How to use RAL10KIT and RAL10AP to build a Microwave Radio

How to use RAL10KIT and RAL10AP to
build a Microwave Radio Telescope
Vers. 1.1 January 22, 2017
RadioAstroLab s.r.l.
Strada della Marina, 9/6 - 60019 Senigallia (AN) - Italy
Build your first Microwave Radio Telescope with RadioAstroLab products.
Chapter 1
The basics of Radio Astronomy
We can observe the sky in many ways: the view is always wonderful, fascinating and
exciting. You will be astonished contemplating the stars on a clear winter night, away
from city lights, the wonder increases observing the details of the moon with binoculars
or the planets with a telescope.
These tools, which amplify our visual possibilities, are familiar: who has never had
the pleasure of getting close to a telescope’s ocular during an educational evening held
by the local group of astronomers? However, not everyone knows that there are other
ways to look at the sky, no less fascinating than the visual.
We live in a sea of electromagnetic waves generated by technology (mobile phones,
wireless devices, and television repeaters ....) and from the natural world, with radiation
also coming from extra-terrestrial space. Planets, stars and even the farthest galaxies emit
electromagnetic waves: from gamma rays to X-rays, ultra-violet and visible radiation, up
to infrared and radio emissions. The human being perceives the emissions in the band
of visible because Mother Nature has equipped us with the sense of sight, essential for
living, but to ”see” other ”windows” of the electromagnetic spectrum different tools are
needed, each specialized to measure radiation in a certain frequency band.
This document has a very ambitious goal: we would like to add a small piece of
knowledge to make radio astronomy accessible to everyone.
You will be able to build a small radio telescope to study celestial objects in a different way, mastering the basics of this fascinating observational technique, even in broad
daylight and with a cloudy sky. Undoubtedly it is not trivial to capture the radio emission of a distant galaxy: the signals are very weak, choked by artificial interference from
background noise. To be successful you need a minimum of study, passion and tenacity.
But isn’t it true for any activity?
RadioAstroLab s.r.l. was the first Italian company to launch on the market, in 2000,
the RAL10 receiver along with the information needed to build and use an amateur radio telescope. This instrument, economic and designed to take advantage of commercial
modules for the reception of satellite TV, started many fans to radio astronomy. Students,
amateur astronomers, radio amateurs, schools and universities, have built their small radio telescopes to start exploring the ”radio-sky”. We have received appreciation and new
requests, gave answers and supported enthusiasts organizing events and conferences in
many cities. We are happy and proud if our work and our passion can contribute to the
development of amateur radio astronomy.
We keep going on in this direction with renewed vigor, maintaining the primary objective of the divulgation, of the economy and ease of use: now we have a complete range
of products that meets the demands of the passionate and allows everyone to learn about
radio astronomy through the construction, installation and operation of a small telescope.
Chapter 1. The basics of Radio Astronomy
F IGURE 1.1: The RAL10KIT radiometric module.
F IGURE 1.2: RAL10AP receiver.
F IGURE 1.3: Aries, the control and acquisition software provided for free
with every receiver of the RAL10 series.
1.1. Introduction
The experimental approach way is always the best: to record the radio waves coming
from celestial objects with a ”homemade” tool is a very exciting experience. Of course,
we cannot expect the performances of great research telescopes, incomparably larger and
more complex. However, the construction and installation of a radio telescope built with
your own hands offers a lot of satisfaction and has great educational value.
This is a feasible and educationally very interesting way: there are many examples
available on the web that describe the construction of simple, inexpensive radio telescopes using components and modules from the satellite TV market. These are interesting solutions and of immediate realization that, in any case, require some practice and
experience with the assembly of electronic circuits and, especially, with their tuning.
If, on the other hand, we want to start with a guarantee of success, it will be preferable
to move towards ”ad hoc” applications planned for amateur radio astronomy, without
leaving out the ease of use.
For these reasons, we propose to the experimenters the RAL10KIT pre-assembled kit
(figure 1.1) and the RAL10AP receiver (figure 1.2). These tools, combined with commercial components of easy availability, become a complete radio astronomy receiver that
includes the interface for communication with a personal computer (PC) and the control
software Aries (figure 1.3). Realize and learn to use a tool like this is didactically very
interesting, since it allows a simple, straightforward approach to radio astronomy and to
the basic instrumental techniques.
RAL10KIT is designed for people who like to build up the receiver and has a minimum of practice in electronic assembly: you must assemble the base module into a suitable container, completing the work with a power supply, even homemade.
RAL10AP is a receiver whose characteristics are comparable to those of the RAL10KIT,
and it is ready to use, supplied in a sleek and compact enclosure in anodized aluminum
complete with external power supply.
In this document we propose the construction of an interesting amateur microwave
radio telescope (11.2 GHz) based on these devices. The experimenter completes the instrument by adding a few (and economic) commercial modules from the satellite TV
market: an antenna with external unit (low noise amplifier-frequency converter LNB Low
Noise Block) including the feed, the coaxial cable and the personal computer for the acquisition. There is great freedom in the choice of these devices, since with RAL10KIT or
RAL10AP you can use any product designed for satellite reception in the band 10-12 GHz.
These components are widely available at low cost due to the commercial deployment of
this service.
Using a parabolic reflector antenna with LNB including the illuminator and connecting the system to the RAL10KIT module or the RAL10AP receiver you can realize a radiometer operating at 11.2 GHz suitable for the study of thermal radiations from the Sun,
the Moon, and the most intense radio sources, with sensitivity mainly a function of the
antenna size. It is a complete instrument, which also provides the USB interface circuit
for communication with the PC equipped with our software Aries. The experimenter
only has to connect the components according to the instructions: the telescope is ready
to begin the observations.
The construction and optimization of this tool could be dealt with satisfaction by
students, amateurs and fans of radio astronomy, with results all the more attractive the
higher the size of the antenna used and the higher the ”fantasy” and care taken to expand
and improve the basic performance.
Given the small wavelength, it is relatively easy to build tools with good handling features and acceptable resolving power. Although in this frequency range do not ”shine”
particularly intense radio sources (excluding the Sun and the Moon), the sensitivity of
the system is enhanced by the large bandwidths usable and by a reduced influence of
Chapter 1. The basics of Radio Astronomy
Processing, graphical
representation and data
F IGURE 1.4: Basic structure of a Microwave Radio Telescope.
man-made disturbances: the telescope can be conveniently installed on the roof or the
backyard, in the urban area. Television geostationary satellites that can create interference are in a fixed and known position in the sky and is not too hard to avoid them
without limiting the observational field.
Radio Astronomy and Radio Telescopes
Radio astronomy studies the sky by analyzing the natural radio waves emitted by celestial objects: any object radiates measurable electromagnetic waves that, picked up by
the antenna and displayed, can show the incoherent characteristics of a broad spectrum
electrical noise.
In general, the term radio source stands for any natural emitter of radio waves: in common usage the term has become synonymous with the cosmic sources of radio waves.
The radio telescopes, instruments that record the faint radio stream coming from extraterrestrial space, include an antenna system, transmission lines and a receiver: the electronics amplifies the signal received by the antenna to make it measurable. There follow
the devices for the processing and recording of information, in addition to the tools for
the control of the instrument and for the orientation of the antenna (figure 1.4).
In honor of K. Jansky, the initiator of radio astronomy, was defined the unit of measurement of the flux density of radio sources: 1 Jy = 10−26 W/(m2 · Hz). From this
expression you can see how a radio telescope measures a radiant power coming from
space, specifically the power (W ) which affects the antenna reception area (m2 ), included
in the receiver bandwidth (Hz).
An alternative way, very convenient to express the power associated to the radiation
”collected” by the antenna, is the so-called brightness temperature: in fact a radio telescope
measures the temperature of the equivalent noise of the scenario ”seen” by the antenna.
The terms ”noise” and ”equivalent” will be made clear in the following paragraphs. As
1.3. The Earth Atmosphere
you will see, it is possible to demonstrate that the brightness temperature of a radio source
is directly proportional to its radiated power.
If we orient the antenna of the instrument in a given region of the sky, in particular to
a radio source that stands out from the background noise, we will measure an increase
in signal intensity (namely, a power) proportional to the brightness temperature of that
object, which will coincide with its physical temperature only if this is a black body, ie
a (ideal) material which perfectly absorbs all radiation incident on it, without reflecting
it. In nature there are no blacks bodies, but there are objects that approximate very well
their behavior, at least within a specified frequency band.
We can imagine the telescope like a sky thermometer: the temperature measured,
the brightness temperature, will be proportional to the physical temperature of the region
”seen” by the antenna through a coefficient called emissivity of that region. The emissivity
of a material is a measure of its ability to radiate energy and is a function of the chemicalphysical properties of the radio source and the frequency characteristics. A black body
emissivity is equal to 1, thus having a brightness temperature coincident with its physical
temperature, while a material body (gray body) has an emissivity between 0 and 1, so a
brightness temperature inferior to its physical temperature.
As we will see, the technology of a radio telescope is not substantially different from
that of a home radio-receiving apparatus (such as, for example, a television, a car radio or
a mobile phone): obviously, some features are specialized and performance are optimized
to measure the very weak signals from space. In radio astronomy it is fundamental (and
hard...) to highlight the weak noise from radio sources (useful signal) with respect to
the noise generated by the electronics and the environment (unwanted signal), that is
usually very intense: these ”hiss” on the background, electrically similar to those we
hear when on an FM radio no station is tuned, have the same nature and are, in principle,
The Earth Atmosphere
The official classification of the frequency bands of the radio spectrum is shown in the
figure 1.5.
