Building A Radio Telescope For A School Science Project

The image above is a picture of  Hydrogen emissions from our galaxy. The cool thing about this picture is it wasn’t taken with millions of dollars worth of equipment; instead, only a few hundred dollars worth of ham radio gear was needed to get a picture of the Milky Way. [Shanni Prutchi], with the help of her dad [David] built this radio telescope in 5th grade, and even gave a presentation on this build at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Instead of a gigantic satellite dish, [Shanni] used a loop yagi antenna to collect radio signals in the 1420 MHz band. These signals are amplified, filtered, and sent to an ICOM IC R-7000 receiver specially modified by [Shanni]’s dad for radio astronomy.

After her telescope saw first light, [Shanni] and [David] decided to use their brand new toy to detect the passage of the sun. At around 10:00 am they pointed the telescope at where the sun would be at 1:30 pm. For the next few hours, the telescope gathered and integrated radio signals to make an awesome graph. Yep, [Shanni]’s scope can detect radio waves coming directly from the sun.

Like a lot of us, [Shanni] was very much influenced by the movie Contact, something we brought up last week in a post on software-defined radio telescopes. This telescope was built in 2005, meaning [Shanni] couldn’t take advantage of any of the new advances in cheap software radios. We’re still waiting for someone to throw a Realtek SDR telescope together, so if you’ve got one send it in

22 thoughts on “Building A Radio Telescope For A School Science Project

      1. Look at almost any science fair and the same is true – in every case, the kid is the vehicle for the parent’s work and organization.

        The amount of information and cultural knowledge that must be transmitted to someone of this age to do what we think of as serious work is incredible.

        You will find a handful of kids (I was one) who will try to do stupid things (build lasers, robots and submarines) on their own, but they simply cannot absorb enough information working alone to make things happen.

        Instead, the ones working in solitary conditions almost always end up like the radioactive boyscout, doing applied science without much understanding of the big picture, and often sacrificing social skills to become slaves of information acquisition without proper goals, or mistakenly assuming that rational thought exists and therefore… well, lots of things.

        The ones who do well and win prizes are the ones with parents or relatives who endlessly coach them, and tell them to do X, Y or Z, and make all sorts of resources available to them, including editing, ghost writing and extensive tutoring. In fact, many parents will hire professionals to coach and provide live experience with the kids about presenting their projects.

        The adults who judge these things are seldom able to identify whether or not a kid originated the project or not, so it isn’t used as a criteria unless the kid is obviously just a sock puppet for dad’s ego.

        I used to hate this practice, but the truth is that these parents are actually pushing these kids way up a curve that many other kids won’t encounter until college.

        If you’re a parent with young kids, I’ll let you in on a little secret:

        The difference between the kids good at T-ball (or some other sport) and the ones who suck and “don’t get it” is generally not the kid, but the parents. The kids who excel have already had several years of training in that sport courtesy of mom and/or dad.

        When your kid walks onto that field and sucks so bad that he wants to quit and never wants to play again, it’s not your kid’s fault. It’s yours!

        Those kids who excel have been playing catch, hitting balls and running in circles for years. That’s why they run in circles around your kids.

        It is exactly the same in science, math and any other “hard” topic – or making friends for that matter. Show your kids how, do it often, and make it fun, and you’ll do more for your kid’s future by “cheating” than you ever will by doing nothing.

        1. @Oliver Heaviside

          I firmly disagree. I believe that parents should in no part participate in a child’s project. It is ridiculous that you can take credit for work that your parents did. I am a soon to be new sixth grader in California but I did a project on the effects on helical radio emissions during solar flares with a SDR by myself in fifth grade. I did all the work on the experiment and wrote the reports myself, so I am rightfully proud. Kids will think that they can accept that things are above them and that is unacceptable.

      2. @Oliver Heaviside:

        I had this experience with the science fair judges when I was in 7th grade. I got interested in electronics in the 4th grade watching my stepfather repair old TVs with his round-CRT RCA 5MHz oscilloscope, which he barely knew how to use(“what’s triggering?”, he would ask me later after I learned to use his ‘scope better than him), and didn’t know circuit theory, he only knew to trace a signal through tubes or transistors to find where the signal stopped…

        Within a few years, I had far surpassed his knowledge, and by the time I built my robot for my 7th grade science fair, he was only able to contribute the construction of my wooden kiosk, and didn’t even understand completely the circuitry that I built to interface the robot to the Commodore 128 controlling it. He certainly didn’t understand the software I had written to control it.

        Regardless, I was accused of having my robot built by me stepfather by the judges. Even though my stepfather might have been able to help me build the base and frame of the robot, he didn’t. I built it by myself(not that he wouldn’t have been happy to help, but I wanted to do it myself, and was perfectly capable) with his tools in the garage, while he watched TV inside the house in the evenings.

        In spite of the accusations of assistance, I was able to convince the judges of the science fair that I actually did build this myself, and placed second to a Kirlian photography project(????).

        In spite of my placing second, the panel felt that I should be chosen to represent my school in the Baylor University regional science fair, which took place about 4 months after my school science fair.

        Rather than re-present my original robot, I decided to tear down my original 4 foot wooden framed robot, and rebuild a completely new twice-as-powerful base with a 5 foot metal frame topped with a 14″ diameter plastic globe head. I (at the last minute; it was alot of work)completed this just a day before the Baylor science fair, and ended up winning second in the whole fair, with a picture of me and my robot in the local newspaper. Good times.

