Crowdsourcing The Study Of An Eclipse’s Effect On Radio Propagation

If you are an American, you’ll probably now find yourself in one of three camps. People who are going to see the upcoming solar eclipse that will traverse your continent, people who aren’t going to see the eclipse, and people who wish everyone would just stop going on incessantly about the damn eclipse.

Whichever of those groups you are in though, there is an interesting project that you can be a part of, an effort from the University of Massachusetts Boston to crowdsource scientific observation of the effect a solar eclipse will have on the upper atmosphere, and in particular upon the propagation of low-frequency radio waves. To do this they have been encouraging participants to build their own simple receiver and antenna, and make a series of recordings of the WWVB time signal station before, during, and after the eclipse traverse.

This is an interesting and unusual take upon participation in the eclipse, and has the potential to advance the understanding of atmospheric science. It would be fascinating to also look at the effect of the eclipse on WSPR contacts, though obviously those occur in amateur bands at higher frequencies.

If you are an EclipseMob participant, we’d love to hear from you in the comments. Does your receiver perform well?

Thanks [Douglas] for the tip.

FLEX Pager Protocol in Depth

We love pager hacks. One of our earliest head-slappers was completely reverse-engineering a restaurant pager’s protocol, only to find out that it was industry-standard POCSAG. Doh!

[Corn] apparently scratches the same itch, but in the Netherlands where the FLEX protocol is more common. In addition to walking us through all of the details of the FLEX system, he bought a FLEX pager, gutted it, and soldered on an ATMega328 board and an ESP8266. The former does the FLEX decoding, and the latter posts whatever it hears on his local network.

These days, we’re sure that you could do the same thing with a Raspberry Pi and SDR, but we love the old-school approach of buying a pager and tapping into its signals. And it makes a better stand-alone device with a lot lower power budget. If you find yourself in possession of some old POCSAG pagers, you should check out [Corn]’s previous work: an OpenWRT router that sends pages.

ColibriNANO USB SDR Receiver Reviewed

At first glance, the ColibriNANO SDR looks like another cheap SDR dongle. But after watching [Mile Kokotov’s] review (see video below), you can see that it was built specifically for software defined radio service. When [Mile] takes the case off, you notice the heavy metal body which you don’t see on the typical cheap dongle. Of course, a low-end RTL-SDR is around $20. The ColibriNANO costs about $300–so you’d hope you get what you pay for.

The frequency range is nominally 10 kHz to 55 MHz, although if you use external filters and preamps you can get to 500 MHz. In addition to a 14-bit 122.88 megasample per second A/D converter, the device sports an Altera MAX10 FPGA.

Continue reading “ColibriNANO USB SDR Receiver Reviewed”

One Transistor RTL-SDR Upconverter

Even if you haven’t used one, you’ve probably seen the numerous projects with the inexpensive RTL-SDR USB dongle. Originally designed for TV use, the dongle is a software defined radio that many have repurposed for a variety of radio hacking projects. However, there’s one small issue. By default, the device only works down to about 50 MHz or so. There are some hacks to change that, but the cleanest way to get operation is to add an upconverter to shift the frequency you want higher. Sounds complicated? [Qrp-Gaijin] shows how to do it with a single transistor. You can see some videos of the results, below.

Actually, [Qrp-Gaijin] built an earlier version but wasn’t satisfied with the performance. He found that his original oscillator was driving an overtone crystal at its fundamental frequency. The device worked, but only because the oscillator was putting out harmonics, including the third harmonic at the actual needed frequency (49.8 MHz).

Continue reading “One Transistor RTL-SDR Upconverter”

Cascade LNAs and Filters for Radioastronomy with an SDR

It may not be the radio station with all the hits and the best afternoon drive show, but 1420.4058 MHz is the most popular frequency in the universe. That’s the electromagnetic spectral line of hydrogen, and it’s the always on the air. But studying the H-line is a non-trivial task unless you know how to cascade low-noise amplifiers and filters to use an SDR for radio astronomy.

