Moving Right Along: Radio Astronomy and Ham Radio

Funny thing ham radio: LOTS of gear for it also applies to the research done in radio astronomy. Years ago, I worked with a gent (Steve Choate) as a night cleaning crew member for the local school systems. This was many years ago and many lives far and away. Steve and I met at a restaurant, where he was the maintenance and Mr. fix-it kind of fellow. I entered that place as a dish washer looking for part time work to make some cash as a college student at UMass. When they closed the place down (sadly: I loved it later when I moved into the realm of cooking), Steve and I moved into the school system. Anyway, I digress… he was really into home engineering… seriously. He had manual after manual on common electronic components, the ARRL Handbook, you name it. This was before PCs and the internet (hey, remember ARPANET? Yes, it was that long ago), so we didn’t have instant access to anything at all. We did a lot of building using dumpster-diving searches for many common electronic components.

One day, Steve ran into this cool little text: Amateur Radio Astronomy. It was not a classic, nor did it become one, but it started us out on a month-long journey that has come back to haunt me a few times later in life. There was a design for a simple (who cares?) and small (now, that mattered) antenna for 10m band solar observing. We built it: chicken wire, 1-by wood strapping, tacks, and an aluminum tube for an antenna. I used my old Uniden scanner to monitor AM way up in 10m land… and sure enough, the Sun made, well, yes, static noise. It was cool to listen to. It was even more enjoyable to see it give off more noise when the Sun went through the beam of this antenna. That was all it did. We didn’t have much more complicated than a Commodore 64 PC at our disposal, but that thing did have a really sweet sound chip with a perfect user interface. It had an analog +/-5V input that went right to an A-to-D converter built into the system. Sweet! That allowed us to log the noise from the Sun and make strip charts of solar activity versus time. Cool.

Many years later…. Following all things geeky, like learning how to fly, how to build radios and antennae, how to do ham radio (W1JAB Extra), and the like, I got interested in doing some radio astronomy again. This was 10 years ago with some folks from the New Hampshire Astronomical Society (NHAS). We sketched out plans for a 10m beam antenna: and guess what?… it worked! This time using an old Yaesu ham rig as the interface/receiver and a PC to log events.

Many years later…. I am armed with an IC-746proIII and a 10m and 20m wire beam antenna on the roof of the school observatory, where I teach. Such fun! The interface arrived today… get this, a USB to analog method of getting sound from the radio, through opto-isolators for ground loop protection, then to the PC: SLICK!  The name of this little unit: The West Mountain Radio Rigblaster PNP. It was designed for ham radio digi modes (PSK, RTTY and even CW, though I know that is not really a digi mode), but I am going to use it for radio astronomy, education, and long term observing runs with the Earth turning beneath the sky. Long live simple mounts! I will let you know how it goes.

About johnb

- Director of Grainger Observatory, Phillips Exeter Academy. - Variable-star-crazed astronomer, but have done research in other areas. - Drummer, archer, pilot, chef, friend, pet owner, husband, father, Train-nut.
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