Our radio astronomy weekend at PARI

Something you may not know about me: I’m a bit of a radio astronomy nut.

We’re pretty lucky here in western North Carolina to live within a reasonable drive of the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI).

PARI started out life as a NASA tracking station during the Apollo era, then eventually became a Department of Defense facility. In the 1990s, the DOD left the site and a non-profit was formed to turn the observatory into an educational and research institute. They’ve a number of radio  telescopes and even a few optical telescopes. They’re also home to the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive and a number of other projects.

My family–including my then very young daughters–volunteered at PARI for quite a few years. We were actively involved in their Sci Girls program, I’ve given presentations about SDRs and HF at a couple of their monthly events, we volunteered during their massive solar eclipse gathering, and even hosted a weekend SWL DXpedition in 2015.

The campus is simply amazing.

Due to funding, staff and programs were downsized starting around 2019 and we lost touch during the Covid era when the campus was locked down.

This past weekend, PARI held an open house, though, and it was incredibly fun heading back to the campus and reconnecting with a few of our friends there.

My daughter and I snapped some random photos. I discovered them this morning and thought I’d share them in case there are other radio astronomy nuts out there in the QRPer community (click to enlarge these):

When my daughters were only eight years old, they were allowed to steer the 26 meter dish in the photo directly above. I wasn’t a bit jealous at all! No, not me! 😆

As QRP as I am, I absolutely love gazing at these massive radio telescopes. Perhaps it’s because I know they’re working some serious weak signal DX and peering into our past to unveil some mind-blowing science!

Click here to read more about PARI.

19 thoughts on “Our radio astronomy weekend at PARI”

  1. Thanks Thomas! Interesting stuff. Brought back memories of when I worked/lived with my wife and 2 daughters at Pine Mountain Observatory in Oregon in the late 1980’s. It was an optical observatory but I had my HW101 setup in our quarters.

  2. Funny, I’ve been an optical astronomy hobbyist since my childhood. I even live within driving distance of the famous Yerkes Observatory (at the time part of the University of Chicago). Living in Chicago with its horrible light pollution, I was forced to put together a “field telescope” kit which I could carry with me to dark sites without too much trouble (for you astronomer types out there it consisted of a C5, a tripod, and a couple of Teleview eyepieces). I was a longtime subscriber to Sky and Telescope magazine and used to read it cover to cover. Especially the articles on radio astronomy! A friend of mine was a ham, which at the time I thought was the ultimate in geekdom (bearing in mind of course I was a star gazer) however, I did end up asking him many questions about his radios and watched him work stations from the comfort of his hot and dusty attic. Never the less, I filed all this in the back of my mind. Many many decades later, I was reading old copies of Sky and Telescope and it triggered the memory of my friends stifling attic. It was then that I decided to get my ham radio license. 73!

    1. Very cool! It does seem as though “geekdom” spreads to related fields – I too am into amateur radio, astronomy, and hopefully soon some radio astronomy. Cheers!

  3. How can we not be fascinated with these behemoths! Who wouldn’t want one of those in his back yard!! If I remember correctly, Karl Jansky was doing research for Bell labs to study HF frequency characteristics to see if they would be viable for telephone service. During this time he discovered “noise” leading to what we now refer to as Radio Astronomy. Amazing how far we have come in less than 100 yrs!

  4. We have a good fortune to visit here in 2013 while spending a week at the Creekside Cottage nearby. Our favorite dish was Mr. Smiley Face which the NSA technicians painted to give the Russians something to look at when the spy satellites flew overhead. A beautiful campus and lots of fascinating equipment for us radio geeks.

      1. By the way, the SDR software you saw me demonstrate is SDRangel; github page is https://github.com/f4exb/sdrangel

        We use the Analog Devices ADALM-Pluto SDR for S-band receive (and eventually transmit). We have two modified units; one is modified for a GPS-disciplined frequency synth input (I use a Leo Bodnar Mini GPSDO ( http://www.leobodnar.com/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=107&products_id=301&zenid=fd8b2453552ea8924ad7b92b848dac97 ) programmed to generate the frequency the Pluto needs; the other I modified to use a TCXO, which, as I mentioned Saturday, was my first hot-air surface-mount rework project.

        These days you can buy the Pluto+ which is pre-modified. I have one of those, too.

        Since we do S-band at 2.2GHz the RTL-SDR and similar frequency-range SDRs aren’t suitable, but for our 1.42GHz hydrogen-line spectrometer I’m using an AirSpy R2, but will be trying a new SDRPlay RSPdx. Although I bought the RSPdx for MW (I’m also a broadcast engineer, specializing in AM broadcast directional antenna systems), it should work fine for 1.42GHz work.

  5. I knew some folks who worked there and then drifted west to Silicon Valley. They did very well out here. I Assume that the site was chosen because it was radio quiet. That would make it a great place for QRP. I’m renewing my interest in QRP after 50 years And this part of the hobby seems to be bringing in quite a few young bright new players. I’m a big fan of your website.

    1. *Full disclosure: I am the CTO at PARI.

      NASA originally chose the site for a few main reasons. One of the primary reasons was the natural ‘bowl’ topography that reduces terrestrial interference, both RX and TX. The other two main reasons are much more mundane: the federal government already owned the land, and it was relatively close to Greenbelt, Maryland.

      Terrestrial RFI is a major problem these days for S-band receive especially, thanks to 4G LTE allocations between 2.1 and 2.2GHz.

  6. Sounds like an interesting place to visit. I remember those old space missions. I would give a weeks pay to have been there when there was an active mission going on.

  7. Fire up that FT817, connect to that dish and do some Moon bounce or sat work. 5W with at least 40db gain antenna and work the universe.

    But I doubt the feed is resonant on 2m or 440, but they might be able to do it.

    73, ron, n9ee

    1. We have done some EME recently, but in a receive-only configuration on 1296 MHz. This frequency is within the range of our 1.42GHz hydrogen line feed.

      It was quite a setup, involving transmit and receive in bo the the States and in Europe; we did part of the receive here.

      I still have the 1296 Down East Microwave power amp, but it’s not installed on the dish at the moment.

      You can read about the project at https://www.carmelopampillonio.info/librations

  8. Muchas gracias Tom. Es un tema interesante el de la radioastronomía.
    Personalmente estoy intentando que algunos colegios de mi isla se involucre en el programa Escolar JOVE de la Nasa.
    Pero para ello hay que vencer la resistencia de los profesores y las no menos incomprensibles del sistema.
    Poco a poco. Las guerras por desgracia necesitan de unas cuántas batallas
    73 *EA8DHC*.

  9. Thomas: I was once a card-carrying member of SARA. I too love those big old dishes. Especially the Parkes Radio Telescope – The Dish of movies fame (the only antenna at the center of a feature film — well, maybe Contact had that too). Great stuff. 73 Bill N2CQR

  10. A very cool facility to visit, I’m sure! I bet the kids will now be hooked on radio and astronomy. And who isn’t fascinated by astronomy, the solar system and the deep beyond? Although I’m a relatively new ham, I’ve had a lifelong interest in astronomy and have owned an optical telescope. Living on Ontario, Canada, a place I’ve always wanted to visit is the Algonquin Radio Observatory deep in world famous Algonquin Provincial Park. QRPers who visit there can do some serious POTA activations in VE-0138! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algonquin_Radio_Observatory

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