Because the universe is mostly made of hydrogen, H-line emissions are abundant, and their distribution can tell us a lot about the structure of galaxies. The 21-cm emission line is so characteristic and so prevalent that we used it as a unit of measurement on the plaques aboard the Pioneer probes as well as in the instructions for playing back the Voyager recordings. But listening in on 21-cm here on Earth requires a special setup, which [Adam (9A4QV)] describes in a detailed paper on the subject (PDF). [Adam] analyzes multiple configurations of LNAs and filters, both of which he sells, to determine the optimum front-end for 21-cm work. His analysis is a good primer on LNAs and explains why the front-end gear needs to be as close to the antenna as possible. Using his LNAs and filters and an SDR dongle, a reasonable 21-cm rig can be had for about $200 or so, less the antenna. He promises a follow-up paper on homebrew 21-cm antennas; we’ll be looking forward to that.

Not keen on the music of the spheres and prefer to listen to our own spacecraft instead? Then read up on the Deep Space Network and how you can snoop in.

Amateur Radio Just Isn’t Exciting

As ARRL president, [Rick Roderick, K5UR] spends a significant amount of time proselytising the hobby. He has a standard talk about amateur radio that involves tales gleaned from his many decades as a licence holder, and features QSL cards from rare DX contacts to show how radio amateurs talk all over the world.

He’s delivered this talk countless times, and is used to a good reception from audiences impressed with what can be done with radio. But when he delivered it to a group of young people, as Southgate ARC reports, he was surprised to see a lack of interest from his audience, to whom DX or contesting just don’t cut it when they have grown up with the pervasive Internet. Writing in the 2016 ARRL Annual Report, he said:

“Change generally doesn’t come easy to us. But when I looked out at that group of young faces and saw their disinterest in traditional ham pursuits, I realized that I had to change. We have to change. It won’t come easy, but it’s essential that we get to work on it now.”

If you were to profile a typical group of radio amateurs, it would not be difficult to see why [K5UR] found himself in this position. It might be an unflattering portrait for some amateurs, but it’s fair to say that amateur radio is a hobby pursued predominantly by older more well-off men with the means to spend thousands of dollars on commercial radios. It is also fair to say that this is hardly a prospect that would energize all but the most dedicated of youthful radio enthusiasts. This is not a new phenomenon, where this is being written it was definitely the case back in the days when they were issuing G7 callsigns, for instance.

Were Hackaday to find ourselves in the position of advising the ARRL on such matters, we’d probably suggest a return to the roots of amateur radio, a time in the early 20th century when it was the technology that mattered rather than the collecting of DXCC entities or grid squares, and an amateur had first to build their own equipment rather than simply order a shiny radio before they could make a contact. Give a room full of kids a kit-building session, have them make a little radio. And lobby for construction to be an integral part of the licensing process, it is very sad indeed that where this is being written at least, the lowest tier of amateur radio licence precludes home-made radio equipment. Given all that, why should it be a surprise that for kids, amateur radio just isn’t exciting?

We’ve shown you some fantastic amateur radio builds over the years. If you have a youngster with an interest in radio, show them a BitX transceiver, or the world of QRP.

Header image: enixii. [CC BY 2.0]. We hope these snoozing kids aren’t in the middle of a lecture on amateur radio.

Serious DX: The Deep Space Network

Humanity has been a spacefaring species for barely sixty years now. In that brief time, we’ve fairly mastered the business of putting objects into orbit around the Earth, and done so with such gusto that a cloud of both useful and useless objects now surrounds us. Communicating with satellites in Earth orbit is almost trivial; your phone is probably listening to at least half a dozen geosynchronous GPS birds right now, and any ham radio operator can chat with the astronauts aboard the ISS with nothing more that a $30 handy-talkie and a homemade antenna.

But once our spacecraft get much beyond geosynchronous orbit, communications get a little dicier. The inverse square law and the limited power budget available to most interplanetary craft exact a toll on how much RF energy can be sent back home. And yet the science of these missions demands a reliable connection with enough bandwidth to both control the spacecraft and to retrieve its precious cargo of data. That requires a powerful radio network with some mighty big ears, but as we’ll see, NASA isn’t the only one listening to what’s happening out in deep space. Continue reading “Serious DX: The Deep Space Network”