Our atmosphere restricts the frequencies usable for radio astronomical observations
carried out from the Earth’s surface, since it behaves as a true barrier against the electromagnetic radiation coming from space. In fact, the direct measurement of the cosmic
radiation is limited to two ”windows” of the electromagnetic spectrum, one comprised
between about 0.3 and 0.8 micrometers (visible band, with amplitude of about one octave) and one between about 1 centimeter and 1 meter wavelength (radio band, with
amplitude greater than 10 octaves). The ”radio” window is itself bounded below by the
shielding effects of the ionosphere (electrically charged particles that act as a reflector for
radio waves), and above by the molecular absorption phenomena due to water vapor
and oxygen (figures 1.10, 1.11 and A.1).
For these reasons, as can be seen from the graphs in figure 1.7, the range of useful
radio frequencies for radio astronomical observations from the ground is between about
20 MHz and 20 GHz.
Amateur Radio Astronomy
Admiring the technology and the structural impressiveness of professional radio telescopes, not to mention the ”astronomic” costs, it is legitimate to ask ourselves whether it
Chapter 1. The basics of Radio Astronomy
F IGURE 1.5: Classification in the frequency bands of the radio spectrum.
from the
Earth's surface
F IGURE 1.6: Representation of the electromagnetic spectrum: the radio
”window” has been highlighted.
1.4. Amateur Radio Astronomy
F IGURE 1.7: Effects of Earth’s atmosphere, well visible when comparing
the graphs that represent the radio ”window” of the electromagnetic spectrum seen from the ground and from a radio telescope operating in space.
makes sense to talk about amateur radio astronomy and, if so, what are its real possibilities of experimentation reachable by amateurs.
Many among professionals of the ”visible” sky , like amateur astronomers, have fragmentary news on radio astronomy techniques, and those that strike the imagination apply to the large research instruments. The widespread opinion is that radio astronomy is
a discipline essentially inaccessible to amateurs, with limited possibilities of amateur experimentation, therefore uninteresting to expand their knowledge of the sky. Of course,
things are different, because there is a whole interesting and fascinating world to discover.
To overcome these obstacles it is important to start our journey from the basics, beginning from concrete projects, economic and easy to implement, with ”certain” and
repeatable performance. It is necessary to understand the limits reachable by amateur
activity emphasizing, however, the many interesting opportunities for experimentation.
It is essential to start with simple projects of immediate success, so you can gradually
gain confidence with the instrumental technique and the practice of radio astronomy observation, not obvious at all. You will need a bit of willpower to invest time and patience
in a gradual approach to a discipline that is certainly less immediate and ”spectacular”
than the observation of the visible sky, since the human being is not sensible to radio
waves. In this field, the ”visualization” of the cosmic scenario and the ”extraction” of
the information that results is not immediate: you will need specific instruments (radio
telescopes) that can detect radio signals and display them.
Then there is the equipment problem. Do you have to be electronic experts to realize
everything in the house? Not necessarily.
Those who have practical knowledge are, of course, advantaged, but on the web you
can find excellent examples of construction of small radio telescopes. However, to make
the approach to radio astronomy easy for any goodwill person, we will propose the construction of a microwave receiver based on a modular philosophy that favors simplicity,
economy and the reuse of the parts for expansions and for future developments.
Anyone can build a radio telescope to explore the fascinating world of amateur radio
Chapter 1. The basics of Radio Astronomy
Parabolic Dish with Offset
Feedhorn (790 x 715 mm)
30 meters of
coaxial cable
RAL10 Microwave Radiometer
F IGURE 1.8: A lunar transit observation with an amateur telescope based
on the RAL10 receiver.
How, what and where to look
The radio astronomy observation ”par excellence” (and the easiest one) consists in determining the variation of the intensity of the signal received during the apparent transit of
a radio source (such as the Sun or the Moon) in the ”field of view” of the antenna (the
so-called recording at transit). You orient the telescope at the sky area where the passage
of the radio source is foreseen, in its apparent motion, and wait for the formation of the
classic ”bell” track in the acquisition software (figure 1.8).
The next step, a bit more complex and laborious, contemplates the recording of signal
intensity received from different directions of the sky. Slowly and methodically collecting
a series of measures, you can fill in a ”radio-map” of the observed sky region. Obviously
”tracking” observations of the radio sources are possible, such as, for example, when you
want to monitor solar activity. This requires motorized and automated equipment for the
handling of the orientation system of the antenna.
Why start with a microwave instrument? It will be clear in a moment.
The antenna is the most important component of a radio telescope, being the collector of cosmic radiation: the sensitivity and performances of the instrument will therefore
be proportional to the size of the antenna (let’s leave out for a moment the economical,
positioning and installation problems). It is also known that, once laid down the requirements in the sensitivity and the resolution power for the radio telescope, the dimensions
needed for the antenna increase considerably with the decreasing of the operating frequency. Only this aspect is sufficient to create a mass of doubts and pose a problem to
those who intend to start an amateur radio astronomy activity.
We therefore ask ourselves:
• in which frequency band is it better to work?
• what radio sources can be observed with a small telescope?
1.5. How, what and where to look
F IGURE 1.9: Spectra of the main radio sources in the radio band.
• are there any special requirements in the choice installation site of the instrument?
The answers are all connected between each other.
The mechanisms that explain the emissions of radio sources are complex, linked to
their chemical-physical characteristics. As a first approach will be enough to catalog the
most intense radio objects in the sky and discover how does their emission vary at different frequencies (radio source spectra). Taking into account the limitations in sensitivity
of amateur instruments due mainly to poor effective area of the antenna, a first reasonable choice seems to favor the frequencies where the radio sources are more intense and
numerous. As we see from the chart in figure 1.9, besides the Sun and Moon that behave
more or less as blacks bodies in the radio band (at least for what concerns the emission
of the quiet Sun), other radio sources radiate with greater intensity for frequencies below
1 GHz, with a mechanism (called non-thermal) increasing with a decreasing frequency.
However, we need to consider the radio ”crowding” in the area where we will install the telescope, due to the presence of various interferences. The artificial noise, very
intense in urban and industrialized areas, is a big problem in radio astronomy observation: the radio spectrum is practically saturated with signals and spurious emissions of
various kinds.
The most common natural sources of interference are lightnings, atmospheric electrical discharges, radio emissions produced by charged particles in the upper atmosphere
(ionospherical disturbances), emissions from atmospheric gases and precipitations.
Artificial interferences are caused by the distribution and transformation of electric
power, by the radar transmissions for the control of the military and civil air traffic, by
terrestrial transmitting stations used for radio and television broadcasting services, by
Chapter 1. The basics of Radio Astronomy
the transmitters and transponders on artificial satellites, and by mobile phone network
and military stations.
The graph in figure 1.11 highlights the fact that the intensity of the artificial and natural disturbances decreases with an increasing frequency: for this reason the installation of
a radio telescope at 10-12 GHz in the ”back yard” or in urban areas is conceivable, while
the receiving at the lowest frequencies is very difficult. In the latter case, we must opt for
a rural area, electromagnetically more ”quiet”, admitted that you find one.
Indeed, the choices based on the analysis of the spectrum of radio sources are contrary
to those deriving from the analysis of the spectrum of disturbances: we have a ”pro” and
”cons” tie. Decisive will be the technological and economic considerations.
An amateur radio telescope ”for all” should be easily achievable, economic and of immediate operation: the heart of the instrument should be a module designed ad hoc for
radio astronomy that integrates the essential parts of a basic radio astronomy receiver.
Around this core, the researcher completes the telescope using commercial parts and
modules, economic and easily available. All this is possible thanks to the spread of satellite TV reception in the 10-12 GHz band, and the availability of antennas, amplifiers, cables and a host of accessories, new and recycled, suitable for building a perfect amateur
radio telescope.
We know that the antenna size greatly influences the performances and final cost
of a radio telescope. Also the commercial availability of this critical component plays
a fundamental role. If we consider that, with the same antenna gain (is a measure
of its ability to pick up weak signals in specified directions of space), its dimensions
(weight and size) decrease with increasing frequency, we can understand how possible (and simple and economic) it is to build our first radio telescope, using a common
parabolic reflector antenna of 1 meter diameter for TV-SAT operating at 10-12 GHz. On
the other hand, a parabolic reflector antenna is the most economic structure in the perfomances/dimensions ratio. The only drawback is the limited number of radio sources
measurable at these frequencies : the Sun and the Moon, with small diameter antennas.
However, being their radiation very intense, their study is an excellent starting point to
start familiarizing with the tools and techniques of radio astronomy, waiting for more demanding observations. To record weaker radio sources, like Taurus, Cassiopeia, Cygnus
and Virgo, you need larger antennas, keeping the rest of the system unvaried.
The Antenna
In a radio telescope, the antenna converts the incident electromagnetic energy into a voltage, then amplified and processed by the receiver. The antenna function is analogous to
that performed by a lens or a mirror for an optical instrument: a leading role with regard
to the performance of the instrument (and its cost).
