Thursday, January 4, 2018

DX Year in Review

Every year I like to write a little post about the previous year's DXing.  It's taken me a while to get around to writing this because, frankly, 2017 was a pretty slow year for DX.  There were only two DXpeditions scheduled that would be new ones for me and most of my focus last year was on getting the station ready for the coming solar minimum. 

I was relieved that I didn't miss anything important during my lengthy period off-air at the beginning of the year while I worked on getting the new tower set up.  The first expedition on the schedule was in March to the central African country of Niger.  A team of operators from Spain put together a great station and the propagation cooperated for me to get them into the log on both SSB and CW.

Mauritania was one of only a handful of African countries I still needed.  Being in the Northwest corner of that continent, it wasn't especially difficult from a propagation point of view but there were only two active stations there.  One was a beginner ham who ran low power into a small antenna and his signal was never audible up here.  The other was a somewhat cranky old-timer who only worked CW, only with a hand key, and made it very clear that he was not interested in exchanging quick "5NN" reports with anyone.  He wanted a full conversation with names, locations, and signal reports.  Given the generally poor signals and my rudimentary CW skills this was a pretty tall order for me.  Fortunately, I read that in April he and a visiting ham from Brazil would be participating in an obscure CW contest and the PY would also be operating SSB outside of the contest.  I never managed to catch their signals on SSB but on the scheduled day I looked up the exchange for the contest, pointed the big antenna over the pole, and worked him in CW for the ATNO.  As a sad footnote, the OT became a "silent key" just a few weeks after our contact.

The other scheduled expedition of the year was to Burundi in November when a group of guys from Italy activated this tiny, land-locked country in southern Africa.  Burundi was kind of a "do-over" for me.  I had confirmed and received DXCC credit for a couple of contacts with F5FHI during his travels to Burundi back in the 90's.  Unfortunately, sometime around the turn of the century, there was a problem realized with his documentation and the DXCC credit was withdrawn for everyone who had worked him.  Now, 20+ years later, I finally had another opportunity to get Burundi into the log.  When the expedition started conditions were lousy.  The SSN was sitting at zero and strong solar winds from recurrent corona holes were whipping up the aurora.  This wasn't the first time I had encountered lousy conditions during an expedition.  I knew the drill: pay attention and be listening during the predicted openings on the right bands and eventually it will come together and they'll go into the log.  Many times before I had managed to squeak out a single contact with an expedition during difficult conditions.  Not this time.  Despite all my best efforts (and the Italian's too, I suppose) their signals were never heard here strong enough to work.  It was truly a shock and disappointment to miss them and it was the first time in many years that I had set my sights on working a DXpedition and come up empty handed.  The radio propagation in the Arctic can be a cruel mistress and when the signals here get so weak at the bottom of the cycle sometimes some places are just not workable.

Despite the crushing Burundi miss in November, there was something else going on in my little DX world that soon returned a smile to my face.  For many years I had thought that getting my "5-Band DXCC" award (working 100 countries each on the 10,15,20,40, and 80 meter bands) just might be possible in my lifetime.  During the peak solar cycle years around 2013/2014 I had made sure to top up my 10m country count whenever I could so all that remained was to work 100 countries at the other extreme, 80m.  That, however, was a very tall order.  Between the high absorption up here on the lower bands and my modest efforts and antennas, I was usually only able to get one or two new ones a year on that band.  My calculations suggested that at that rate I would likely become a "silent key" myself before ever crossing that magical 100 country threshold.  This year I came to realize that things have changed.  The new digital FT8 radio mode (and all the activity it is generating) combined with my new low-band antenna setup has allowed a steady trickle of new countries on 80m to slowly start filling my log book.  I began 2017 with only 35 countries confirmed on 80m from my 20-plus years of being on the air.  By the end of December I was up to 50 confirmed and they just keep on coming.  With a bit of luck I hope to make it to 100 over the next few years before the solar cycle starts ramping up again in the early twenties.  Time will tell...

2018 should be a great year.  Some big ticket Dxpeditions are scheduled to a couple of top-10 most wanted entities (Bouvet and Baker Island), hopefully a few smaller operations will come up to some of the two dozen left until I've "worked 'em all", and the continued drip-drip of new ones on 80m. Bring on the solar minimum, I'm ready!


Monday, November 6, 2017

SS CW VE8EV SO Unlimited HP

ARRL Sweepstakes Contest, CW

Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV
Station: VE8EV

Class: SO Unlimited HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 6

 Band  QSOs
   80:    1
   40:   41
   20:   98
Total:  140  Sections = 58  Total Score = 16,240



Was kind of looking forward to this one as conditions were supposed to be good and the station is in top form (although at the moment I have no antennas up for 10/15m).  Things went off the rails right at the bell as, despite my careful configuring and testing, N1MM started doing weird things.  After a dozen QSOs I had to QRT for a few minutes and find that proverbial "obscure checkbox" that was messing things up.  Things were ok after that but there just didn't seem to be as much demand for NT as I thought there would be.  I couldn't get anything going on 40 even with the "new" 40m yagi finally up after all these years.  S&Pd through the band a couple of times and called it quits shortly after 0400z.  Never found the motivation to get back on Sunday.  Full 24-hour BIC effort guaranteed for Phone in a couple of weeks!

