Friday, December 5, 2014

The Thrill of the Chase

It was the bottom of the solar cycle when I first started to get a bit more serious about DXing.  If I happened to hear about a major DXpedition somewhere I would likely try to have a listen for it.  Between the low solar flux, my modest home station, and my location under the auroral oval I usually didn't have much luck.  Some parts of the world were simply beyond my reach and propagation often didn't support communications on any band during the brief windows when a rare DX location was active.  I did manage to catch a few operations like K5D (Desecheo) and VP8ORK (Orkney Islands) but there were several once-a-decade type DXpeditions that I will be waiting a long time for a second chance at, like BS7H (Scarborough Reef) and FT5GA (Glorioso).

With the dramatic improvements over the last few years both to propagation and to my station I've come to realize that I have at least a reasonable chance of working just about anything that comes up if timing and conditions are in my favour.  I managed to work all of the major DXpeditions in 2014 (many on the first or second day) and have been successful in picking off numerous smaller operations, inching ever closer to being the first VE8 station to earn "Honor Roll" status by working (practically) all of the current DXCC entities.  Working and confirming 46 ATNOs (All Time New Ones) in the past year has been an amazing experience and, other than a handful of mostly African countries, all the rest I need end with "Island", "Reef", or "Rocks".

This DXCC timeline chart from ClubLog shows the slow march to Honor Roll.  I wasn't very active between 1996 and 2000 and off the air completely between 2001 and 2008.  Now I'm trying to make up for lost time!

I've been lucky with the propagation (from up here under the auroral oval conditions are often very poor) and my antennas aren't anything too special, just a tribander at 70 feet and an assortment of lesser wires and such.  However, my Flex-3000 software radio has an outstanding receiver which is a huge advantage as the signals reaching through the aurora here are mostly very weak and a legal limit (2.25kW PEP in Canada) amplifier sure helps in the other direction.  The real secret, though, to working DX is mostly just paying attention and making it happen.

VP8SGK is perfect example of how it works.  I've never worked South Georgia Island and it is extremely rare on the radio.  The last big DXpedition there was 2002 but every once a while a visiting ham can make a brief appearance from VP8SGK, the British Antarctic Survey base station at King Edward Point.  I had heard that Mike, GM0HCQ, was working on a ship in that area and might be able to get ashore and on the radio during his brief stop there.  I put a reminder in my calendar to check his web page again when he was closer to the island.  A week later I read that his ship was delayed and his arrival was pushed back for several days.  Then the day before he was to arrive he reported that due to the weather their docking was further delayed and he would not be able to operate from the base at all.  It was too bad but that's the way it goes.  At least I had been paying attention! 

The next day at work I just happened to think about GM0HCQ and thought I should check to see if anything had changed.  There had indeed been a change:  he was reporting that if all went well he might be able to get ashore for a couple of hours and be on the radio at 1745z!  I looked at my clock and it was already 1815z.  I checked the spotting network but no spots had been reported yet.  Since it was 11:15am local time, I decided immediately I was taking an early lunch and jumped in the truck for the 15 minute drive home.  On the way I contemplated how strange it was that here was some guy in the Arctic rushing home to attempt to contact some guy who had just arrived on an island in the Antarctic.  That right there is the magic of DXing!  I dashed through the door and into the shack, frantically pushing buttons, turning antennas, and warming up the amplifier.  As soon as the computer was up I checked the spots again and there it was: VP8SGK had just been spotted on 21.200MHz!  Within 20 minutes of receiving the news I was sitting in the shack with the radio on, the big yagi pointing to the South Atlantic, the amp all warmed up, and my ears straining to hear the signal from South Georgia Island.

This story does have a happy ending but probably not what you were expecting.  As it turned out VP8SGK only made 35 contacts and his signal was inaudible here and most everywhere else.  After about 20 minutes of listening to the static and the occasional other stations on frequency calling "in the blind" or just stating the obvious - "I can't hear him..." - I turned everything off, made myself a sandwich, and went back to work.  But I was smiling.  In this case it was all about the thrill of the chase.  Mike says he'll probably be back there again this time next year.  I'd better be paying attention!