The topic is very wide and specialized: we will face only some of the essential aspects for the understanding of the measurement process of the sky brightness temperature
performed by a simple total power radio telescope.
The study of antennas comes from the theory of electromagnetic radiation and the
analysis of electromagnetic fields generated by sources in free space. The mechanism of
the radiation is no more than the energy of the electromagnetic waves supplied by the
sources and transported at a great distance as a result of propagation.
We use the term directivity to quantify the ability of an antenna to receive energy from
a privileged direction, while the main parameter that characterizes it is the effective area, ie
the ratio between the power delivered to the load (of the antenna) and the density of the
incident power in conditions of adaptation. The effective area of the receiving antenna is
1.6. The Antenna
F IGURE 1.10: Brightness temperature of the sky at the zenith, measured with
a radiometer at 11.2 GHz. We registered wide variations in the typical
emission of the atmosphere, due to the presence of rain-bearing clouds
formation and of precipitations (corresponding to the signal peaks in the
recording). While the clear and dry sky in an area free from radio sources
(at 10-12 GHz) is a very ”cold” scenario, characterized by a brightness temperature inferior to 10 K, in presence of idrometeors it becomes a very ”hotter” object, with temperatures up to 200 K if the precipitations are very
intense. You can see how, operating at these frequencies, the tropospheric
disturbances are important sources of interference for radio astronomy observations, hiding the weak radiation coming from outer space. The effects
of tropospheric disturbances become less significant at lower frequencies,
as can be seen from the graph of figure 1.11.
Chapter 1. The basics of Radio Astronomy
F IGURE 1.11: Natural and man-made noise power as a function of frequency. The estimated levels in the range from 100 MHz to 100 GHz are
reported (Recommendation ITU-R P.372-7 “Radio Noise”).
1.6. The Antenna
therefore the ideal surface, which produces useful power, pulling it out from the incident
radiation. This parameter depends only on the antenna characteristics and is a quantity
that measures its efficiency as a collector of radio waves. It is important to note that an
elementary antenna is sensitive to only a polarized component of the random incident
radiation (vertical or horizontal, circular right or left), extracting from this only 50% of
the energy.
The great advantage of the directive antenna is the ability to eliminate the signal contributions from unwanted directions improving the reception quality in the direction of
interest, with a particularly intense signal when the radio source is in a predetermined
direction with respect to the antenna. Another very important feature is the resolving
power, ie the ability to separate (resolve) two close objects in space, then ”see” the fine
structural details of an extended radio source. This parameter is proportional to the ratio
between the wavelength of the radiation received and the antenna physical size (calculated in wavelength): it will not be possible to distinguish angular details inferior to this
These characteristics of the antenna define the performance of the radio telescope.
An antenna widely used in the microwave band is the paraboloid reflector, characterized by a very narrow and symmetrical reception lobe. Its qualities derive precisely
from the focussing properties of the parabola: the picked energy, coming from a distant
source, is reflected by the surface of the reflector and focused at a point where the external reception unit (LNB) is positioned. The possibility of having a single focal point
is very interesting, since if the collecting device (illuminator) is well placed, all the incident electromagnetic energy picked up by the reflector may be used to extract the useful
The gain achieved by an antenna with parabolic reflector can be estimated using the
Ga = η ·
where D is the diameter of the antenna (in meters). The parameter η is called efficiency:
usually between 0.45 and 0.55, it takes into account all the factors (errors on the surface,
contructive tolerances, focus errors, excessive amplitude of the secondary lobes, etc.) that
can reduce the maximum teorical gain achievable.
The Half Power Beam Width HP BW of the antenna can be measured using the following approximate formula:
(60 ÷ 70) · λ
Through these relations it can be seen how the antenna gain is directly proportional
to its size, the opposite happens for the width of the receiving beam: a high gain antenna
will have a narrower reception beam and will be, therefore, more directive.
The possible structures of an antenna system vary greatly depending on the operating
frequency and the type of application. At lower frequencies, the antennas are mainly
of wire type (metal dipoles), while at high frequencies (microwave) they are made of
radiating elements more easily referable to waveguides (horn and slot antennas) and
to optical systems (parabolic reflector antennas). In professional radio astronomy there
are composite systems made up of many elements (arrays) and/or focusing elements
of optical type (reflectors, lenses): it is always necessary that the dimensions are always
greater than the operational wavelength, resulting, at low frequencies, in the construction
of structures of impressive complexity and costs.
Chapter 1. The basics of Radio Astronomy
The temperature of the antenna represents the signal power actually available at the
input of the receiver, and so the energy captured from a specific region of the sky that
radiates with a given brightness temperature. In the measurement process it is important
to consider the effect of spatial ”filtering” produced by the shape of the antenna reception
diagram: this operation is mathematically described by the convolution of the functions
that describe the antenna directive properties and the brightness profile of the observed
scenario. The antenna of a radio telescope tends, therefore, to ”level”, to ”dilute” the distribution of real brilliance that will be ”weighted” by the shape of its reception diagram.
The extent of the spatial variations of brightness observed will approximate the real one
only if the angular dimensions of the radio source are extensive with respect to those of
the antenna beam.
Therefore, the problem that arises to the observer is to obtain the true distribution of
the brightness temperature starting from the measurement of the antenna’s temperature:
it is necessary to perform an operation of deconvolution between the distribution of the
equivalent temperature of the antenna (brightness measured) and the function describing
the antenna reception diagram. It is therefore very important to know the shape of the
directive diagram of a radio telescope.
All the space that surrounds an antenna helps to increase its equivalent noise temperature, according to its directives characteristics. If the antenna has secondary lobes of too
high a level, when directing the main lobe toward a given region of space the antenna’s
temperature may receive a non-negligible energy contribution from other directions, in
particular from the soil (very extended and warm object with a brightness temperature of
the order of 240-300 K). If the antenna of a radio telescope is oriented toward the sky, it
can pick up thermal radiation from the soil only through its secondary lobes: this contribution depends on their width compared to that of the main lobe.
The figure 1.12 shows the track (simulated and real) of the Moon transit (flux of the
order of 52600 Jy at 11.2 GHz) ”seen” by a typical amateur radio telescope realised with
RAL10KIT and a parabolic reflector antenna for TV-SAT of 1.5 meters diametre (beam
width under 1.5 degrees).
To highlight the effect of distortion created by the antenna on the spatial brightness
profile of a region of the sky, we simulated the response of the instrument approximating
the antenna as a circular opening uniformly illuminated. The graphs show, superimposed for clarity of representation, the tracks of the brightness temperature profile of the
Moon (apparent diameter of about half a degree), and the corresponding antenna temperature measured by the radio telescope during the transit of the radio source (ideal
theoretical conditions). There are also shown the radiometric responses of the radio telescope, expressed in arbitrary units of ADC count count, of the simulated transit and the
”true” one.
In conclusion, the important issue that must be emphasized concerns the effect produced by the antenna of a radio telescope on the measurement of the scenario observed.
When we analyze the recording of the transit of a radio source, for example, we observe
a track which does not correspond to the ”true” brightness profile of the scenario, but to
one of its distorted version that is the convolution between the form of the reception diagram of the antenna and the real brightness distribution (the latter is ”weighted” by the
antenna directives characteristics). The effect is the more pronounced the greater the amplitude of the reception of the antenna beam with respect to the apparent angular size of
the radio source. On the contrary, you can measure without distortion the spatial profile
of the brightness temperature of radio source only if its angular size is very large compared
to the width of the antenna beam.
1.6. The Antenna
brightness temperature of the sky
Radio source
the radio telescope
Misura del
antenna temperature (measured)
Transito simulato
transit ofdella
the Moon
the Moon
F IGURE 1.12: The profile of the Moon’s temperature detected by a radio
telescope (antenna’s temperature) during a transit is different from the
”true” profile of its brightness temperature given that the measurement process performed by the antenna is a convolution between the real brightness
temperature of the scenario observed and the shape of its reception diagram.
The antenna of a radio telescope, then, ”dilutes” the true distribution of
brightness observed: the magnitude of the distortion is due to the spatial
filtering characteristics of the antenna and is linked to the relationship between the angular sizes of the reception beam and the apparent ones of the
radio source. No distortion occurs if the antenna reception diagram is very
narrow compared to the angular extension of the source. The graphs show
a comparison between the simulated recording of the lunar transit and the
actual observation (performed by Mr. Giancarlo Madiai with RAL10KIT).
Chapter 1. The basics of Radio Astronomy
F IGURE 1.13: Block diagram of a Total Power Receiver.
It’s easy to understand how this problem is particularly relevant for amateur radio
telescopes that use individual small antennas, with amplitudes of the reception lobe comparable to the angular dimensions of radio sources like the Sun and the Moon (about half
a degree), or much larger compared to all other radio sources that can rightly be considered ”punctiform” when ”seen” by these small instruments. All this is not valid for the
Galaxy that, in the radio band, is characterized by a remarkable angular extension.
The Total Power Radiometer
A microwave receiver is a very sensitive receiver used to measure the electromagnetic
radiation emitted by the scenario observed by the antenna (the average power of the
radiation picked up by the antenna) within a specific frequency band, showing how the
received signal power varies over time.
