble with their sound cards, as it turns out that sound cards don’t exactly sample at their exact specified sample rate. After properly resampling their sound files they were able to create a stereo wav file (one receiver on the left channel, one receiver on the right channel) which showed that the doppler signature was different in each location. The video below shows this wav file.

Double station meteor head echoes

Using the information from their two separate recordings, they were able to do some doppler math, and determine a set of possible locations for the radiant of the meteors (it was not possible to pinpoint the exact location due to there being no inverse to the doppler equation). The radiant of a meteor shower is the point in the sky at which the meteors appear to be originating from. Although their solution couldn’t exactly pinpoint the location, some of the possible solutions from most meteors passed through the known radiant of the Geminids meteor shower. With more measurement locations the exact location could be pinpointed more accurately.

Possible solutions for the radiant of the Geminids meteor shower.
Possible solutions for the radiant of several meteors detected during the Geminids meteor shower.

Techniques for using the RTL Dongle for Detecting Meteors

Back in 2013 we posted about a Dr. David Morgan who had written a tutorial paper discussing how he used the Funcube Dongle Pro+ for radio astronomy. Recently Dr Morgan has also written another paper showing how to use the RTL-SDR together with the Spectrum Lab software to detect meteors.

A software defined radio can be used to detect and count meteors entering the earth’s atmosphere by detecting strong radio waves reflected by ionized trails left by the meteor. If you are unfamiliar with how to detect meteors using radio waves, you should consult Dr Morgans older papers called Detection of Meteors by RADARMeteor Radar SDR Receiver (Funcube Dongle), and Antennas for Meteor Scatter. The tutorial shows how to set up SDR# and Spectrum Lab to work together to detect meteors using the Graves Radar in France at 143.050 MHz.

Meteor Scatter Detection in Spectrum Lab
Meteor Scatter Detection in Spectrum Lab

Meteor Detection with the RTL-SDR

YouTube user Tim Havens has uploaded two videos showing his meteor detection results with an RTL-SDR dongle. Tim uses a stock R820T dongle, and a 6 element yagi antenna with LNA.

For the software he uses Spectrum Lab and SDRSharp.

Update: Tehrasha from the comments section has found a page by Tim Havens showing a little information on his meteor detection setup.

RTL SDR R820T and Meteor Detection
RTL ms detection

Perseids Meteor Reflection Observations with the RTL-SDR

In this video YouTube user ek6rsc shows a timelapse of meteor reflection observations during the yearly Perseids meteor shower which occurred in 2013 during August 10-15. To do this he uses an R820T RTL-SDR tuned to 59.25 MHz, and the HROFFT software to do the recording.

Meteors entering the atmosphere can cause radio frequency reflections which may allow extremely distant radio signals to be received briefly. Reception of such a signal may be a good indicator that a meteor has fallen. A good informational guide on meteor scatter with the RTL-SDR can be found in this pdf file by Marcus Leech.

2013 Perseids Aug10-15 radio observations Meteor reflection 59.25Mhz

RTL-SDR for Budget Radio Astronomy

With the right additional hardware, the RTL-SDR software defined radio can be used as a super cheap radio telescope for radio astronomy experiments such as Hydrogen line detection, meteor scatter and Pulsar observing.

Hydrogen Line

Marcus Leech of Science Radio Laboratories, Inc has released a tutorial document titled “A Budget-Conscious Radio Telescope for 21cm“, (doc version) (pdf here) where he shows:

Two slightly-different designs for a simple, small, effective, radio telescope capable of observing the Sun, and the galactic plane in both continuum and spectral modes, easily able to show the hydrogen line in various parts of the galactic plane.

He uses the RTL-SDR as the receiving radio with an LNA (low noise amplifier) and a couple of line amps, a 93cm x 85cm offset satellite dish (potential dish for sale here, and here), and GNU Radio with the simple_ra application. In his results he was able to observe the spectrum of the Galactic Plane, and the Hydrogen Line. Some more information about this project can be found on this Reddit thread.

Here is a link to an interesting gif Marcus made with his RTL-SDR, showing a timelapse of recorded hydrogen emissions over 24 hours. Reddit user patchvonbraun (a.k.a Marcus Leech) writes on this thread an explanation of what is going on in the gif.

Interstellar space is “full” of neutral hydrogen, which occasionally emits at photon at a wavelength of 21cm–1420.4058Mhz.

