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.
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.
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.
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.
Marcus Leech from ccera.ca is a pioneer in using low cost software defined radios for observing the sky with amateur radio telescopes. In the past he's shown us how to receive things like the hydrogen line, detect meteors and observe solar transits using an RTL-SDR. He's also given a good overview and introduction to amateur radio astronomy in this slide show.
His recent project has managed to create a full Hydrogen sky map of the northern Canadian sky. In his project memo PDF document Marcus explains what a sky map shows:
A [sky map] shows the brightness distribution over the sky for a given set of observing wavelengths. In the case of the 21cm hydrogen line wavelength, maps show the distribution of hydrogen over the sky. For amateur observers, such maps generally show the distribution within our own galaxy, since extra-galactic hydrogen is considerably more faint, and significantly red/blue shifted relative to the rest frequency of 1420.40575 MHz, due to relative motion between the observer and the target extra-galactic hydrogen.
He was able to make this observation using his radio telescope made from a 1.8m dish antenna, a NooElec 1420 MHz SAWBird LNA + Filter, a 15dB line amplifier, another filter and two Airspy R2 software defined radios locked to an external GPSDO. The system runs his custom odroid_ra software on an Odroid XU4 single board computer, which provides spectral data to an x86 host PC over an Ethernet connection.
Over 5 months of observations have resulted in the Hydrogen sky map shown at the end of this post. Be sure to check out his project memo PDF file for more information on the project and how the image was produced. Marcus' blog post over on ccera.ca also notes that more data and different maps will be produced soon too.
The goal of this effort is to introduce students, educators, astronomers and others to the majesty of the radio sky, promoting radio astronomy education, without the need of building a large and expensive radio telescope.
Since the initial launch, PICTOR has gotten lots of updates and improvements, particularly in the software backend, providing more data to the users, using advanced techniques to increase the signal-to-noise ratio by calibrating spectra and mitigating radio frequency interference (RFI) (if present).
Here is an example observation with PICTOR, clearly showing the detection of 3 hydrogen-dense regions corresponding to 3 unique spiral arms in the Milky Way!
Briefly, their build consists of a horn antenna and reflector designed for the 1,420.4 MHz Hydrogen line frequency. The horn is built out of a few pieces of lumbar, metallic house wall insulation sheets and aluminum tape. The feed is made from a tin can and piece of wire. In terms of radio hardware, they used an Airspy SDR, GPIO labs Hydrogen Line Filter + LNA, and 2x Uputronics Wide band preamps, and a Minicircuits VBF-1445+ filter. For software processing, they used a GNU Radio flowgraph to integrate and record the spectrum.
The results show that they were able to achieve a good hydrogen line peak detection, and they were able to measure the galactic rotation curve doppler shift, and tangent points which prove that we do in fact live in a spiral galaxy.
NooElec have recently released a new LNA + filter combo called the "SAWbird+ H1 Barebones" which significantly lowers the entry bar for new amateur radio astronomers. It's designed to be used with RTL-SDR or other SDRs for radio astronomy, and in particular reception of the Hydrogen line.
The filter is centered at 1.42 GHz with a 70 MHz bandpass region. The LNA has a minimum gain of 40dB. For hydrogen line observations it is important that the LNA have very low noise figure, and this LNA fits the bill with a ~0.5dB to ~0.6dB noise figure. An additional feature on the PCB is an RF switch that is electrically controlled via expansion headers. This switch allows you to switch out the LNA for a 50 Ohm reference which is useful for calibration in more serious radio astronomy work.
This LNA draws 120mA of current meaning that it will work with the RTL-SDR V3 and Airspy's bias tee, but probably not with the SDRplay's bias tee which is limited to 100mA and seems to trip a fuse at higher current draws. For an SDRplay you could use external power instead, although you will need an additional DC blocking cap to prevent power from entering the SDR and destroying the ESD diodes.
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 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. You can also measure the rotational speed of our galaxy by noting the frequency doppler shift.
Although this LNA lowers the entry bar, in order to receive the Hydrogen line with the SAWBird+ H1 you will still need a ~1m+ satellite dish and a feed tuned to 1.42 GHz or high gain Yagi, horn or helical antenna. Antennas and feeds like this are not yet available off the shelf, but if you search our blog for "hydrogen line" you'll see many project examples.
PICTOR is an open source and open hardware radio telescope that aims to promote radio astronomy on a budget. It consists of a 1.5 meter parabolic dish antenna, 1420 MHz feedhorn, a two stage low noise amplifier (LNA), high pass filter, and from what we gather, an RTL-SDR. Future designs may also use higher bandwidth SDRs. Currently there doesn't seem to be much information about the build and exact components used in their design, but we're hoping that those details will come in time.
The radio telescope allows a user to measure hydrogen line emissions from our galaxy. Hydrogen atoms randomly emit photons at a wavelength of 21cm (1420.4058 MHz). The emissions themselves are very rare, but since our galaxy is full of hydrogen atoms the aggregate effect is that a radio telescope can detect a power spike at 21cm. If the telescope points to within the plane of our galaxy (the milky way), the spike becomes significantly more powerful since our galaxy contains more hydrogen than the space between galaxies. Radio astronomers are able to use this information to determine the shape and rotational speed of our own galaxy.
PICTOR also has a very interesting web based interface which can be used to let users from anywhere in the world access the telescope and log an observation. The first PICTOR telescope is currently online and observations can be created simply by going to their website, and clicking on the "Observe" link. Users can then enter the frequency and other parameters for their observation, and the resulting graph will be emailed to you after the observation. The software source is available on their GitHub page, and is based on a GNU Radio flowgraph and Python plot script.
For more information about PICTOR, logging an observation, and radio astronomy in general, we recommend checking out their PDF guide. We test ran a short observation at the hydrogen line frequency, and we received a graph with the hydrogen line peak clearly visible (spliced in to the photo below). We note that the wavy shape is due the to shape of the filters they used.
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 increasing. 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. He has been observing the Vela pulsar for 20 months.
His observations indicate that Vela glitched and spun up by 2.5PPM at 14:09 UTC on Feb 1, 2019. He claims that this glitch detection is a first for amateur radio astronomy as far as he is aware.
If you're interested in Pulsar detection, check out a few of our previous posts on the topic.