Any body with a temperature over the absolute zero emits electromagnetic energy
(Planck’s radiation law) over the whole spectrum, with a maximum at a frequency directly
proportional to its temperature. For most of natural bodies the emission peak takes place
in the infrared region. Plank’s law describes the radiation of a black body, an ideal object
perfectly efficient in transforming all its thermal energy in electromagnetic radiation.
In the microwave region, Planck’s law can be simplified in the Rayleigh-Jeans approximation that provides a correspondance between the power of the radiant energy captured
by the antenna of a radiometer and the measured temperature of the antenna, quantity
that depends on the source, on the characteristics of the measuring instrument and on
the surrounding environment. The temperature of the antenna will correspond to the effective brightness temperature of the scenario observed (which is a emitting characteristic
typical of the source) only in ideal conditions, so when the antenna beam is very narrow with respect to the spatial distribution of brightness observed and when the noise
contributions coming from its secondary lobes (soil, interfering sources - paragraph 1.6)
are insignificant. For this reason in radio astronomy it is convenient to express power
in terms of radiometric equivalent temperature or brightness temperature of an object (expressed in Kelvin) to indicate the amount of its thermal radiation.
Essentially, it is always possible to define a black body temperature (called brightness
temperature) that radiates the same power of the one dissipated by a terminating resistor
1.7. The Total Power Radiometer
connected to a receiving antenna. The radiometer then behaves like a termometre that
measures the brightness temperature of the sky scenario observed.
The simplest microwave receiver (figure 1.13) includes an antenna connected to a low
noise amplifier followed by a quadtratic carachteristic detector providing the ”useful”
information, which is the power associated to the received signal. To reduce the contribution of the statistical fluctuations of the revealed noise at the output of the detector,
and then optimise the sensitiveness of the receiving system, there follows a integrating
block (basically a passband filter) which calculates the time average of the measurement
basing on a determined time constant.
The signal at the integrator’s output is an almost continuous component consisting of
the average value of the receiver background noise and the small variations (typically of
much lower amplitude than that of the stationary component) caused by the emission of
radio sources. This device is called total power receiver because it measures both the power
of the radiation captured by the antenna and the one of the system’s background noise.
Using a differential circuit of post-detection, if the receiver parameters are stable, you
can only measure the power variations due to radiation from the antenna, eliminating
the almost continuous component of the internal noise.
In practice, a total power radiometer uses a typical frequency conversion circuit (heterodyne) where the signal picked up by the antenna, amplified and filtered by low noise
electronic devices, is applied to a multiplier (mixer) which, supplied by a sinusoidal signal from a local oscillator (OL), performs the translation in frequency (downwards) of
the received signal. So it will be technically easier to define the bandwidth of the receiver
and amplify the signal before the detection. A schematization of the signals during the
computing process in the various stages of a total power receiver is shown in figure 1.14.
It is important to note that the quadratic detection and subsequent integration does
not preserve the spectral characteristics of the signal: they provide a single value that
represents its average power within the receiver passband. If you use stable and broadband receivers (the amplification factor of the system and the characteristic of the detector should not change during the measurement) you will reach very high sensitivity,
also thanks to the possibility of integrating the detected signal with long time constants,
assuming that the phenomena that is being studied is sufficiently stationary in time.
It is possible to determine the theoretical sensitivity of a total power receiver, then
evaluate the slightest change in the noise equivalent temperature ∆T measurable by the
system, using the radiometer equation:
∆T = √
τ ·B
where Tsys = Ta + Tr = Ta + T0 · (Fr − 1) is the noise temperature of the radio
telescope, Ta is the noise temperature of the antenna, Tr = T0 · (Fr − 1) is the noise
temperature of the receiver (T0 = 290K and Fr is the noise figure of the receiver), τ is
the time constant of the integrator (expressed in seconds) and B is receiver bandwidth
(in Hz). The temperatures are expressed in K. Any radio source ”seen” by the antenna
will produce a slight change in the antenna temperature Ta which represents our ”useful
To optimize the performance of the radio telescope is desirable to minimize ∆T acting
on the system parameters Ta , Tr , B in the receiver’s designing phase, on the integration
time τ in the setting of the operating parameters during the operation of the system.
You can make ∆T smaller making sure that Tsys is minimal, or B and τ are as large as
Once the receiver parameters are fixed, like the noise temperature of the system and
its passband, the sensitivity can be optimized choosing a proper value for the integration
Chapter 1. The basics of Radio Astronomy
F IGURE 1.14: Changes in the signal picked up by the antenna while it is
processed by the various stages of a Total Power Receiver (radiometer). To
the left are described the signals as a function of time at a given frequency,
to the right is shown the variation of power as a function of frequency
(spectrum). The block diagram of the receiver represents a frequency conversion structure: the received signal is shifted in frequency (downwards)
through a mixer driven by the local oscillator (OL). At the mixer utput can
be found an intermediate frequency signal (IF) subsequently amplified, detected and integrated.
1.7. The Total Power Radiometer
constant of the detected signal. To increase this parameter means to apply a gradual filtering and ”leveling” on the variability of the phenomena observed: changes in the signal
duration of less than τ are ”concealed” and you can alter (or lost) the information on the
temporal evolution of the quantity studied. For a correct registration of phenomena with
own variations of a certain duration it is essential to establish a value for the integration
constant sufficiently smaller than such duration. If you observe, for example, a radio
source with little apparent diameter that crosses the main lobe of a radio telescope (transit instrument) at a certain time, it is not possible to integrate the detected signal with a
too large time constant, without changing the received signal strength and the location
of the radio source (apparent time of transit).
A simple way to estimate the maximum usable value for the integration time τ of a
signal characterized by temporal variability equal to ∆t is given by the approximated
τ ≤ 0.35 · ∆t
The times are expressend in seconds. This relationship is based on the consideration
that, to preserve the characteristics of the integrated signal variability, while eliminating
most of the disturbances and of the superimposed noise on a high frequency, it is necessary to integrate this signal with a time constant such that the equivalent noise bandwidth
of the integrator (that is a low-pass filter) is approximately equal to the signal occupation
in band.
The main problem of radiometric measurements concerns the instability of the receiver parameters with respect to the changes in the ambient temperature. If the total
amplification of the instrument is very high, typically exceeding 100 dB, it’s easy to observe fluctuations in the output signal, due to small changes in the receiver parameters,
that produce ambiguities and limit the sensitivity and accuracy of the measurements.
This problem can be partially solved with satisfactory results in amateur applications,
by thermally stabilizing the receiver and the external electronic unit (LNB) placed on
the antenna focal point, where it is more exposed to daily temperature ranges. You can
also develop compensation procedures of the thermal drift ”a posteriori” on the data
acquired by measuring the internal temperature of the instrument, characterizing the
behavior of the receiver compared to the daily temperature changes and implementing a
compensation algorithm on radiometric samples acquired tending to minimize variations
in the instrumental response due to temperature only.
Chapter 2
A radio telescope for everyone
Total Power Radio Telescope at 11.2 GHz
In this chapter we will propose the construction of a small but efficient radio telescope
operating at 11.2 GHz, equipped with a parabolic reflector antenna of about one meter
in diameter, able to measure the brightness temperature of the Sun and the Moon, to
highlight the non-thermal component of solar radiation (at these frequencies the most
intense phenomena are detectable) and of the interstellar medium in the galaxy, besides
the earth’s atmosphere radiation.
This tool can be considered the starting point of amateur radio astronomy and a great
”gym” to become familiar with the radio astronomy techniques. It will be possible, with a
simple calibration procedure (Chapter 3), to turn the telescope into a measuring tool that
estimates the brightness temperature of the scenario observed. To observe other objects
you will only need to use larger antennas.
Such a tool is cheap and easy to install: once the few necessary connections are made
(coaxial cable carrying the signal from the antenna to the receiver, USB cable for connection to the acquisition PC and power supply), you are immediately ready for radio
The best experimental approach to radio astronomy always involves starting with
compact, ”handy” instruments that observe the most intense radio sources in the sky,
such as the Sun and Moon: in this way it’s easy to learn the instrumental and observation
technique, you learn how to calibrate the instrument, and you understand the process
of radiometric measuring, with the various issues that make the measurement difficult
and uncertain. As repeatedly stressed, we are convinced that the best way to gain knowledge and expertise with radio astronomy is, without doubt, the one that involves the
construction and implementation of a small telescope.
You have seen that the core on which the operation of the radio telescope is based is
a total power radiometer. Our project involves the use of microwave receivers especially
developed for this application: the RAL10KIT radiometer kit or the RAL10AP receiver,
combined with the software Aries for data acquisition and control.
The radio telescope, then, makes use of the following components:
• Parabolic reflector antenna for TV-SAT with diameter of about 1 mt, including external unit (LNB) and illuminator;
• Coaxial cable of 75 Ω for TV-SAT;
• RAL10KIT radiometer kit or the RAL10AP receiver;
• Aries software for the measurement acquisition and the receiver control;
• Personal Computer (PC) to handle the station.
Chapter 2. A radio telescope for everyone
The antenna, the external unit (LNB) and coaxial cable are standard components used
for the reception of satellite TV, available everywhere at low cost. There are no limits in
the choice of models: with the RAL10KIT module or the RAL10AP receiver any device
can be used.