If you setup a small dish antenna, and point at a fixed declination in the sky, as that part of the sky moves through your beam, you can see the change in spectral signature as different regions, with different doppler velocities move through your beam.

This GIF animation shows 24 hours of those observations packed into a few 10s of seconds.

 Marcus’ setup is shown below.

RTL-SDR Radio Telescope Setup

And here is just one of his many resulting graphs shown in the document showing the Hydrogen line.

RTL-SDR Radio Telescope Hydrogen Line

A similar radio astronomy project has previously been done with the Funcube. More information about that project can be found in this pdf file. In that project they used the Funcube, a 3 meter satellite dish and the Radio Eyes software.

However, in this Reddit post patchvonbraun explains that the Funcube’s much smaller bandwidth is problematic, and so the rtl-sdr may actually be better suited for radio astronomy.

This image is from the Funcube project document.

Funcube Radio Telescope Project

Another related project is the Itty Bitty Telescope (IBT), which does not use SDR, but may be of interest.

Meteor Scatter

Meteor scatter works by receiving a distant but powerful transmitter via reflections off the trails of ionized air that meteors leave behind when they enter the atmosphere. Normally the transmitter would be too far away to receive, but if its able to bounce off the ionized trail in the sky it can reach far over the horizon to your receiver. Typically powerful broadcast FM radio stations, analog TV, and radar signals at around 140 MHz are used. Some amateur radio enthusiasts also use this phenomena as a long range VHF communications tool with their own transmitted signals. See the website www.livemeteors.com for a livestream of a permanently set up RTL-SDR meteor detector.

In Europe typically the Graves radar station can be used for meteor scatter experiments. Graves is a space radar based in France which is designed to track spacecraft and orbital debris. If you are in Europe you can also make use of the Graves radar simply by tuning to its frequency of 143.050 MHz and listening for reflections of its signal bouncing off things like meteors, planes and spacecraft. Since Graves points its signal upwards, it’s unlikely that you’ll directly receive the signal straight from the antenna, instead you’ll only see the reflections from objects.

In other countries old and distant analogue TV stations can be used or FM transmitters can also be used.

To set meteor scatter up, simply use an outdoor antenna to tune to a distant transmitter. It should be far enough away so that you can not be receive the transmitter directly, or the signal should be weak. If you detect a meteor the signal will briefly show up strongly at your receiver. Performance can be enhanced by using a directional antenna like a Yagi to point upwards at the sky in the direction of the transmitter.

We have several post about meteor scatter available on the blog here. Read through them to get a better understanding of the ways in which it can be monitored. You may also be interested in Marcus Leech’s tutorial where he uses the RTL-SDR to detect forward meteor scatter. (doc here) (pdf here)

Pulsar Observing

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. 

Pulsars create weakly detectable noise bursts across a wide frequency range. They create these noise bursts at precise intervals (milliseconds to seconds depending on the pulsar), so they can be detected from within the natural noise by performing some mathematical analysis on the data. Typically a few hours of data needs to be received to be able to analyze it, with more time needed for smaller dishes.

One problem is that pulsar signals can suffer from ‘dispersion’ due to many light years of travel through the interstellar medium. This simply means that higher frequencies of the noise burst tend to arrive before the lower frequencies. Mathematical de-dispersion techniques can be used to eliminate this problem enabling one to take advantage of wideband receivers like the RTL-SDR and other SDRs. The more bandwidth collected and de-dispersed, the smaller the dish required for detection.

Pulsar detection requires some pretty large antennas, and a good understanding of the techniques and math required for data processing so it is not for the beginner. See the previous Pulsar posts on this blog for more information.


If you enjoyed this tutorial you may like our ebook available on Amazon.

The Hobbyist’s Guide to the RTL-SDR: Really Cheap Software Defined radio.

Meteor Reflection Observations with RTL-SDR

YouTube user ek6rsc has posted a video showing one week of meteor scatter observation at 59.25MHz using the rtl-sdr and the HROFFT software. More information about meteor scatter observations can be found at the page of The International Project For Radio Meteor Observation. The rtl-sdr is handy as a cheap monitoring tool for purposes such as this. From Wikipedia meteor scatter is described as follows.

 Meteor burst communications (MBC), also referred to as meteor scatter communications, is a radio propagation mode that exploits the ionized trails of meteors during atmospheric entry to establish brief communications paths between radio stations up to 2,250 kilometres (1,400 mi) apart.

The results of observations 1 week Meteor reflection 59.25Mhz