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 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 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”

Roofing Radio Telescope Sees The Galaxy

[David Schneider] asked himself, “How big a radio antenna would you need to observe anything interesting?” The answer turns out to be a $150 build of a half meter antenna. He uses it to detect the motions of the spiral arms of the Milky Way. The first attempt was a satellite TV dish and a cantenna feed, which didn’t work as the can wasn’t big enough to pick up signals at the 21cm wavelength of hydrogen emissions. Interstellar gas clouds are known to emit radio energy at this frequency.

Looking online, [David] tried aluminized foam board insulation, but was worried that the material didn’t seem to actually be conductive. A quick thrown-together Faraday cage with a cell phone didn’t seem to block any calls. Abandoning that approach, he settled on aluminum flashing used for roofing.

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A Miniature Radio Telescope In Every Backyard

You probably wouldn’t expect to see somebody making astronomical observations during a cloudy day in the center of a dense urban area, but that’s exactly what was happening at the recent 2019 Philadelphia Mini Maker Faire. Professor James Aguirre of the University of Pennsylvania was there demonstrating the particularly compact Mini Radio Telescope (MRT) project built around an old DirecTV satellite dish and a smattering of low-cost components, giving visitors a view of the sky in a way most had never seen before.

Thanks to the project’s extensive online documentation, anyone with a spare satellite dish and a couple hundred dollars in support hardware can build their very own personal radio telescope that’s capable of observing objects in the sky no matter what the time of day or weather conditions are. Even if you’re not interested in peering into deep space from the comfort of your own home, the MRT offers a framework for building an automatic pan-and-tilt directional antenna platform that could be used for picking up signals from orbiting satellites.

With the slow collapse of satellite television in the United States these dishes are often free for the taking, and a fairly common sight on the sidewalk come garbage day. Perhaps there’s even one (or three) sitting on your own roof as you read this, waiting for a new lease on life in the Netflix Era.

Whether it’s to satisfy your own curiosity or because you want to follow in Professor Aguirre’s footsteps and use it as a tool for STEM outreach, projects like MRT make it easier than ever to build a functional DIY radio telescope.

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Radio Telescopes Horn In With GNU Radio

Who doesn’t like to look up at the night sky? But if you are into radio, there’s a whole different way to look using radio telescopes. [John Makous] spoke at the GNU Radio Conference about how he’s worked to make a radio telescope (PDF) that is practical for even younger students to build and operate.

The only real high tech part of this build is the low noise amplifier (LNA) and the project is in reach of a typical teacher who might not be an expert on electronics. It uses things like paint thinner cans and lumber. [John] also built some blocks in GNU Radio that made it easy for other teachers to process the data from a telescope. As he put it, “This is the kind of nerdy stuff I like to do.” We can relate.

The telescope is made to pick up the 21 cm band to detect neutral hydrogen from the Milky Way. It can map the hydrogen in the galaxy and also measure the rotational speed of the galaxy using Doppler shift. Not bad for an upcycled paint thinner can. These are cheap enough, you can even build a fleet of them.

This would be a great project for anyone interested in radio telescopes or space. However, it is particularly set up for classroom use. Students can flex their skills in math, engineering, programming, and — of course — astronomy and physics.

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Tiny Telescope For Simple Radio Astronomy

We are used to imagining radio telescopes as immense pieces of scientific apparatus, such as the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, or the Lovell telescope in the UK. It’s a surprise then that they can be constructed on a far more modest sale using off-the-shelf components, and it’s a path that [Gonçalo Nespral] has taken with his tiny radio telescope using a satellite dish. It’s on an azimuth-elevation mount using an Ikea lazy susan and a lead screw, and it has a satellite TV LNB at the hot end with a satellite finder as its detector.

So far he’s managed only to image the wall of his apartment, but that clearly shows the presence of the metal supporting structure within it. Taking it outdoors has however not been such a success. If we wanted to hazard a guess as to why this is the case, we’d wish to look at the bandwidth of that satellite finder. It’s designed to spot a signal from a TV broadcast bird over the whole band, and thus will have a bandwidth in the hundreds of MHz and a sensitivity that could at best be described as a bit deaf. We hope he’ll try a different path such as an RTL-SDR in the future, and we look forward to his results.

This isn’t the first simple radio telescope we’ve seen here, aside from at least one other LNB-based one we’ve also shown you a WiFi device.

Desktop Radio Telescope Images The WiFi Universe

It’s been a project filled with fits and starts, and it very nearly ended up as a “Fail of the Week” feature, but we’re happy to report that the [Thought Emporium]’s desktop WiFi radio telescope finally works. And it’s pretty darn cool.

If you’ve been following along with the build like we have, you’ll know that this stems from a previous, much larger radio telescope that [Justin] used to visualize the constellation of geosynchronous digital TV satellites. This time, he set his sights closer to home and built a system to visualize the 2.4-GHz WiFi band. A simple helical antenna rides on the stepper-driven azimuth-elevation scanner. A HackRF SDR and GNU Radio form the receiver, which just captures the received signal strength indicator (RSSI) value for each point as the antenna scans. The data is then massaged into colors representing the intensity of WiFi signals received and laid over an optical image of the scanned area. The first image clearly showed a couple of hotspots, including a previously unknown router. An outdoor scan revealed routers galore, although that took a little more wizardry to pull off.

The videos below recount the whole tale in detail; skip to part three for the payoff if you must, but at the cost of missing some valuable lessons and a few cool tips, like using flattened pieces of Schedule 40 pipe as a construction material. We hope to see more from the project soon, and wonder if this FPV racing drone tracker might offer some helpful hints for expansion.

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Paul Horowitz And The Search For Extra Terrestrial Intelligence

I recently had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Harvard Professor Paul Horowitz. It’s a name you likely recognize. He is best known for his iconic book the Art of Electronics which is often referred to not by its name but by the last names of the authors: “Horowitz and Hill”.

Beyond that, what do you know about Paul Horowitz? Paul is an electrical engineer and physicist and Paul has spent much of his storied career learning and practicing electronics for the purpose of finding intelligent extra terrestrial life.

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