As for the antenna, the market for satellite TV offers many choices: the most common
ones are the offset type antennas, for the best performance/size ratio they offer with
respect to the symmetrical circular ones. To ensure proper operation, it is essential to
use kits that include, in one package, the external units (LNB) with feeds and mechanical
supports suitable for the specific antenna, which enables the correct ”illumination” and
the optimum focus for that kind of reflector.
Using imagination and building skills you can realize automatic tracking systems, at
least for medium antennas, drawing from the radio amateur equipment market. The
reduced dimensions and the lightness of this radio telescope make it possible to use
a (equatorial) mount, manual or motorized, like those normally used by amateur astronomers to support and drive the optical instruments. Also in this case there is great
room for imagination and inventiveness: it is certainly possible to develop an attaching
system for this mount in order to replace the telescopic tube with the antenna of the radio telescope. Those who own and are familiar with the use of these tools, will have
no difficulty in exploiting the system to manage the antenna of the radio telescope. The
practicality of this solution for the measurement, by tracking, of the solar radio flux is
clear. There are many examples of interesting and ingenious creations on the web. Very
useful for the correct aiming and for the planning of observing sessions are the sky mapping programs that reproduce, in any location, date and time, the exact location and the
movements of celestial objects with remarkable accuracy.
As mentioned, essentially all external units (LNB) existing on the market for satellite
TV at 10-12 GHz can be used, with the intermediate frequency output 950-2150 MHz.
In modern devices you can manage the polarization change (horizontal or vertical) with
a voltage step, typically 12.75-17.25 V: the RAL10KIT and RAL10AP receivers support
this feature through a control via software. A coaxial cable for TV-SAT (75 Ω) of suitable
length, terminated with F-type connectors, will link the RF-IF output of the external unit
(LNB) with the RAL10KIT or RAL10AP receiver input.
It is recommended to choose the best quality cables, with low loss. In some cases,
when you observe weak radio sources or when the coaxial line is very long, you may
need to enter an line IF amplifier (10 to 15 dB of gain) between the external unit and the
receiver. These products can be easily found in any electronics supermarket or the best
installers of satellite TV systems.
The simplest radio astronomy observation consists in determining the variation of the
intensity of the signal received during the ”crossing” of a radio source (such as the Sun or
the Moon) in the ”field of view” of the antenna (the so-called recording to the transit). You
orient the radio telescope at the sky area where the passage of the radio source is foreseen,
in its apparent motion, and wait for the formation of the classic ”bell” track in the capture
software. The figure 2.1 shows a solar transit recorded with our radio telescope.
If the antenna is controlled by a motorized mount and connected to the PC via one
of the various programs normally used by amateur astronomers, it will be interesting to
monitor the changes over time of the solar radiation in the band 10-12 GHz, chasing the
object during the day.
Other interesting experiences concern the observation of the Moon (which behaves
like a black body at 200 K), the observation of the galaxy and of the terrestrial atmosphere
2.2. The microRAL10 Radiometric Module
Tests of radio astronomy @ 11.2 GHz : the radio signals from the Sun with RAL10AP.
F IGURE 2.1: Test of the reception of the Sun with the RAL10AP receiver.
The microRAL10 Radiometric Module
It is interesting to describe briefly the characteristics of the microRAL10 radiometric module which forms the central core of the RAL10KIT and RAL10AP radiometers. The figure
2.2 shows the structure of the device.
The intermediate frequency signal (IF) from the external unit (LNB) is applied to the
microRAL10 module that, with a bandwidth of 50 MHz centered on the 1415 MHz frequency, filters, amplifies and measures the received signal power (detection block). A
post-detection amplifier adjusts the detected signal level at the acquisition dynamics of
the analog-to-digital converter (ADC with 14 bit resolution) that ”digitizes” the radiometric information.
This final block, run by a processor, generates a programmable offset for the radiometric baseline (it is the signal ZERO_BASE in figure 2.2), calculates the average value on
an established number of samples and forms the serial data packet that will be sent to the
PC. The data acquired by the radiometric measures and the operating parameters of the
radiometer are managed by a proprietary communication protocol via the serial port. A
non-volatile internal memory allows the recording of the optimal settings of the operating parameters: once the system for a particular application is calibrated, if the recording
command of the set parameters is sent (paragraph 2.6), their values are preserved when
removing and restoring the supply voltage on the module. The processor performs the
processing and control functions minimizing the number of external electronic components and maximizing the flexibility of the system.
The use of a module expressly designed for radio astronomy, which integrates all the
functionality required by a radiometer, provides the experimenter with safe and repeatable performance. microRAL10 implements all the necessary functions for a microwave
radiometer suitable for radio astronomy, with particular attention to the sensitivity and
stability requirements that such application requires.
Chapter 2. A radio telescope for everyone
F IGURE 2.2: Block diagram of the microRAL10 radiometric module, the
central core of the RAL10KIT and RAL10AP receivers.
MicroRAL10 represents the central block of the RAL10KIT and RAL10AP receivers
which have, therefore, identical performances. In fact, assuming that we use a good external unit (LNB), with a noise figure of about 0.3 dB and an average gain of 55 dB, you
can achieve a noise equivalent temperature of the order of 21 K and a gain in power of the
radio frequency chain of about 75 dB. These performances are suitable to build an amateur radio telescope to observe the most intense radio sources in the frequency 11.2 GHz.
The sensitivity of the system will depend, however, on the size of the antenna, while the
external thermal changes will affect the stability and repeatibility of the measurements.
The imagination and the skills of the experimenter are crucial to optimize the performance of an amateur radio telescope: the choice and adequate installation of radio frequency critical parts (antenna, feed and LNB), the implementation of countermeasures
that minimize the negative effects of thermal excursions, provide important advantages
in the final performance.
The following features specialize microRAL10 for amateur radio astronomy applications:
• Radiometer including the pass-band filter, the IF amplifier, the quadratic detector
with temperature compensation, the post-detection amplifier with programmable
gain, programmable offset of the base line and constant of integration, the analogto-digital converter (ADC) for the acquisition of the radio signal with 14-bit resolution, a processor to handle the device for serial communication. A regulator powers
the external unit (LNB) via the coaxial cable by switching on two different voltage
levels (about 12.75 V and 17.25 V) enabling the selection of polarization in reception
(horizontal or vertical).
• Central frequency and input bandwidth compatible with the frequency protected
in radio astronomy of 1420 MHz and the standard intermediate frequency values
(IF) for satellite TV. To define and limit the bandwidth of the receiver is important
to ensure repeatability in performance and to minimize the effects of external interference (the frequencies close to 1420 MHz should be free enough from emissions,
2.2. The microRAL10 Radiometric Module
Separating screen
Metal box screen
Post-detection section, control
and power supply
IF input 75 Ω
950-2250 MHz
RF pre-detection section,
1415 MHz SAW BPF (BW = 50 MHz),
RF amplification
(temperature compensated)
F IGURE 2.3: Internal particulars of the microRAL10 radiometric module,
the ”heart” of the radio telescope.
because reserved for radio astronomy research). The receiving frequency of the radio telescope will be close to 11.2 GHz when using standard external units (LNB)
with local oscillator at 9.75 GHz.
• Reduced power consumption, modularity, compactness, economy.
The electronics are assembled within a metal case comprising a F-type coaxial connector for the signal from the external unit (LNB) and a cable gland from which come the
cables for serial communication and those for the connection to the power supply (figure
The figure 2.4 shows the answer of the radiometer when a post-detection gain GAIN=7
is set and when a sinusoidal signal with a frequency of 1415 MHz is sent to the input of
the module. The graph shows the variation of the values at the radiometric output (expressed in arbitrary units count for the counting of the ADC) at the changing of the signal
power applied at the input (expressed in dBm). Tolerances in the nominal values of the
components, above all for what concerns the gain in operating devices and the detection
sensitivity in the diods, can create differences in the characteristic input-output among
different devices. It will be thus necessary to calibrate the measurement range of the instrument if you wish to achieve an absolute evaluation of the power associated to the
received radiation.
Let’s summarize the technical characteristics of the microRAL10 radiometric module:
• Input frequency RF-IF: 1415 MHz;
• Bandwidth: 50 MHz;
• Typical gain of the section RF-IF: 20 dB;
• Input impedence (Type-F connector): 75 Ω;
Chapter 2. A radio telescope for everyone
F IGURE 2.4: Input-output relationship of the microRAL10 module with a
post-detection gain GAIN=7 (voltage gain 168). In the abscissa is described
the level of the applied signal RF-IF power (expressed in dBm), in the ordinate the level of the signal acquired by the analog-to-digital converter
(expressed in relative units count).
• Handling of the polarization change (horizontal or vertical);
• Quadratic detector with temperature compensation (measurement of RF power).
• Offset setting for the radiometric baseline;
• Automatic calibration of the radiometric baseline;
• Programmable gain of the post-detection voltage : from 42 to 1008 in 10 steps.
• Programmable integration constant (from 0.1 seconds to 26 seconds);
• Acquisition of the radiometric signal with ADC nominal resolution 14-bit.
• Processor that controls the receiving system and handles the serial communication.
• Storage of the radiometer parameters (non-volatile internal memory).
• USB interface (B-type connector) for the connection with the PC.
• Compatible with the acquisition and control software Aries.
• Supply voltages: 7-12 Vdc / 50 mA.