DX IS!



Monday, November 17, 2014

SS SSB VE8EV SO Unlimited HP

ARRL Sweepstakes Contest, SSB

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

Class: SO Unlimited HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 24

Summary:
Band QSOs
------------
160:
80:
40:      23
20:     160
15:     814
10:       7
------------
Total: 1004 Sections = 83 Total Score = 166,664

Comments:

My notes from SS last year said "try harder" so I resolved to keep my butt in the chair and work the radio hard. I got off to a good start on the high bands and then suffered through the usual Saturday night 10-per-hour doldrums (no, I still haven't got the 40m yagi up yet...) Six hours of sleep and then back in the chair at 1200z expecting to make some hay on 20m but thanks to the ongoing geomagnetic disturbance things didn't go as planned.
Forty-five minutes of CQing to put the first Q in the log, W1WMU, who sounded like someone with their head inside of a full fishbowl. The second Q didn't come for another 45 minutes and that pretty much set the tone for rest of the morning. At times there was nothing at all on any of the bands and when signals did peak out of the noise it was hard to get heard even with power and the big yagi. It reminded me of the "bad old days" a few years ago at the bottom of the cycle! Mercifully the electric overcast finally relented around 1900z and I pushed hard to at least make the sweep and get some Q's in the log.

Nice to see all the activity from NT, I think there were almost ten of us battling to get out from under the aurora this year.

73
John VE8EV

Sunday, November 2, 2014

SS CW VE8EV Single Op HP

                   ARRL Sweepstakes Contest, CW

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

Class: Single Op HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 3

Summary:
Band  QSOs
------------
  160:    
   80:    
   40:   26
   20:   39
   15:   40
   10:    5
------------
Total:  110  Sections = 45  Total Score = 9,900

Comments:

Just a quick spin through the bands to hand out the mult and see if I can actually copy more than just my call and 5NN on cw.  Apparently I can but calling CQ on SS Sunday had predictable results so I stuck with S&P. Bands were in pretty good shape, hope they hold up for SS Phone.

73
John VE8EV

Sunday, October 26, 2014

CQ WW SSB - No Contest

I had big plans for CQWW this year.  Conditions were pretty bad in the week leading up to the contest but two things happened that made the difference for me. First off, my annual antenna project did not start out well.  Knowing that it was going to be another year until I can put up a decent tower for my big S-33 yagi, I had intended to put up a smaller, temporary tower with just the driven element off the yagi as a rotatable dipole for 40, 20, and 17m.  A bucket truck was arranged and schemes were devised how to get it into and out of the neighbor's yard through the deep snow.  Thursday was dedicated to getting everything ready.  Rotator serviced and tested.  Mount and thrust bearing fabricated and cables prepped and ready.  Friday after lunch I picked up the truck and went to work.  Everything went smoothly except for one tiny detail: the lift didn't have enough reach to get over the fence to where the tower was going.  It was short by about 6 feet.  With only a few hours to go until the contest started it was clear I wasn't going to have any of my work done.  Then the second blow fell: an X-class solar flare.  That was it for me right there.  No way.  At this high latitude, a solar flare is game over for radio games.

Since I had the bucket truck and was skipping the contest, I pressed on with the next two projects: the 30m full-wave delta loop and the TH3.  Both items were in the plans since the very beginning and last year I had even hung the wire on the Mastrant guy ropes for the delta loop.  It took some doing but I eventually retrieved the coil of wire dangling off the guy and strung it across to the other side to form the bottom of the loop.  Several iterations of tuning with the MFJ-259 later, the delta loop was born.  The feedline is all 75 ohm, thirty feet of RG6 from the antenna, about half of it wound into a choke right at the corner of the loop then down the guy to a 1/2" P500 hardline to the shack.  At the end of the hardline is a short section of RG-11 that trimmed the entire feedline to a 1/4-wave multiple to make a perfect 50 ohm match for the antenna.


