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.
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.
An Australian radio telescope picked up unusual signals back in 2019 and thinks they originated from Proxima Centauri, a scant 4.3 light years from our blue marble. Researchers caution that it almost certainly is a signal of human or natural origin and that more analysis will probably show it didn’t come from Proxima Centauri. But they can’t yet explain it.
The research is from the Breakthrough Listen project, a decade-long SETI project. The 980 MHz BLC-1 signal, as it’s called, meets the tests that identify the signal as interesting. It has a narrow bandwidth, it drifts in frequency consistent with a signal moving away or towards the Earth, and it disappears when the radio telescope points elsewhere.
Remember DSRC? If the initialism doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry — Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a radio service intended to let cars in traffic talk to each other, never really caught on. Back in 1999, when the Federal Communications Commission set aside 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9-GHz band, it probably seemed like a good idea — after all, the flying cars of the future would surely need a way to communicate with each other. Only about 15,000 vehicles in the US have DSRC, and so the FCC decided to snatch back the whole 75-MHz slice and reallocate it. The lower 45 MHz will be tacked onto the existing unlicensed 5.8-GHz band where WiFi now lives, providing interesting opportunities in wireless networking. Fans of chatty cars need not fret, though — the upper 30 MHz block is being reallocated to a different Intelligent Transportation System Service called C-V2X, for Cellular Vehicle to Everything, which by its name alone is far cooler and therefore more likely to succeed.
NASA keeps dropping cool teasers of the Mars 2020 mission as the package containing the Perseverance rover hurtles across space on its way to a February rendezvous with the Red Planet. The latest: you can listen to the faint sounds the rover is making as it gets ready for its date with destiny. While we’ve heard sounds from Mars before — the InSight lander used its seismometer to record the Martian wind — Perseverance is the first Mars rover equipped with actual microphones. It’s pretty neat to hear the faint whirring of the rover’s thermal management system pump doing its thing in interplanetary space, and even cooler to think that we’ll soon hear what it sounds like to land on Mars.
Speaking of space, back at the beginning of 2020 — you know, a couple of million years ago — we kicked off the Hack Chat series by talking with Alberto Caballero about his “Habitable Exoplanets” project, a crowd-sourced search for “Earth 2.0”. We found it fascinating that amateur astronomers using off-the-shelf gear could detect the subtle signs of planets orbiting stars half a galaxy away. We’ve kept in touch with Alberto since then, and he recently tipped us off to his new SETI Project. Following the citizen-science model of the Habitable Exoplanets project, Alberto is looking to recruit amateur radio astronomers willing to turn their antennas in the direction of stars similar to the Sun, where it just might be possible for intelligent life to have formed. Check out the PDF summary of the project which includes the modest technical requirements for getting in on the SETI action.
It is with a heavy heart that we must report the National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to dismantle the Arecibo Observatory. Following the failure of two support cables, engineers have determined the structure is on the verge of collapse and that the necessary repairs would be too expensive and dangerous to conduct. At the same time, allowing the structure to collapse on its own would endanger nearby facilities and surely destroy the valuable research equipment suspended high above the 300 meter dish. Through controlled demolition, the NSF hopes to preserve as much of the facility and its hardware as possible.
In 1974, it was even used to broadcast the goodwill of humankind to any intelligent lifeforms that might be listening. Known as the “Arecibo Message”, the transmission can be decoded to reveal an assortment of pictograms that convey everything from the atomic numbers of common elements to the shape of the human body. The final icon in the series was a simple diagram of Arecibo itself, so that anyone who intercepted the message would have an idea of how such a relatively primitive species had managed to reach out and touch the stars.
There is no replacement for the Arecibo Observatory, nor is there likely to be one in the near future. The Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China is larger than Arecibo, but doesn’t have the crucial transmission capability. The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California can transmit, but as it’s primarily concerned with communicating with distant spacecraft, there’s little free time to engage in scientific observations. Even when it’s available for research, the largest dish in the Goldstone array is only 1/4 the diameter of the reflector at Arecibo.
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.
Today we’re sad to report that one of the primary support cables at the Arecibo Observatory has snapped, nudging the troubled radio telescope closer to a potential disaster. The Observatory’s 300 meter reflector dish was already badly in need of repairs after spending 60 years exposed to the elements in Puerto Rico, but dwindling funds have made it difficult for engineers to keep up. Damage from 2017’s Hurricane Maria was still being repaired when a secondary support cable broke free and smashed through the dish back in August, leading to grave concerns over how much more abuse the structure can take before a catastrophic failure is inevitable.
The situation is particularly dire because both of the failed cables were attached to the same tower. Each of the remaining cables is now supporting more weight than ever before, increasing the likelihood of another failure. Unless engineers can support the dish and ease the stress on these cables, the entire structure could be brought down by a domino effect; with each cable snapping in succession as the demands on them become too great.
As a precaution the site has been closed to all non-essential personnel, and to limit the risk to workers, drones are being used to evaluate the dish and cabling as engineers formulate plans to stabilize the structure until replacement cables arrive. Fortunately, they have something of a head start.
Back in September the University of Central Florida, which manages the Arecibo Observatory, contacted several firms to strategize ways they could address the previously failed cable and the damage it caused. Those plans have now been pushed up in response to this latest setback.
Unfortunately, there’s still a question of funding. There were fears that the Observatory would have to be shuttered after Hurricane Maria hit simply because there wasn’t enough money in the budget to perform the relatively minor repairs necessary. The University of Central Florida stepped in and provided the funding necessary to keep the Observatory online in 2018, but they may need to lean on their partner the National Science Foundation to help cover the repair bill they’ve run up since then.
The Arecibo Observatory is a unique installation, and its destruction would be an incredible blow for the scientific community. Researchers were already struggling with the prospect of repairs putting the powerful radio telescope out of commission for a year or more, but now it seems there’s a very real possibility the Observatory may be lost. Here’s hoping that teams on the ground can safely stabilize the iconic instrument so it can continue exploring deep space for years to come.