        Too bad judges aren’t better “judges”…

    1. Regardless of who did most of the work, upon perusing his site (which is fairly old), his kids are immersed in the DIY culture, soldering together kits, machining and molding plastics, the very kind of people that are applauded daily here at HaD.
      Kudos to the kids and parents alike!

    1. Cuz some “names” are not really names but usernames from websites that HaD found the hack/build/whatever, and for the sake of uniform-ness (lol) every name/username/builder/maker is enclosed in brackets so you’d know that that is their name.

  1. It’s great that he’s teaching his kid to cheat and take advantage of the skills of others at such a young age. The kid will probably grow up to be a manager or executive. My parents never helped me cheat, so all I have is actual technical skills.

    1. You should take a look around the site(which is old), and then the newer site.
      She doesn’t cheat. He’s taught her the basics of DIY and science and she does a lot of work on her own.

      The radio astronomy project linked here is 6 years old, time has passed and people have grown up since then.

      1. I looked at it, and it was NOT “built” by a 5th grader.

        What are “the basics” of DIY exactly?

        I call pure bullshit.

        Her father came up with a project, gave her some simple role to play, and submitted it as her work.

        It’s straight up cheating and nothing else. Yes it’s commonplace, but it’s still vile.

  2. My knowledge on radio telescopes is fairly minimal, but from what I understand, aren\’t some of the bigger ones just arrays of lots of smaller ones? And the larger the spread of the array, the higher the resolution they can capture?

    Could many of these DIY solutions, running in peoples back gardens the world over, linked by the internet potentially make a very cheap, yet very high res radio telescope?

    If so, that\’d be a damned awesome project, and I would most definitely build one myself and hook it up :D

    1. Yes, but if you don’t “fill in” your virtual array very well your telescope won’t be very sensitive. You’re trading sensitivity for spatial resolution. It’s unlikely that an amateur array could see anything but the brightest sources (if anything), depending on the frequency chosen.

      You might be able to build something like an amateur LOFAR array, where the telescopes are cheap. Unfortunately the wiring and computer power are not cheap, although you might borrow their software.

  3. Dear Hitek146,

    You warm my heart- please, if you can, document your robot project for us, from memory if nothing else.

    When I was 8, I built a robot that everyone laughed at and derided. My inspiration was not my parents – it was a children’s book about some kids building a robot with a record player in it that came alive.

    I figured if I built the robot, maybe it would come alive – but I was only eight. It worked – barely – but I learned how to make a circuit and switches, how to use gears, chains and sprockets, and how to use strings for tendons. I built a manipulator, a simple grasper made of mouse trap boards and rubber-bands.

    I was not very bright, nor clever, as scientists go, a problem that plagues me even today. Shortly after my failed robot, well, I tried to do many experiments that were simply out of my grasp.

    The real problem was another one that plagues me today – I didn’t know that I didn’t know what I didn’t know! By the way, this is one of the more interesting scientific problems to tackle, as it borders on theology and philosophy.

    The problem is with the adults and peers who judge you – a society is always designed to repress and limit outliers. In many ways, this is exactly the right approach, even if it causes some emotional issues.

    Those who rely on the encouragement of others to pursue their dreams often accomplish nothing more than a brief period of playing a smart person. Almost always, they fall short of what they could do if they slowly became self-motivated as a developed self-defence mechanism.

    The judges in science fairs almost always have other motives, and they also know that kids cheat. When a real “kid genius” comes along, they are filled not with inspiration, but with palpable suspicion (and perhaps nagging doubt about their own decisions in life) – and there’s no way you can explain this to kids.

    By defending your project to the judges, you were basically graduating with a masters degree – and had achieved the intellectual equivalent of a black belt. I hope you recognize how exposure to such adversity gives you gifts that money and fame never could- but I won’t address this now.

    By gutting your robot and redoing it at the last minute, you were stepping past the black belt, and not many people even know that a black belt is not the pinnacle of martial arts, but just the beginning.

    I worked for a guy who fixed TVs for a while, on the same lines as your dad, no doubt.

    I was supposed to be “the muscles” for hauling those sets around, but in fact – I coveted his workshop – positively state of the art for 1949, even if it was several decades later.

    I often read his manuals while waiting; I was fired when I fixed several sets on the sly in a single week and then eliminated his backlog of work. I had not yet learned to never outshine the master… :)

    I don’t know what your solution to overwhelming mediocrity was, but I decided that if I couldn’t beat them, I’d join them.

    It may not have been the optimal solution, but the nearly unlimited supply of easily impressed geeky teen-age girls during my adolescence allowed me to eventually get over my robot inferiority complex.

    I think.

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  5. It’s a shame I only rediscovered this post 10 years after it was made, but, as the subject of this article, I can assure you that this was NOT me taking the credit for my dad’s work. First of all, while I did present this at my school’s science fair, the fair did not give out awards or have a competition, so there was no incentive to cheat. Second, I did this project out of curiosity. My dad and I watched Contact for the first time and I immediately wanted to build a radio telescope. Did I do it all by myself? Of course not, but I never claimed to. Did I just sit back while my dad did all the work? Absolutely not. I was involved in each step of the process, and completed many parts (including all the data collection over months) individually. It’s honestly embarrassing that members of the DIY community are so cynical. While I’ve outgrown my interest in radio astronomy, I haven’t lost my love for HaD or DIY.

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