When I first checked the loop was resonant on 8.8MHz.  As I trimmed it up to 10MHz I kept getting higher and higher in the air.  I almost ran out of vertical reach on the boom! 

The next trick was putting up the little 3-element yagi on a fixed mount in the middle of the tower pointing at North and South America.  This will be handy for lots of reasons, not least of which will be generating some wave angle diversity when run in parallel with the big TH6 at the top of the tower.  All things considered, the installation of this one went rather smoothly despite having to fabricate a mount and drill mounting holes for it on the mid-point guy station.  Doing this kind of work with a bucket truck sure beats climbing up and down the tower!


From top to bottom: Hygain VB-64DX, the TH6DXX, and the TH3JRK (a TH3JRS with kw-rated traps from a MK4 on the driven element).  You can see the 40m sloper at the top right and the 30m delta loop in the back with the coax choke on the right.

Both antennas work fine and I'm sure the delta loop will rapidly become my star receiving antenna.  It really seems to hear well on all bands, and on 30 meters it works like a charm.  I worked 5R8M in Madagascar on 30m RTTY for a new one tonight!

I also kept an ear on the radio most of the weekend.  There were a few times that NA was fairly loud on 15m and 10m opened up a bit but for the most part I didn't regret my decision not to play.  I even got up in the middle of the night and checked the bands looking for a 10m opening or some low-band action but nada.  The solar flares just kept coming all weekend.  Counting the one right before the contest started there were SEVEN flares including three X-class.  Not much fun for contesting, let me assure you.  Hopefully things will improve markedly before Sweepstakes Phone in late November!


Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Matrix

I have a very good imagination.  I'm also a terrible procrastinator.  When these two things are combined the result can work somewhat to my advantage.  At the beginning of 2012 we decided to move into a house we'd been renovating.  As hams always do, I immediately began planning my new station.  I started with antennas and after examining many possibilites I concluded that it would be possible to put up resonant antennas for almost all the bands and a couple of low-band receiving antennas for good measure.  The next question was how to connect them all.  One of my dreams has always been to have a fully automated station so all the switching would be done based on the radio frequency.  Transmit antenna, receive antenna, amplifier band switching and tuning, even antenna tuner operation, if necessary, would all happen automatically.  If money is no object then something like that is probably not too difficult but if the object is no money then it becomes somewhat more complicated.  I reasoned that I probably had enough junk surplus parts and equipment to build a remote controlled antenna tuner and my amplifier was already a 12-channel programmable unit.  More difficult would be some sort of computer and switching matrix for the antennas.  Also complicating things was my list of requirements.  The system I came up with would have to perform the following feats:

1) Allow switching any antenna to either of two radios.
2) Allow using any antenna as separate receiving antenna or noise sensing source (for the MFJ-1025).
3) Allow using multiple antennas at the same time on the same radio (two yagis pointed in different directions).
4) Allow limited SO2R (single-op two radio) or multi-operator contesting.
5) Had to cost almost nothing.

The last item was a bit tricky but it didn't take too long to figure out the details.  I had a box filled with surplus cube relays pulled from an old PLC unit and I mapped out all the RF paths based on what I could do with a pile of relays, my existing equipment, and the criteria above.

A few tweaks since 2012 but the basic layout has stayed the same.  The antenna tuner always bypasses one radio or the other to the ALTERNATE OUT.  The reject stubs will be a future addition. 

I lined all the relays up on my desk to get an idea of the physical arrangement and that was more or less where it sat for a couple of years.  In my head I would often put it all together and play "what-if" games, frequently going back to the drawings and making slight changes. 

My relay arrangement plan from back in 2012.  Some of my original paper drawings are visible in the upper left corner.



I had been slowly collecting all the parts I needed but when I finally started building the station last fall it ended up being a crash project to get on the air before winter and most of the antennas and the complicated stuff was put off until 2014.  Now that winter is here again its time to get moving on building "The Matrix" because all the other additions depend on it! 

