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3 mins read 30 Jan 2020

DIY Radio Telescope sees first light!

A new community science project, aimed at inspiring Australians' in learning about radio telescopes and radio astronomy, has seen first light - with the CSIRO DIY radio telescope capturing the Hydrogen line from the Milky Way Galaxy.

The new community science project - inspired by Australia’s rich history in radio astronomy with the CSIRO - has had the development of its first DIY telescope completed and tested – capturing data from the Milky Way Galaxy.

The first telescope, completed by Vanessa Chapman - who was working as part of the CSIRO summer student vacation project, detected the hydrogen line emanating from cold gas clouds that make up part of the Milky Way Galaxy’s disc.

Conical telescope made from cereal boxes and standing on grass with tin below it

Cone showing cereal boxes and legs

Looking top down into the telescope

Close up from inside the telescope, showing the tin can and bottom of the horn

Vanessa’s telescope (developed with the assistance of several CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) division astronomers and engineers), was constructed using cereal boxes that were folded into shape, covered with aluminium foil (for reflectivity) and joined together to form a conical horn that directs radio waves into the waveguide.

Tin can showing protruding antenna link

Looking inside the can, showing protruding antenna copper wire

The waveguide itself is produced by inserting a short copper-wire antenna into a disused circular paint can, before connecting this to the low-noise amplifier and receiver.

The Hydrogen line is a 21cm wavelength electromagnetic signal (radio frequencies) that originates from the enormous cold reserves of the Milky Way’s disc. The signal is generated when the electron in a hydrogen atom flips from its excited to its rest position – giving off the radio wave which travels across the Galaxy and detected by telescopes here on Earth.

By tracking the Hydrogen line with radio telescopes, astronomers can detect features of the Milky Way Galaxy, such as its spiral arms – and determine if the arms are moving towards us or away from us.

Graph showing a purple line at 1.420 GHz and the plot of data peaking just off this to the right
The 21cm hydrogen line detected by Vanessa. Credit: Vanessa Chapman.

SpaceAustralia.com has been running the SpaceAusScope project since mid-December as part of its Inspiring Next-Gen program, with the aim of encouraging everyday Australians in learning about radio astronomy, how radio telescopes work and features of the Milky Way Galaxy. 

Vanessa’s telescope - which is credited to the excellent work she has put into the build and collaboration with CSIRO CASS, is the first of several telescopes currently under construction. 

The project currently has a large community of over 35 registered teams across Australia – all aiming to build their own DIY radio telescopes, and like Vanessa, successfully capturing the hydrogen line emanating from space.

Most teams across the project are currently in the build phase, which finalises at the end of March before the three-month (April – June) observation window opens.

By the end of the community science project – SpaceAustralia.com aims to have documentation available for a variety of DIY radio telescope models for future builders – esp. school students across the country.

The teams are sharing their experiences and journey through blogs, photos and more using the hashtag #SpaceAusScope across social media platforms.