At the beginning of August I visited the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) for the Breakthrough Listen REU program field trip (I have been collaborating with the REU program for the past few years). One of the things I did during my visit was to use an ADALM Pluto running Maia SDR to do a very quick scan of the radio frequency interference (RFI) on-site. This was not intended as a proper study of any sort (for that we already have the Hat Creek Radio Observatory National Dynamic Radio Zone project), but rather as a spoor-of-the-moment proof of concept.
The idea was to use equipment I had in my backpack (the Pluto, a small antenna, my phone and a USB cable), step just outside the main office, scroll quickly through the spectrum from 70 MHz to 6 GHz, stop when I saw any signals (hopefully not too many, since Hat Creek Radio Observatory is supposed to be a relatively quiet radio location), and make a SigMF recording of each of the signals I found. It took me about 15 minutes to do this, and I made 6 recordings in the process. A considerable amount of time was spent downloading the recordings to my phone, which takes about one minute per recording (since recordings are stored on the Pluto DDR, only one recording can be stored on the Pluto at a time, and it must be downloaded to the phone before making a new recording).
This shows that Maia SDR can be a very effective tool to get a quick idea of how the local RF environment looks like, and also to hunt for local RFI in the field, since it is quite easy to carry around a Pluto and a phone. The antenna I used was far from ideal: a short monopole for ~450 MHz, shown in the picture below. This does a fine job at receiving strong signals regardless of frequency, but its sensitivity is probably very poor outside of its intended frequency range.
The following plot shows the impedance of the antenna measured with a NanoVNA V2. The impedance changes noticeably if I put my hand on the NanoVNA, with the resonant peak shifting down in frequency by 50 to 100 MHz. Therefore, this measurement should be taken just as a rough ballpark of how the antenna looks like on the Pluto, which I was holding with my hand.
As the antenna I used for this survey is pretty bad, the scan will only show signals that are actually very strong on the ATA dishes. The log-periodic feeds on the ATA dishes tend to pick up signals that do not bounce off the dish reflectors, and instead arrive to the feed directly from a side. This is different from a waveguide type feed, in which signals need to enter through the waveguide opening. Therefore, besides having the main lobe corresponding to a 6.1 m reflector, the dishes also have relatively strong sidelobes in many directions, with a gain roughly comparable to an omnidirectional antenna. The system noise temperature of the dishes is around 100 to 150 K (including atmospheric noise and spillover), while the noise figure of the Pluto is probably around 5 dB. This all means that the dishes are more sensitive to detect signals from any direction that the set up I was using. In fact, signals from GNSS satellites from all directions can easily be seen with the dishes several dB above the noise floor, but not with this antenna and the Pluto.
Additionally, the scan only shows signals that are present all or most of the time, or that I just happened to come across by chance. This quick survey hasn’t turned up any new RFI signals. All the signals I found are signals we already knew about and have previously encountered with the dishes. Still, it gives a good indication of what are the strongest sources of RFI on-site. Something else to keep in mind is that the frequency range of the Allen Telescope Array is usually taken as 1 – 12 GHz. Although the feeds probably work with some reduced performance somewhat below 1 GHz, observations are done above 1 GHz. Therefore, none of the signals I have detected below 1 GHz are particularly important for the telescope observations, since they are not strong enough to cause out-of-band interference.
I have published the SigMF recordings in the Zenodo dataset Quick RFI Survey at the Allen Telescope Array. All the recordings have a sample rate of 61.44 Msps, since this is what I was using to view the largest possible amount of spectrum at the same time, and a duration of 2.274 seconds, which is what fits in 400 MiB of the Pluto DDR when recording at 61.44 Msps 12 bit IQ (this is the maximum recording size for Maia SDR). The published files are as produced by Maia SDR. At some point it could be interesting to add additional metadata and annotations.
In the following, I do a quick description of each of the 6 recordings I made.