Getting Started With Radio Astronomy

There are many facets to being a radio hobbyist, but if you’ve ever had the urge to dabble in radio astronomy, check out “The Novice’s Guide to Amateur Radio Astronomy,” a presentation at the 2024 conference of the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers. In that presentation (see the video below), [Nathan Butts] covers everything from why you should take up the hobby, how to set up a software defined radio (SDR) receiver, and how to repurpose old computers. This is just one of a series of videos recently posted from the conference — check out their channel to see them all.

Unlike optical astronomy, you can listen to the universe by radio during the day or night, rain or shine. You don’t need a dark sky, although these days, a quiet radio location might be hard to find. [Nathan] also points out that some people just want to crunch data collected by others, and that’s fun, too. There are many ways to get involved from designing hardware, writing software, or — of course — just listening.

It has never been easier to get involved. Cheap software-defined radios are perfect for this sort of work, and we all have massive computers and scores of small data-collection computers. Maybe you’ll be the next person to hear a Wow signal. If you are worried about fielding an antenna, many people repurpose satellite dishes.

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Wok Your Way To The Center Of The Galaxy

The round bottom of a proper wok is the key to a decent stir fry, but it also makes it hard to use on traditional Western stoves. That’s why many woks end up in a dark kitchen cabinet, unused and unloved. But wait; it turns out that the round bottom of a wok is the perfect shape for gathering something else — radio waves, specifically the 21-cm neutral hydrogen emissions coming from the heart of our galaxy.

Turning a wok into an entry-level radio telescope doesn’t appear to be all that hard, at least judging by what [Leo W.H. Fung] et al detail in their paper (PDF) on “WTH” or “Wok the Hydrogen.” Aside from the wok, which serves as the main reflector, you’ll need a bit of coaxial cable and some stiff copper wire to fashion a small dipole antenna and balun, plus some plastic tubing to support it at the focal point of the reflector. Measuring the wok’s shape and size, which in turn determines its focal point, is probably the hardest part of the build; luckily, the paper includes tips on doing just that. The authors address the controversy of parabolic versus spherical reflectors and arrive at the conclusion that for a radio telescope fashioned from a wok, it just doesn’t matter.

As for the signal processing chain, WTH holds few surprises. A Nooelec Sawbird+ H1 acts as preamp and filter for the 1420-MHz hydrogen line signal, which feeds into an RTL-SDR dongle. Careful attention is paid to proper grounding and shielding to keep the noise floor as low as possible. Mounting the antenna is a decidedly ad hoc affair, and aiming is as simple as eyeballing various stars near the center of the galactic plane — no need to complicate things.

Performance is pretty good: WTH measured the recession velocity of neutral hydrogen to within 20 km/s, which isn’t bad for something cobbled together from scrap. We’ve seen plenty of DIY hydrogen line observatories before, but WTH probably wins the “get on the air tonight” award.

Thanks to [Heinz-Bernd Eggenstein] for the tip.

Homebrew Radio Telescope Bags Pulsar

When one mulls the possibility of detecting pulsars, to the degree that one does, thoughts turn to large dish antennas and rack upon rack of sensitive receivers, filters, and digital signal processors. But there’s more than one way to catch the regular radio bursts from these celestial beacons, and if you know what you’re doing, a small satellite dish and an RTL-SDR dongle will suffice.

Granted, [Job Geheniau] has had a lot of experience exploring the radio universe. His website has a long list of observations and accomplishments achieved using his “JRT”, or “Job’s Radio Telescope.” The instrument looks like a homebrewer’s dream, with a 1.9-m satellite TV dish and precision azimuth-elevation rotator. Behind the feedhorn are a pair of low-noise amplifiers and bandpass filters to massage the 1,420 MHz signal that’s commonly used for radio astronomy, plus a Nooelec Smart SDR dongle and an Airspy Mini. Everything is run via remote control, as the interference is much lower with the antenna situated at his family’s farm, 50 km distant from his home in The Hague.

As for the pulsar, bloodlessly named PSR B0329+54, it’s a 5-million-year-old neutron star located in the constellation of Camelopardalis, about 3,500 light-years away. It’s a well-characterized pulsar and pulses at a regular 0.71452 seconds, but it’s generally observed with much, much larger antennas. [Job]’s write-up of the observation contains a lot of detail on the methods and software he used, and while the data is far from clear to the casual observer, it sure seems like he bagged it.

We’ve seen quite a few DIY radio astronomy projects before, both large and small, but this one really impresses with what it accomplished.

[via RTL-SDR.com]

Your Own 11.2 GHz Radio Telescope

Modern life has its conveniences. Often, those conveniences lead to easier hacks. A great example of that is the rise of satellite television and the impact it has had on amateur radio telescopes. There was a time when building a dish and a suitable low noise amplifier was a big deal. Now they are commodity parts you can get anywhere.

The antenna in use is a 1.2-meter prime focus dish. Some TV dishes use an offset feed, but that makes it harder to aim for use in a radio telescope. In addition to off-the-shelf antenna and RF components, an AirSpy software-defined radio picks up the frequency-shifted output from the antenna. There is more about the software side of the build in a follow-up post. We liked that this was a pretty meaty example of using GNU Radio.

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SpaceAusScope Team Listens To The Galaxy

Australia has always had a reputation for astronomy. It is a great site low in the Southern hemisphere and there are lots of sparsely inhabited areas free from light and radio interference. Some of the first video from the Apollo 11 landing, for example, came in from “the dish” — a very large radio telescope down under. Australian hobbyists have formed a group, SpaceAusScope, where teams across Australia are building radio telescopes with the plan — which has been delayed by the pandemic — of collecting data and providing it for public analysis.

A secondary goal of the group is to provide better documentation for amateur radio telescope builders. So even if you don’t live in Australia, you might want to check out their website. It looks as thoughthe documentation will arrive in the future, but there is a very informative blog post from one team member about the helical antenna design most of the teams are using to eavesdrop on the hydrogen line.

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The Wow! Signal And The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence

On a balmy August evening in 1977, an enormous radio telescope in a field in the middle of Ohio sat silently listening to the radio universe. Shortly after 10:00 PM, the Earth’s rotation slewed the telescope through a powerful radio signal whose passage was noted only by the slight change in tone in the song sung every twelve seconds by the line printer recording that evening’s data.

When the data was analyzed later, an astronomer’s marginal exclamation of the extraordinarily powerful but vanishingly brief blip would give the signal its forever name: the Wow! Signal. How we came to hear this signal, what it could possibly mean, and where it might have come from are all interesting details of an event that left a mystery in its wake, one that citizen scientists are now looking into with a fresh perspective. If it was sent from a region of space with habitable planets, it’s at least worth a listen.

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Eulogy To Arecibo: With Demise Of A Unique Scientific Facility, Who Will Carry The Torch?

Few telescopes will get an emotional response from the general public when it is ultimately announced that they will be decommissioned. In the case of the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, the past months has seen not only astronomers but also countless people across the world wait with bated breath after initial reports of damage to the radio telescope’s gigantic dish.

When the National Science Foundation announced that they would be decommissioning the telescope, there was an understandable outpouring of grief and shock. Not only is Arecibo a landmark in Puerto Rico, it is the telescope from iconic movies such as GoldenEye (1995) and Contact (1997). Its data fed public programs such as the Seti@Home and Einstein@Home projects.

Was Arecibo’s demise truly unavoidable, and what does this mean for the scientific community?

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