Tagged: radio astronomy

Building a Motorized Hydrogen Line Radio Telescope with a DIY Horn Antenna, Drill Motor and RTL-SDR

Just on the back of yesterday's post about a helical antenna Hydrogen line radio telescope, we have another submission. This telescope is a bit more advanced as it consists of a large motorized horn antenna, with a custom made LNA and filter board connected to an RTL-SDR with GNU Radio DSP processing.

Over on Instructables "diyguypt" has posted a full overview of his creation. The horn antenna is first created out of aluminum sheets, and then the waveguide is cut out of copper wire and installed into the can part of the horn. He then notes that he created two custom LNA+filter boards with the Minicircuits PMA2-43LN+ LNA and the Minicircuits BFCN-1445+ filter. This then connects to the RTL-SDR that is accessed via GNU Radio which creates a visualization spectrograph.

He then shows how he made the rotation system out of a salvaged drill motor and two relays, and how he made the Z-Axis control with a stepper motor. The motors are controlled with an Arduino and a gyroscope module.

"diyguypt"'s Hydrogen Line Horn Antenna connected to an RTL-SDR
"diyguypt"'s Hydrogen Line Horn Antenna connected to an RTL-SDR

A Hydrogen Line Radio Telescope made from a Homemade Helical Antenna and RTL-SDR

Thank you to Geoff for submitting his experience with creating a hydrogen line radio telescope out of an easy to build helical antenna, Raspberry Pi, LNA and an RTL-SDR. The Hydrogen Line is an observable increase in RF power at 1420.4058 MHz created by Hydrogen atoms. It is most easily detected by pointing a directional antenna towards the Milky Way as there are many more hydrogen atoms in our own galaxy. This effect can be used to measure the shape and other properties of our own galaxy.

Earlier in the year we uploaded a tutorial showing how to observe the Hydrogen line with a 2.4 GHz WiFi antenna. In Geoff's setup he used a home made Helical antenna instead. This antenna is basically a long tube with a spiral wire element wrapped around the tube. He also shows how he needed to impedance match the antenna with a triangular piece of copper tape. The result is a directional antenna with about 13 dBi gain. To complete his setup he used a NooElec SAWBird H1+ LNA/Filter, an RTL-SDR Blog V3 dongle and a Raspberry Pi.

The results show a clear increase in RF power at the Hydrogen line frequency when the antenna points at the Milky Way, indicating that the setup works as expected. It's good to see a Helical working for this, as it is fairly light weight and could easily be mounted on a motorized mount to scan the entire sky.

A Hydrogen Line Radio Telescope made with a Helical Antenna.
A Hydrogen Line Radio Telescope made with a Helical Antenna.

YouTube Video Replicates our Galactic Hydrogen Line Detection Tutorial

Earlier in the year we posted a tutorial showing how to detect the Galactic Hydrogen Line at home with less than $200 in components. All that is really needed is a 2.4 GHz WiFi dish, an RTL-SDR and an LNA. With this setup it's possible to do home science like determining the size, shape and rotational speed of our own galaxy. 

Over on YouTube user Nicks Tech Hobby has successfully replicated our tutorial with similar hardware, and has uploaded a time lapse video showing his results. His success confirms that this is a good way to get introduced into radio astronomy. What's also interesting is that it is possible to spot the Hydrogen line energy on the live waterfall even without averaging/integration. 

My first successful attempt to detect galactic hydrogen (Hydrogen line)

CygnusRFI: New RFI Analysis Tool for Ground Stations and Radio Telescopes

Thank you to Apostolos for submitting information about his new open source program called "CygnusRFI". CygnusRFI is a tool designed for analyzing radio frequency interference (RFI) with a focus on how it affects satellite ground stations and radio telescopes. We note that in the past we've posted several times about Apostolos' other project called PICTOR, which is an open source radio telescope platform that makes use of RTL-SDR dongles. 

Apostolos explains CygnusRFI in the following: 

CygnusRFI is an easy-to-use open-source Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) analysis tool, based on Python and GNU Radio Companion (GRC) that is conveniently applicable to any ground station/radio telescope working with a GRC-supported software-defined radio (SDR). In addition to data acquisition, CygnusRFI also carries out automated analysis of the recorded data, producing a series of averaged spectra covering a wide range of frequencies of interest. CygnusRFI is built for ground station operators, radio astronomers, amateur radio operators and anyone who wishes to get an idea of how "radio-quiet" their environment is, using inexpensive instruments like SDRs.