• Power supply for LNB via coaxial cable, protected by internal fuse.
As mentioned, you can set via software the operating parameters of the radiometer
by using appropriate commands encoded in the device communication protocol, automatically handled by the software Aries(paragraph 2.6). These parameters are:
• ZERO_BASE: is a value proportional to the reference voltage Vrif , shown in the
block diagram of the total power radiometer in figure 1.13, used to set an offset on the radiometric baseline. It is possible to automatically adjust the value of
ZERO_BASE activating the calibration procedure that places the reference level of
the received signal (corresponding to ”zero”) in the middle of the measuring range.
2.3. The radio astronomy kit RAL10KIT
Costante di tempo dell’integratore τ [s]
TABLE 2.1: Time constant of the integrator depending on the value set for
the parameter INTEGRATOR.
• GAIN: it is the amplification factor of the detected signal.
• INTEGRATOR: it is the value of the integration constant τ of the radiometric measurement, result of the calculation of a moving average performed on
signal samples acquired. By increasing this value you reduce the importance of the
statistical fluctuation of the noise on the measurement, improving the sensitivity of
the system. The parameter INTEGRATOR reduces the detected signal fluctuations
with an efficiency proportional to its value. As with any process of integration of the
measurement, it must be considered a delay in the recording of the signal related
to the sampling time of the information, the conversion time of the analog-digital
converter and to the number of samples used to calculate the average (paragraph
1.7). It is possible to estimate the value of the time constant τ (expressed in seconds)
referring to the table 2.1.
• POL: it defines the polarization used in the external LNB.
These parameters can be stored in the internal non-volatile memory of the device.
The radio astronomy kit RAL10KIT
RAL10KIT is a radio astronomy kit for experimenters with a minimum of practice in the
electronic assembly that wish to ”home-build” the receiver for the radio telescope. As
you can see in figure 2.5, the package includes the microRAL10 radiometric module, the
USB interface to connect with the PC, the assembly instructions and the software Aries
for the control and acquisition. The modules are pre-assembled and tested: they only
have to be enclosed in a suitable case, completed with a power supply, a coaxial cable
and a common antenna with an external unit (LNB) operating in the 10-12 GHz satellite
TV band (figure 2.7). The first microwave radio telescope is thus created.
The figure 2.8 shows the wiring diagram of the RAL10KIT and all the information
needed to connect the supply cables: you can use any supply circuit, stabilized and well
filtered, or a commercial power supply suited to provide the voltages and the currents
indicated. It is advisable to enclose the modules, including the power supply, in a metal
casing which acts as a screen for the receiver. As you can see in the diagram, the USB
interface module is designed for panel mounting: it will be necessary to prepare the holes
and slots for the fastening screws, for the red and green LEDs that indicate the activity of
the serial communication and the type B USB connector.
Chapter 2. A radio telescope for everyone
F IGURE 2.5: RAL10KIT provided by RadioAstroLab.
F IGURE 2.6: RAL10KIT: you can see the microRAL10 radiometric module
that is the heart of the receiver.
2.3. The radio astronomy kit RAL10KIT
F IGURE 2.7: Structure of a microwave radio telescope (11.2 GHz) built with
RAL10KIT. The signal received by the satellite dish, amplified and converted in frequency from the external unit (LNB) to the IF standard band
TV-SAT 950-2250 MHz, is applied to the group RAL10KIT which processes
all the information and transmits it to the PC via a USB serial channel. The
software Aries captures the radiometric measurements, displays the data
as a graphic recorder and controls the receiver operating parameters.
F IGURE 2.8: Wiring scheme of the group RAL10KIT: the radiometric module microRAL10 (provided assembled and tested) is contained inside a
metal screened box which provides a coaxial F connector for the connection
with the signal from the external unit (LNB) (via a TV-SAT coaxial cable of
75 Ω) and a gum cable gland for the connections of the USB interface and
the power supply.
Chapter 2. A radio telescope for everyone
F IGURE 2.9: The RAL10AP receiver: you can see (on the top) the socket
for the mains power supply to 12 VDC, the fuse holder with interruption
indicated via led for the main power supply and the external unit power
supply through the coaxial cable (leds turn off when the respective fuse is
burnt out), the audio output of post-detection (BF-OUT) and the USB port
for the connection to your PC (the leds indicate the flow of data). On the
rear panel (below) is the F connector for the signal input (IN RF) coming
from the external unit.
The RAL10AP Receiver
The microwave receiver RAL10AP is a complete and simple total power radiometer, a
ready to use tool contained in an elegant and compact anodized aluminum case, provided with an external 12 V- 2A power supply. It is possible to power the device with a
battery to facilitate ”fieldwork” measures in remote locations where power supply is not
available from the network.
On the front panel there are fuses (with interruption signaled via LED) for the main
and for the external unit power supply (LNB) through the coaxial cable (figure 2.9).
The entrance of the instrument accepts frequencies in the 1390-1440 MHz band: a filter
defines the bandwidth of the receiving system and protects against interference, maintaining the possibility to receive the ”magic” frequency of the hydrogen at 1420 MHz.
The receiver amplifies and measures the received signal strength and, via an analog-todigital converter (ADC) with high resolution (14 bit), converts the detected signal into
digital form by positioning the level of ”zero” in the appropriate point of the range. The
critical functions of the receiver, as well as the ability to set various operating parameters
and communication with the PC via the USB interface module, are handled by the internal processor. To optimize the sensitivity of the system, you can integrate the detected
signal with a programmable time constant. The system is handled by the software Aries
for the data acquisition and the instrument control.
The technical characteristics of RAL10AP are identical to those of the RAL10KIT, since
this instrument too uses the microRAL10 radiometric module as base unit.
With RAL10AP you can build a microwave radio telescope identical to the one described in figure 2.7.
An interesting option, available only on RAL10AP, regards the audio output of postdetection: you can apply the detected signal to an external amplifier or the entrance of a
2.4. The RAL10AP Receiver
F IGURE 2.10: Internal structure of the RAL10AP receiver.
F IGURE 2.11: Test recording carried out with RAL10AP. For the experiment we used a pyramidal horn antenna (20 dB gain) with external
unit (LNB) positioned on a camera tripod and connected to the receiver
RAL10AP via coaxial cable. A portable PC records the radiometric signal at
11.2 GHz receiving data from the USB port (upward chart) while the audio
signal of post-detection is recorded as a spectrogram through the Spectrum
Lab software ( The
recordings show the radar signals in X band coming from the ships when
the antenna is oriented towards the sea.
Chapter 2. A radio telescope for everyone
Observing the Sun with RAL10AP
Signal to the audio output of post-detection:
power spectrum.
F IGURE 2.12: Observation of the solar transit with RAL10AP through frequency analysis (spectrogram) of the audio output of post-detection.
PC audio card to listen to the ”detected noise” for monitoring purposes. This signal, proportional to the received signal power density, can be studied in the frequency domain
using one of the many free programs downloadable from the web that display spectrograms in the audio band. As can be seen from the block diagram of figure 2.10, the audio
output is drawn after the post-detection amplifier, so its level depends on the level of
calibration of the radiometric base line. The figure 2.11 shows an example of use of the
post-detection audio output, not exactly radio astronomic, but useful to identify potential
interfering signals of artificial origin.
Since the RAL10AP receiver provides two outputs, you can monitor simultaneously
the radio source from two ”points of view”: the recording of the solar transit shown
in figure 2.1 is the result of the radiometric observation captured through via USB port
through the software Aries that documents the transit of the solar disk within the main
lobe of the antenna, while the spectrograms in figure 2.12 show the variation of the distribution in frequency of the revealed signal (the density power of the received signal)
during the transit. You can note the uniform increase of the background noise due to the
continuous spectrum radiation of the Sun thermal emission during the different steps of
the transit. With the PC speakers you can also listen to the corresponding increase in the
audio noise.
Setting of the operating parameters
The signal level at the output of the radio astronomy receiver is proportional to the power
associated with the radiation received, so to the brightness temperature of the sky region
”seen” by the antenna. Our radio telescope acts as a sensitive thermometer of the cosmos.
If the antenna is oriented toward a clear and dry region of the sky where radio sources
are absent, the instrument measures a very low noise equivalent temperature, generally
2.5. Setting of the operating parameters
of the order of 6-10 K (the so-called ”cold” sky ), corresponding to the minimum measurable temperature. By directing the antenna towards the ground the temperature rises
considerably, up to values of the order of 300 K. This simple procedure illustrates, roughly
and simplified, the technique usable to calibrate the telescope (chapter 3) and represents
a great test to verify the efficiency of the instrument.
When a typical amateur radio telescope is oriented toward the Sun, which at 11.2
GHz frequency appears as a disk of about half a degree and radiates like a black body
with brightness temperature almost equal to the superficial one (about 6000 K), the antenna
temperature measured by the instrument is of the order of 300-400 K, a considerably
lower value than the ”real” one. The radiation of the cosmic background, captured in
good proportion by the external crown of the antenna lobe, ”dilutes” the powerful solar
radiation if the antenna beam is ample as much as to gather a significant contribution
of it, and decreases the amplitude of the signal received as if it came from a source with
far lower temperature than the actual one. In paragraph 1.6 we illustrated the effects
of distortion caused in the shape of the reception diagram of an antenna on the ”real”
distribution in brightness of the observed scenario.
