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8 mins read 02 Jan 2020

Community Science Project: DIY Radio Telescope

Teams across Australia are joining our community science project to build backyard Radio Telescopes that can detect the arms of the Milky Way Galaxy.

DIY horn antennae used for radio astronomy. Credit: Hackaday.

Project Summary

This DIY radio telescope project is the first of our #InspiringNextGen series and is all about getting people across Australia and NZ involved in science and the Australian/New Zealand space communities. There’s a bunch of info about this community science project below, including a little about the science at the bottom. Registrations have now closed - however, here’s a high-level summary of what we're aiming to do:

  • We’re building a do-it-yourself radio telescope, and would love for you to follow our journey
  • This is a fun science project that is being implemented by 38 teams across Australia
  • We expect the project to take 3 – 6 months, which includes building the telescope over the first 3 months and then collecting good data over the last 3 months
  • We want to get fun, learning, science data, a better understanding of radio astronomy and documentation out of this experiment. It’s 100% ok if we don’t succeed, as long as we learn along the way

Who's involved?

After releasing our project plans in mid-December, we received an excellent outpouring of enthusiasm from people across the country to join our project. Unfortunately, registrations are now closed for this phase project, but all our teams are working towards documenting their processes for future builders - like yourself - to start their own projects. We'll open up the next phase of the project soon - so you can start building your telescope too.

Our community of DIY radio telescope builders is made up of folks who have never had any experience with radio astronomy, parents and young people, radio astronomers, ham radio operators, engineers, software developers and more. We're a very diverse group!

We even have three teams in Africa and one team in America also building their own DIY radio telescope. 

Our teams participate and collaborate through our online Slack community and are working towards producing excellent documentation that can be open-sourced to anyone at the end of our project. 

We’re going to work out the schematics of our telescope and the best way to capture radio waves from space.

What are our timeframes?

We expect the project to take about 3 – 6 months, depending on any curve balls we learn about along the way. The build itself should only take a few months, but the collection of good data might take longer, so we’re in no rush. Instead, we’re here for the learnings.

We officially started this project in mid-December, but the build period will likely start from early January and run for approx. three months.

We’re aiming for ‘first-light’ (when our telescopes see data) after this weekend, around 14th March 2020, and have set out three months (until the end of June) to be able to get good data (which means it’s not just noise but science data).

Each team will be working on their own antenna/s at their own pace, so we expect to see a few early antennas which will be exciting to share around on social media. 

Detections of Hydrogen gas emissions from the Galaxy. Credit: David Schneider.

What do we want to get out of this experience?

There is a wide range of things that we want to get out of this community science project:

  • Fun, enjoyment, a sense of community (priority 1)
  • Astronomical science data and experimental science results by tracking the movement of the Milky Way Galaxy
  • People from all walks of life learning about radio astronomy and radio telescopes
  • A working radio telescope would be good!
  • Collaboration and participation from everyone
  • Documentation - we’ll be putting together our document-as-you-build instructions and publishing this on the SpaceAustralia.com website so that anyone can take up this project in the future
  • Lastly, we want everyone to know that this is all about experimentation and it might not work! Some teams might have telescopes that work well in three months, and others not at all in six months. This is not a competition, this is a learning experience for our community. If we come out of this with better knowledge about radio astronomy and radio telescopes – then we’ve achieved our goal!

Registered Teams

Below is a table of all the registered teams in our #SpaceAusScope community.

Teams registered in our community science project
Team Name Location State
Team Orion Balmain NSW
A Shed in Mayfield Mayfield NSW
Backyard Universe Monitors Pennant Hills NSW
Boambee Universe Monitors Boambee NSW
Team Hephaestus Cherrybrook NSW
Astro Hobbits Sutherland Shire NSW
Nbsp Sydney NSW
Catholic Education Wollongong Wollongong NSW
Beyond Canobolas Millthorpe NSW
Space Cadets Terrey Hills NSW
Texas Texas QLD
Pandora Seventeen Miles Rock QLD
Sir Thomas Brisbane Radio Telescope Brisbane QLD
Friday Radio Club Adelaide Inner West SA
Team Adelaide Adelaide Hills SA
Mad Scientists Sea Cliff SA
Box Hill South Space Explorers Box Hill VIC
Team Dino Newport VIC
Team TAT Tatura  VIC
Kids Space Moonee Ponds VIC
Space GW Worm Glen Waverley VIC
OuterMelbourneSpace Hampton Park VIC
It's All About The Base Glen Waverley VIC
Totally Space Bannockburn VIC
SMRA Kilsyth VIC
Bell Horn Thornlie WA
Team Watermans Watermans Bay WA
Axion Gidgegannup WA
Perth Observatory Volunteer Group Bickley WA
Sandgroper RA Falcon WA
Wireless Hill Bobtails Perth WA
ICRAR Curtin Radio Astronomy Rabble Perth WA
El Castillo Como WA

Follow Our Project

We would really love to share this experience with you, so please follow our project by looking out for our shared posts on social media using the tag #SpaceAusScope. Here’s our accounts:

And if you’re interested in running a separate community science project with us, email us at admin@spaceaustralia.com

The Science

Properties of the EM spectrum. Credit: Inductiveload.

Radio astronomy is the study of objects, events, and phenomena in space using radio waves, which make up part of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum.

Due to their long wavelengths, radio waves can enter Earth’s atmosphere and pass through clouds, which means we can do radio astronomy during the day and even when it is cloudy.

The telescope we are building is a horn antenna, which is tuned into picking up small radio waves of 21cm wavelength. The source of these radio waves is from the most common element we find in the Universe, Hydrogen.

Massive Hydrogen clouds are found across our Galaxy’s spiral arms. This is the material that eventually forms stars, planets and everything else we see around us. We can’t see these cold interstellar clouds in optical telescopes, but we can with radio telescopes. To understand how we need to look at some atomic-scale science.

Hydrogen, as an atom, is fairly simple – it contains one Proton in its centre (which carries a positive (+) charge) and an orbiting electron (which carries a negative (-) charge). Let’s pretend that both the proton and the electron are spinning balls with their axis both pointing upwards

When this atom is most relaxed, or in a ground state, the two-axis are in opposite directions – so the proton points up and the electron points down. However, sometimes the electron gets an energy kick, which takes it to an excited state. When this happens, the electron has absorbed some energy. But it is no longer relaxed and really wants to get back to its relaxed state (don’t we all?).

To do so, it has to release the energy it absorbed back out into the Universe. And so the electron gets rid of the energy and reverts back to having its axis pointing downwards relative to the proton, which points upwards.

Now that little package of energy it released is a radio wave and it has a wavelength of 21cm. This travels across our Galaxy and eventually is picked up by the telescope we are building.

Hydrogen spin-flip. When F = 1, Hydrogen is excited and wants to relax. It gets rid of some energy by flipping the spin of the electron, and then F = 0. Credit: Tiltec/Wikipedia.

By looking for 21cm wavelength radio waves coming from the Galaxy, we will be able to tell where the huge clouds of Hydrogen are and if they are moving towards us or away from us. This paints a picture of the Galaxy’s spiral arms through our data.

We’re hoping by collecting our data from the end of March and through to June, we’ll be able to capture an arm of the Milky Way and then the centre of our Galaxy, which usually is high in the sky by the middle of the year.

Illustration of the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/Chandra.