CygnusRFI Screenshots
CygnusRFI Screenshots

Starlink Doppler Reflections Caught with an RTL-SDR

Over on YouTube William IU2EFA has been uploading multiple short "meteor scatter" videos. This involves using an RTL-SDR to briefly receive distant radio stations via the RF signal reflecting off the ionized trail left by meteors entering the atmosphere. However, in a similar fashion satellites orbiting the earth can also reflect distant radio stations. 

In one of his latest videos William caught a train of Starlink satellites reflecting the signal from the Graves radar in France. To do this he uses a 10 element VHF Yagi, and an RTL-SDR running with HDSDR and SpectrumLab. In the video you can see and hear the change in frequency caused by the doppler shift.

Starlink is a SpaceX project aiming to bring ubiquitous satellite internet to the entire world. Currently 358 Starlink satellites are in orbit, and the end goal is to have 12000.

IU2EFA Starlink 2020-03-22 06:39:00 UTC

Cheap and Easy Hydrogen Line Radio Astronomy with an RTL-SDR, WiFi Parabolic Grid Dish, LNA and SDRSharp

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.

via Gfycat

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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A Hydrogen Line Telescope Made from Cereal Boxes and an RTL-SDR

SpaceAustralia.com have recently been hosting a community science project that involves encouraging teams to build backyard radio telescopes that can detect the arms of our Milky Way Galaxy by receiving the Hydrogen line frequency of 1420 MHz.

This can be achieved at home by building a horn antenna out of cardboard and aluminum foil, and a feed from a tin can. Then the Hydrogen line and galactic plane can be detected by using an RTL-SDR, LNA, and software capable of averaging an FFT spectrum over a long period of time.

While most horn antennas are typically made from four walls, one participant, Vanessa Chapman, has shown that even trash can be used to observe the galaxy. Vanessa's horn antenna is made from multiple cereal boxes lined with aluminum foil and an old tin fuel can. The boxes are held together by some string and propped up by some sticks.

With her cereal box horn antenna combined with an RTL-SDR Blog V3, and an RTL-SDR Blog Wideband LNA, Vanessa was able to use software to average the spectrum over time as the galactic plane passed overhead, revealing the Hydrogen line peak and corresponding doppler shift from the galactic plane.

Vanessa's Hydrogen Line Radio Telescope made from Cereal Boxes
Vanessa's Hydrogen Line Radio Telescope made from Cereal Boxes

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 space and the galaxy 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 integrating/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 not pointing within the galactic plane. You can also measure the rotational speed of our galaxy by noting the frequency doppler shift.

Astrophiz Podcast Interviews Steve Olney: Capturing the 2019 Vela Pulsar Glitch with an RTL-SDR

Back in May 2019 we posted about Steve Olney's HawkRAO amateur radio astronomy station which was the only station in the world to capture the 2019 Vela Pulsar "glitch" which he did so using his RTL-SDR as the radio. The astronomy focused podcast "Astrophiz" recently interviewed Steve in episode 95 where he talks about his amateur radio background, his home made radio telescope, his RTL-SDR and software processing setup, and the Vela glitch.

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 or directional antenna and a radio, like the RTL-SDR. The Vela pulsar is the strongest one in our sky, making it one of the easiest for amateur radio astronomers to receive.

Pulsars are known to have very accurate rotational periods which can be measured by the radio pulse period. However, every now and then some pulsars can "glitch", resulting in the rotational period suddenly decreasing. Glitches can't be predicted, but Vela is one of the most commonly observed glitching pulsars.

The HawkRAO amateur radio telescope run by Steve Olney is based in NSW, Australia and consists of a 2 x 2 array of 42-element cross Yagi antennas. The antennas feed into three LNAs and then an RTL-SDR radio receiver. 

Astrophiz 95: Steve Olney: From Ham Radio to Radio Astronomy - "The 2019 Vela Glitch" 

Feature Interview: This amazing interview features Steve Olney who has established the Hawkesbury Radio Astronomy Observatory in his backyard. Steve has constructed a Yagi antenna array, coupled it with a receiver and observed a pulsar 900 LY away and generated data that has enabled him to be the only person on the planet to observe Vela’s 2019 glitch in radio waves as it happened.

If you're interested in learning more about Vela, Astrophiz podcast episode 93 with Dr. Jim Palfreyman discusses more about the previous 2016 Vela glitch and why it's important from a scientific point of view.