In this paragraph we will suggest how to set the parameters of the receiver before
starting a radio astronomy observation.
The first thing to do is to power up the receiver and wait until the instrument has
reached thermal stability. The instability of the system (the main problem of total power
radiometers) is mainly caused by changes in ambient temperature and in the radiometer internal temperature: before starting any measurement is advisable to wait at least
an hour after the switching on of the instrument to allow the reaching of the operating
temperature in the system of electronic circuits. This condition is checked by observing a
long-term stability of the radiometric signal when the antenna points a ”cold” region of
the sky (absence of radio sources): the fluctuations displayed by the graphic track on the
software Aries are minimal.
The GAIN amplification factor should be set on intermediate values (GAIN = 7).
Each installation will be characterized by different performance, being unpredictable the
characteristics of the components that will be chosen by the users. You may adjust the
value of this parameter starting with minimum test values (to avoid saturation of the receiving system), and subsequently optimizing with repeated scans of the same region of
the sky. To observe the Sun is advisable to choose GAIN = 7 (or lower values if the signal tends to saturate), to observe the Moon is better to start with GAIN = 10. However,
these settings are very influenced by the antenna dimensions and the characteristics of
the external unit (LNB) and should always be checked carefully.
Once found the appropriate values for the amplification factor, you can adjust the
integration constant INTEGRATOR to stabilize the measurement. It would probably be
better to begin with minimum values (0.1 seconds), adequate in most cases. As we have
seen, it is possible (and desirable) to improve the measurement sensitivity, at the cost of
slower system response and lags behind the signal changes, by adopting a longer time
constant: we recommend to increase the value of this parameter during the observation
of radio sources with relatively stationary emissions. When recording rapidly varying
phenomena or of transitory nature (as, for example, the microwave solar eruptions) it
will be appropriate to select the minimum value. It’s always possible to further increase
the integration of the received signal by adjusting the value SAMPLING in the software
Aries (paragraph 2.5).
The ZERO_BASE parameter defines the reference level (offset) of the radiometric
baseline: its proper setting depends on the global amplification of the receiver. As a general rule, you should define ZERO_BASE so that the minimum signal level corresponds to
the ”cold sky” (ideal reference) when the antenna ”sees” a region without radio sources:
Chapter 2. A radio telescope for everyone
an increase over to the reference will indicate the presence of a radio source. The location of the baseline on the measuring range is a function of the GAIN amplification factor
and of the value set for ZERO_BASE: if the signal tends to move outside of the measuring range (start-scale or end-scale) because of the internal drifts, it will be necessary
to manually change the value ZERO_BASE or activate the automatic calibration for the
radiometric baseline so as to position the track correctly.
If you use suitable external units (LNB), you can change the polarization in reception
to observe radio sources where an emission with a polarized component is predominating. In most of the observations accessible to the amateur the radio sources emit with
random polarization: in these cases it may be useful to change the polarization to minimize any interference of artificial origin.
When purchasing commercial products for satellite TV reception the position of the
illuminator (integrated with the external unit LNB) is generally fixed along the antenna
focal line. If it was mechanically possible and you want to improve the performance
of the radio telescope, you should orient the antenna in the direction of a sample radio
source (like the Sun) and toggle back and forth the illuminator position along the axis of
the parabola in order to register a maximum intensity signal. Repeated measures and lot
of patience help to reduce errors.
The confirmation for a correct setting of the receiver parameters requires some test
observations. This procedure, normally adopted also by professional radio observers,
allows you to ”tune” the telescope so that the dynamics of its response and the scale factor
are adequate to record the observed phenomenon without errors. If properly performed,
this initial setting (necessary especially when longer periods of observation are foreseen)
adjust the gain and offset of the scale for a correct measurement, avoiding risks of signal
saturations or resets with consequent loss of information. After the initial setup, it will
be preferable to store the radiometer settings by using the appropriate command.
It is always worth recalling how the main factor limiting the stability and accuracy
of the radiometric response are the temperature changes experienced by the radiometer,
especially from the external unit (LNB): these temperature changes cause small variation
in the front-end gain and the internal parameters of the radiometer, enough to cause significant fluctuations in the reference level, given the high amplification system. You get
the best performance from the radio telescope when the receiver is thermally stabilized.
This is a key condition for the quality of the measurements.
The simplest radio astronomy observation involves the orientation of the antenna to
the south and its positioning at an elevation as to intercept a specific radio source during
its transit to the meridian, that is, the apparent passage of the source for the local meridian
(the one containing the poles and the installation point of the radio telescope).
By setting in the acquisition software Aries a sufficiently slow period of sampling
(for example, a screen every 24 hours), you can verify if, during the day, the antenna
intercepts the radio sources desired, and if the values chosen for the parameters are suited
for the observation. You might have to increase the amplification factor to amplify the
trace, or change the level of the base line to avoid that, at some point on the graph,
the signal is out of range. After the setup procedure you can start long automatic and
unattended recording sessions.
The control and acquisition software Aries
Aries (figure 2.13) is a software for Personal Computer (PC), advanced and simple to use,
developed to manage the automatic acquisition and control of total power microwave
receivers of the RAL10 series.
2.6. The control and acquisition software Aries
F IGURE 2.13: Main window of the software Aries (the settings concern the
receiver mod. RAL10)
Designed to optimize the ”robustness” and the communication flexibility typical of
these products, the program checks the operating parameters of the specific model used
(RAL10KIT or RAL10AP): in the style of a graphic recorder, Aries displays the evolution
of the measurements in time and stores the acquired information in different ways and
formats. The variation of the acquired data is displayed in function of the time as a
mobile red track, represented in a rectangular diagram where the abscissa is the time
variable (expressed in Local Time or UTC time) and the ordinate is the intensity of the
signal expressed in relative units ADC_count.
Given that, at present, it is not possible to handle a signal calibration procedure received in absolute units of brightness temperature (this option will be implemented in a
later version of the program), the radiometric signal strength is displayed on a scale of
counting units of the internal analog-to-digital converter (ADC). This scale ranges from
0 to 16383, since the measurement resolution of the instrument is equal to 14 bits.
With Aries you can check quickly and easily all the parameters of a single receiver,
or handle different and simultaneous measurement sessions with multiple devices (even
of the same type) connected to a single PC: the communication protocol implemented in
the instruments and the interface of Aries provide very reliable communication management, perfect even in applications involving continuous measurements for a long time
and in unattended locations. Designed as a data acquisition system for amateur radio
astronomy stations, Aries includes everything you need to handle and display the measurements of observations, with various setting opportunities for the graphic scales and
the operating parameters. The ability to automatically record the data and to set appropriate alarm thresholds when events occur in the measured signal, ensure ease and
versatility in the management of the radio astronomy station.
In figure 2.13 you can see the main console for the visualization and control of the
software: it is a graphical window that displays the trend over time of the radiometric
signal acquired and, possibly, other auxiliary signals managed by the particular receiver
Chapter 2. A radio telescope for everyone
F IGURE 2.14: The prompt box to set the parameters of the receiver.
used. There are the most frequently used control buttons in the data acquisition management, in the graphical representation of measurements and the automatic data logging.
The program works on Microsoft Windows x86 and x64 platforms (minimum requirements Windows XP SP3) and, soon, the corresponding versions for Mac OS and Linux
environments will also be released.
The window shown in figure 2.14 contains the commands required to set the parameters of the instrument: you can see the buttons for selecting the polarization in reception,
the sliders and boxes for the setting of post-detection gain, for the offset of the radiometric baseline and for the setting of the constant of integration of the measurement.
It is possible to select after how many samples received the measure must be updated
by choosing the sampling period SAMPLING, function which includes the calculation
of the average value of acquired samples, so a further integration of the signal in addition to the one established by the INTEGRATOR parameter: the program will update the
graphic tracks after acquiring the number of samples set, then will calculate the average
over that number.
The CAL key activates the automatic calibration of the baseline (”zero” reference)
for the radiometric measurement. It is possible to save the operating parameters in the
internal non-volatile memory of the receiver via the MEM command: in this way, every
time you power the radiometer, the optimum operating conditions are restored, chosen
after appropriate calibration depending on the receiving system characteristics and the
observed scenario (paragraph 2.5).
Using the zoom buttons of the Y-axis you can increase or decrease the axis of ordinates
resolution while moving the arrow buttons up and down to position the trace on the chart
so that it is fully visible in all its dynamic range (this is, essentially, the command that
enables the translation of the entire track along the Y-axis). Similarly, you can zoom on
the time axis (abscissa) using the corresponding buttons, also changing the scroll speed
of the track. The maximum speed settable is sixty seconds per screen: the track will take a
minute to cover the entire graphic window. In the program settings menu you can choose
the format of representation of time (in UTC or Local Time).
In addition to the simple graphical display, Aries records the measurements in various formats. You can choose to save the data in text or image format using the buttons
dedicated to the data recording.
2.6. The control and acquisition software Aries
To check the progress of the received signal during a measuring session, Aries offers
the ability to set two control thresholds (upper and lower) that, if exceeded by the radiometric track, will trigger a visual alarm by turning a control light red and activating an
audible alarm if desired. The thresholds are presented as two horizontal green lines on
the graphic window.