John VE8EV

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Get Busy Living

I try to eat healthy foods and get plenty of exercise. I quit smoking years ago and drink in moderation. I follow news on longevity and try to stay out of the sun. The reason is simple: I want to get my 5-Band DXCC award before I die. At the rate I have been going, to work 100 countries on the 80-meter band from this far North, I will need to live to the ripe old age of 122 years.

Aside from the usual issues everyone has with the lower bands (room for large antennas, noise, etc.) I have a few things that make working 80m from up here particularly difficult. The first is the aurora, or more specifically, the absorption caused by geomagnetic activity.

Since the auroral oval is directly overhead it absorbs signals in all directions!

It takes at least two days with little or no geomagnetic activity before the absorption decreases enough to make DX on 80m possible. That limits the opportunities to only once or twice a month during the bottom half of the solar cycle. The second issue is the ground. At this latitude, the ground is permanently frozen. Only the top few feet thaws in the summer. It also doesn't get dark here during the summer so most of our nightime 80m operating is during the winter months when the ground is completely frozen and blanketed with snow. This makes for very high ground resistance and lousy fresnel zone reflectivity. Antenna ground radials will help with the near-field ground losses but there is nothing you can do about the far-field losses except try to operate when they are minimized by the ground being wet. The only time that coincides with darkness here is in the late fall right before the surface freezes again. The third problem is lack of 80m activity. It takes a decent station, usually working CW, to be able to push through the absorption and it seems the only time the "big guns" get on 80m is during contests. Having long since worked their fill of 80m, the old-timers seem to spend most of their nights obsessing over the 160-meter "top-band". On the other hand, DXPeditions will be active on 80m, just not very often at times that are convenient for a station like mine that, in addition to being quite far North, is also significantly far West (almost on the border with KL7).

So, DX can be worked on 80m from here, but for the most part only during a contest or DXpedition that happens to occur in the late fall, at the bottom half of the solar cycle, during exceptionally quiet geomagnetic conditions. With only 35 countries confirmed so far on 80m, picking up one or maybe two new ones every year will take me a very, very long time to earn 5-Band DXCC...

There are, however, a couple of things that might allow me to possibly eat a hamburger and skip a workout once in a while. My 80m half-sloper antenna on the new tower seems to work OK. I've been trying hard to reduce common-mode noise and the investment in ferrite is starting to pay off. A planned pennant receiving antenna will also help but the biggest cause for optimism is the new FT8 digital mode. Introduced a few months ago as a much faster version of JT65, this new digital mode has taken the HF bands by storm. Every band has a segment with FT8 activity and more and more stations are joining the fun every day. This past weekend was one of those rare "sweet spots" for Arctic low-band propagation. Very little geomagnetic activity for several days in a row, darkness during "prime-time" operating hours, soaking wet not-quite-frozen ground, and lots of activity on 80-meters. Friday night saw good 80m conditions and in addition to working VK, JA, and LA on FT8 I also picked up the RI1F expedition on several bands, including 80m. I have Franz Josef Land worked and confirmed on several bands from many years ago but never thought to get a QSL for 80m.  Conditions were even better on Saturday night. I was thrilled to work F5UKW on FT8 for a new one (and a new zone for him!). Once I made it over the pole the FT8 window had my full and undivided attention. With France coming through I knew that probably every one of the 65 more countries I needed were within range. What happened next, though, was not even within the realm of what I thought possible. Not too long after working F5UKW, I saw a KL7 station calling ZS1A. I laughed out loud and said "good luck, buddy!". Most of the active KL7 stations are a thousand miles south of me and I will often hear them calling stations that I can't hear. It looked like he didn't get an answer from the South African station and a few minutes later I saw a QSO sequence on the screen with someone else working ZS1A. That's when I did a double-take because the callsign on the right hand side of the sequence was ZS1A. In other words, I wasn't hearing someone else working him, I was receiving his signal directly! Not strong, only -22dB SNR on the display, but the next sequence came through as well. I switched the amplifier to full afterburner and as soon as he finished his QSO I double-clicked on his callsign. I was wide-eyed when I first started receiving his transmissions but nearly fell out of my chair when he answered my call! We completed the QSO and I sat back to ponder what that meant. Looking at my grey-line display I could see it was sunrise at his QTH near the West coast of South Africa. I've worked Argentina on 80m before and recently I've been working Australia more-or-less regularly. The addition of South Africa means that when conditions are right I must be able to work pretty much anywhere in the world on 80-meters. That might seem like a no-brainer to some but from up here it never seemed possible before. The farthest I had ever been able to reach over the top on 80m was Azores and Cape Verde which are both paths that skirt quite far to the south of the pole. 

With the addition of H40GC last week that makes FOUR new ones on 80m. At this rate, maybe I won't have to save quite so much for retirement now...