Tune Your Dish Antenna Like A Pro

It’s a problem we all have at one time or another: your five-meter radio astronomy dish gets out of calibration and you don’t have a ridiculously expensive microwave holography rig on hand to diagnose it. OK, maybe this isn’t your problem, but when [Joe Martin]’s parabolic antenna got out of whack, he set out to diagnose and repair it, and then wrote up how he did it. You can download the PDF from his radio astronomy articles collection.

At the heart of the measurement rig is a laser rangefinder connected to a Porcupine Labs interface that passes the data on to a Pi 4. This is placed on the end of a two-degree-of-freedom servo gimbal that scans over the surface of the dish, measuring its shape. After measuring and math, [Joe] found out that it’s a little bit long here and short there, he attached two cables with turnbuckles to the front of the dish and pulled it back into shape — the sort of thing that you should probably only do if you’ve got a measurement rig already set up.

The Fluke rangefinder and Porcupine labs interface combo is pretty sweet, but it comes with a fairly hefty price tag. (Nothing compared to a professional dish measurement rig, we presume.) We’ve seen a few attempt at hacking into el-cheapo laser rangefinders, but other than [iliasam]’s heroic effort where he ended up writing his own firmware, it doesn’t seem like there are any successes. A shame, because applications like [Joe]’s prove that there’s a need for one. Let us know if there’s anything we missed?

Thanks [Ethan] for the tip!

Satellite Ground Station Upcycles Trash

While the term “upcycle” is relatively recent, we feel like [saveitforparts] has been doing it for a long time. He’d previously built gear to pick up low-Earth orbit satellites, but now wants to pick up geosynchronous birds which requires a better antenna. While his setup won’t win a beauty contest, it does seem to work, and saved some trash from a landfill, too. (Video, embedded below.)

Small dishes are cheap on the surplus market. A can makes a nice feedhorn using a classic cantenna design, although that required aluminum tape since the only can in the trash was a cardboard oatmeal carton. The tape came in handy when the dish turned out to be about 25% too small, as well.

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After Eight-Month Break, Deep Space Network Reconnects With Voyager 2

When the news broke recently that communications had finally been re-established with Voyager 2, I felt a momentary surge of panic. I’ve literally been following the Voyager missions since the twin space probes launched back in 1977, and I’ve been dreading the inevitable day when the last little bit of plutonium in their radioisotope thermal generators decays to the point that they’re no longer able to talk to us, and they go silent in the abyss of interstellar space. According to these headlines, Voyager 2 had stopped communicating for eight months — could this be a quick nap before the final sleep?

Thankfully, no. It turns out that the recent blackout to our most distant outpost of human engineering was completely expected, and completely Earth-side. Upgrades and maintenance were performed on the Deep Space Network antennas that are needed to talk to Voyager. But that left me with a question: What about the rest of the DSN? Could they have not picked up the slack and kept us in touch with Voyager as it sails through interstellar space? The answer to that is an interesting combination of RF engineering and orbital dynamics.

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DIY Radio Telescopes Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, February 12 at noon Pacific for the DIY Radio Telescopes Hack Chat with James Aguirre!

For most of history, astronomers were privy to the goings-on in the universe only in a very narrow slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. We had no idea that a vibrant and wondrous picture was being painted up and down the wavelengths, a portrait in radio waves of everything from nearly the moment of creation to the movement of galaxies. And all it took to listen in was an antenna and a radio receiver.

Over the years, radio telescopes have gotten more and more sophisticated and sensitive, and consequently bigger and bigger. We’re even to the point where one radio telescope often won’t cut it, and astronomers build arrays of telescopes spread over miles and miles, some with antennas that move around on rails. In the search for signals, radio astronomy has become the very definition of “Big Science.”

But radio astronomy doesn’t have to be big to be useful. James Aguirre, an astronomer at the University of Pennsylvania, spends his days (and nights) studying the radio universe with those big instruments. But he’s also passionate about down-scaling things and teaching everyone that small radio telescopes can be built on the cheap. His Mini Radio Telescope project uses a cast-off satellite TV dish and a couple of hundred bucks worth of readily available gear to scan the skies for all sorts of interesting phenomena.

Dr. Aguirre will join us on the Hack Chat to discuss all things radio astronomy, and how you can get in on the radio action on the cheap. Chances are good your junk pile — or your neighbor’s roof — has everything you need, and you might be surprised how approachable and engaging DIY radio astronomy can be.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 12 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about. Continue reading “DIY Radio Telescopes Hack Chat”

Umbrella And Tin Cans Turned Into WiFi Dish Antenna

There’s something iconic about dish antennas. Chances are it’s the antenna that non-antenna people think about when they picture an antenna. And for many applications, the directionality and gain of a dish can really help reach out and touch someone. So if you’re looking to tap into a distant WiFi network, this umbrella-turned-dish antenna might be just the thing to build.

Stretching the limits of WiFi connections seems to be a focus of [andrew mcneil]’s builds, at least to judge by his YouTube channel. This portable, foldable dish is intended to increase the performance of one of his cantennas, a simple home-brew WiFi antenna that uses food cans as directional waveguides. The dish is built from the skeleton of an umbrella-style photographer’s flash reflector; he chose this over a discount-store rain umbrella because the reflector has an actual parabolic shape. The reflective material was stripped off and used as a template to cut new gores of metal window screen material. It’s considerably stiffer than the reflector fabric, but it stretches taut between the ribs and can still fold up, at least sort of. An arm was fashioned from dowels to position the cantenna feed-horn at the focus of the reflector; not much detail is given on the cantenna itself, but we assume it’s similar in design to cantennas we’ve featured before.

[andrew] hasn’t done rigorous testing yet, but a quick 360° scan from inside his shop showed dozens of WiFi signals, most with really good signals. We’ll be interested to see just how much this reflector increases the cantenna’s performance.

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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”

See Satellites With A Simple Radio Telescope

Have you got a spare Dish Network antenna lying about? They’re not too hard to come by, either curbside on bulk waste day or perhaps even on Freecycle. If you can lay hands on one, you might want to try this fun radio telescope build.

Now, don’t expect much from [Justin]’s minimalist build. After all, you’ll be starting with a rather small dish and an LNB for the Ku band, so you won’t be doing serious radio astronomy. In fact, the BOM doesn’t include a fancy receiver  – just a hacked satellite finder. The idea is to just get a reading of the relative “brightness” of a radio source without trying to demodulate the signal. To that end, the signal driving the piezo buzzer in the sat finder is fed into an Arduino through a preamp. The Arduino also controls stepper motors for the dish’s azimuth and elevation control, which lets it sweep the sky and build up a map of signal intensity. The result is a clear band of bright spots representing the geosynchronous satellites visible from [Justin]’s location in Brazil.

Modifications are definitely on the docket for [Justin], including better equipment that will allow him to image the galactic center. There may be some pointers for him in our coverage of a tiny SDR-based radio telescope, or from this custom receiver that can listen to Jupiter.

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