More details about the features and functions of Aries can be found on the web pages
of RadioAstroLab s.r.l. and in the user manual, downloadable from
Chapter 3
Calibration of the radio telescope
Any instrument analyzes a quantity according to a scale of specified measurement units.
This is true also for a radio telescope: in fact, a very important and delicate part of its
functioning concerns the calibration.
It is necessary to establish a calibration procedure to achieve, at the output of the
radio telescope, data consistent with an absolute scale of brightness temperature (or flow
units). The manufacturing tolerances, environmental conditions and parametric variations of operating devices cause changes in the characteristics of the receiver, moreover
each instrument is unique in its response and is difficult to compare measurements from
different telescopes or those of the same system carried out at different times.
By repeatedly observing a radio source you may experience changes in the intensity
of its emission. It is important to understand whether these fluctuations are due to real
changes in the intensity of the flux emitted by the source or to unwanted variations in
the response of the instrument: it is therefore necessary to use a universal measuring
system. The calibration procedure of a radio telescope is used to establish a relationship
between the brightness temperature of the observed scenario (expressed in K) and a given
quantity outgoing from the instrument (expressed, for example, in arbitrary units count
of the ADC counting).
In this paragraph we will give you some tips to calibrate the measurement scale of
an amateur radio telescope, in a simple and practical way, observing easily ”available”
reference sources. As a practical example, we will describe the calibration of a small radio
telescope that uses the RAL10AP receiver and an offset dish antenna for satellite reception
in 10-12 GHz band: the instrument is similar to the one in figure 2.1.
The technique is simple, although approximate, adapted to the needs of an amateur
telescope and converts the measured radiometric values in an absolute temperature scale.
This procedure can be used to calibrate any radiometer operating in this frequency band.
If the input-output characteristic of the radiometer is linear between the power level
of the radio signal and the corresponding value obtained from the analog-to-digital converter (ADC), you can calibrate the instrument by measuring two different power levels
of the radiation received: first you observe a ”hot” target (object at ambient temperature), then a ”cold” target (as, for example, the sky at the zenith) calibrating the antenna
temperature directly in K.
• Measurement of the ”cold” target: you orient the antenna toward the sky at the zenith,
on a clear and dry day. If the radiative contribution of the Sun, the Moon and
other radio sources are absent, the brightness temperature Tsky of the sky at the
zenith can be estimated, at 11.2 GHz frequency, using the procedure described in
Appendix A. Leaving out the noise contribution due to radiation collected by the
antenna secondary lobes, you can use the value Tsky = 7 K.
Chapter 3. Calibration of the radio telescope
Radiometric Response @ 11.2 GHz
Measurements of the radio
telescope expressed in
arbitrary units of acquisition
[ADC_count] of the analog-todigital converter.
Calibration relationship of the
radio telescope
Brightness Temperature of the Sky (zenith) @ 11.2 GHz
[ADC count]
F IGURE 3.1: A radio telescope measures the intensity of the radiation coming from the scenario observed in count arbitrary units, which represent
the numeric value, at the output of analog-to-digital converter (ADC),
of the analog quantity ”digitized” (revealed radio signal). A calculation
transforms the response of the instrument in absolute temperature units K
using the calibration ratio.
Measurements of the radio
telescope expressed in absolute
units [K]: calibrated instrument.
Chapter 3. Calibration of the radio telescope
• Measurement of the ”hot” target: the antenna is oriented towards the ground so that it
fill his entire field of view and is sufficiently distant to consider fulfilled the far field
condition. If the physical soil temperature (measured with a thermometer) is Tsoil
and its microwave emissivity is = 0.95 (an average value, reasonably estimated), its
brightness temperature is:
Tb_soil = η · Tsoil
Since the emissivity is high, we left out the radiation of the sky reflected towards the
If the instrument’s responses when measuring the target with different brightness temperatures Tb_soil and Tsky are, respectively:
countsoil when the radiometer measures the ”hot” target Tb_soil
countsky when the radiometer measures the ”cold” target Tsky
you can express the equivalent antenna temperature Ta in function of the corresponding count answer as:
Ta (count) = Tb_soil + (Tb_soil − Tsky ) ·
count − countsoil
countsoil − countsky
which is the equation of a straight line in the plane {count, Ta }.
In general, the temperature Ta measured by the radiometer will depend on the antenna directivity (shape of its reception diagram) and it will be different from the brightness temperature of the scenario observed, given that the antenna operates a mathematical
convolution between the shape of its reception diagram, and the brightness profile of the
source. As seen in paragraph 1.6, to get the true brightness temperature of the observed
region is necessary to know the spatial trend of the antenna’s reception diagram (the
gain in function of the azimuth angle and elevation angle) and perform a deconvolution
between this and the measured temperature.
The newly found calibration line converts the radiometric measurements expressed
in arbitrary units of acquisition of the ADC in an absolute temperature scale, and then
determines the instrument calibration characteristic.
This simple procedure is adequate for our needs, although approximate, and provides
a reliable idea of the dynamics of the measurement scale in K of the instrument. Its
accuracy depends on many factors, instrumental and environmental: the estimates on
the sky brightness temperature Tsky and on the emissivity η of the soil (the ”hot” target),
the constancy of the radiometer parameters (stability, especially in temperature) and the
linearity of its characteristic applied power / detected voltage have a great influence.
The figure 3.2 shows the recordings of the radio telescope response of figure 2.1 when
the antenna is oriented toward the ground (we chose a large piece of uniform ground,
freshly plowed, for which we estimated an emissivity of about 0.95) and when antenna
”sees” the clear sky at the zenith. After measuring the physical temperature of the soil,
we used the radiometer responses to the two target ”hot” and ”cold” to calculate, using
the formula (3.2), the instrument’s calibration line shown in 3.3.
The brightness temperature of the sky at the zenith was estimated as equal to Tsky =
6.8 K.
Chapter 3. Calibration of the radio telescope
F IGURE 3.2: Measurements of the soil and of the sky at the zenith for the
calibration of a radio telescope that uses the RAL10AP receiver.
F IGURE 3.3: Calibration line for the telescope that uses the RAL10AP receiver.
Appendix A
Estimate of the brightness
temperature of the sky at 10-12 GHz.
The following estimate of the brightness temperature of the sky at the zenith, in the microwave frequency band 10-12 GHz, considers negligible the noise contribution of the
antenna due to natural atmospheric disturbances (hydrometeors, lightning, thunder electrical discharges) and the one due to interfering noise of artificial origin.
It is supposed, therefore, that the only radiation source of the atmosphere is the noise
due to the absorption of atmospheric gases and of the constituent molecules, expressed
as atmosphere radiant temperature Tatm (f, θ), which depends on the frequency f and on
the antenna’s elevation angle θ with respect to the horizon.
For its assessment we used the graph in figure A.1, extracted from the document:
”Recommendation ITU-R P.372-12 (07/2015) Radio Noise”, which calculates the brightness temperature of the atmosphere using the equation of radiative transfer in the approximation of Rayleigh-Jeans, excluding the noise contributions due to the microwave cosmic
background (Tcmb = 2.725 K), to the emission of the galaxy and of other cosmic sources
like the Sun and the Moon, to the ground (Tgnd ) picked up by the antenna side lobes.
Extrapolating data from the graph, at the 11.2 GHz frequency, we get a table of values,
by interpolating which we can calculate the noise contribution of the atmosphere Tatm (θ)
due to absorption phenomena (atmosphere model US Standard Atmosphere, 1976), depending only on the angle of elevation of the antenna with respect to the horizon (figure
The brightness temperature of the sky at the zenith (θ = 90◦ ) will be:
Tsky (90◦ ) = Tcmb + Tatm (90◦ ) = 7.025 [K]
This value can be used in radiometer calibration procedure as the ”cold” target temperature. If you want to consider also the radiation coming from the ground, captured
through the antenna side lobes, you can add a contribution of the order of 3-5 K, depending on the antenna characteristics and the maximum level of its side lobes. This
approximation is generally acceptable for amateur radio telescopes focused on the sky at
the zenith, sufficiently distant from obstacles or buildings.
Angle of elevation of the antenna θ [◦ ]
brightness temperature of the atmosphere Tatm [K]
Appendix A. Estimate of the brightness temperature of the sky at 10-12 GHz.
F IGURE A.1: Simulated brightness temperature of the atmosphere (Recommendation ITU-R P.372-12 (07/2015) Radio Noise).
F IGURE A.2: Brightness temperature of the atmosphere at 11.2 GHz, in function of the angle of elevation of the antenna, obtained by interpolating the
values shown in the table above.
Appendix A. Estimate of the brightness temperature of the sky at 10-12 GHz.
F IGURE A.3: Brightness temperature of the atmosphere (IRA Technical Report N. 377/05).
For comparison, it is useful to try an alternative estimate of the brightness temperature
of the sky at the zenith using other data. We used the graph in figure A.3, which calculates
the brightness temperature of the atmosphere using the equation of radiative transfer (in
the approximation of Rayleigh-Jeans), including the noise contributions due to the cosmic
background and to the galaxy. Extrapolating the data for the 11.2 GHz frequency we can
see how, when the antenna of the radiometer is oriented towards the sky at the zenith, we
can measure a brightness temperature of the order of Tsky (90◦ ) = 7 K, in agreement with
the previous rating.
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