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.