The first step was prepping the relays.  AC and DC ratings are meaningless for switching RF but what I did was eliminate the little wires inside the relays by soldering a solid wire across the two moving poles.  This increased the current and voltage capability along with increasing the isolation.  To further increase the isolation between relays, each was wrapped in aluminum tape and the tape was used to hold all the relays together.  During one of my daydreams about operating this system I started thinking about how much RF current and voltage might be on the line going to the vertical antenna used for transmitting on 80 and 160m.  I don't doubt that sooner or later a relay will end up getting burned and have to be replaced but "much later" is the preferred time frame for that so I added an open-frame, heavy-duty relay for the main vertical feed just to avoid this scenario.

Well, here it is.  The three black cables are RG-59 that I used for the rx lines instead of the originally planned RG-174.  I put connectors on both ends of the bus lines in anticipation of possibly wanting to add future lightning protection or a lumped constant like a big inductor during a 160m contest for example.


An unexpected bonus came in a piece of junk surplus equipment that I found in my collection.  It had multiple N-female jacks all connected with RG-402 semi-rigid 50 ohm coax.  This was a big improvement to my original plan of teflon-insulated open wires and because the antenna jacks did not have to be mounted to the outdoor termination cabinet they also enabled me to make the whole unit as an assembly and install it outside in one piece.  Now that there is snow on the ground that is a huge plus!

Close-up of the taps on the LDF4-50A heliax cable during construction.  Pieces of the copper-jacketed RG-402 came in very handy for this part, too!

The control wires for the relays will all enter the shack directly through a 25-pair telephone cable into a metal box containing back-EMF protection diodes, bypass capacitors, and ferrite beads for each wire.  If there are any particularly stubborn antenna/frequency RFI problems then I can also add RF chokes as necessary.

Close-up of the relay connections.  Each relay has been modified to have one NO contact across the poles and the relays are physically arranged for the shortest possible leads.  I splurged and bought the little push-on connectors to terminate the wires.  Theoretically, if there is a problem the whole unit can be removed from the outdoor cabinet, brought inside and disassembled for repair.

The next step is putting the microcontroller together and writing some control software.  That will be the subject of a post in the not too distant future. When I get around to it ;)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

CaQP VE8EV SOFixed HP

                    California QSO Party

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

Class: SOFixed HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 5

Summary:
Band  CW Qs  Ph Qs
--------------------
  160:           
   80:   11      4
   40:    6      2
   20:   27     23
   15:   10      2
   10:           
    6:           
    2:           
--------------------
Total:   54     31  Mults = 31  Total Score = 6,944

Club:

Comments:

Mostly just a few hours playing with N1MM+, passing out the mult, and getting a few things set up for contest season.

73
John VE8EV

Thursday, July 3, 2014

RAC Day VE8RAC(VE8EV) SOSB/20 HP

Call: VE8RAC
Operator(s): VE8EV
Station: VE8EV

Class: SOSB/20 HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 15

Summary:
Band  CW Qs  Ph Qs  CW Mults  Ph Mults
----------------------------------------
  160:                             
   80:                             
   40:                             
   20:  362    580      11        12
   15:                             
   10:                             
    6:                             
    2:                             
----------------------------------------
Total:  362    580      11        12  Total Score = 123,924

Comments:
+12 V**RAC
I was amazed at the level of activity considering it was a weekday.  The band hung in there despite the solar flare and whenever things slowed down on one mode I'd just switch to the other. Someday I'd like to get a mult sweep in a RAC contest but VY1 and VY0 are rarely heard even up here...

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Verdict is In

Ever since the sun started to perk up back in 2009 I've seriously pondered the question: "From our location under the auroral oval is the increased solar activity a good thing or a bad thing?"

At the bottom of the 11-year solar cycle, with days on end of zero sunspots, the bands would open and close like clockwork, depending on the auroral activity.  20m would come to life most days and (especially during the spring and fall equinoxes) provide reasonable propagation to anywhere on earth. The lower bands would open any time there was no aurora and with low solar activity that also happened on a fairly regular basis. The upper bands didn't even exist. Some weak activity on 15m once in a while in the middle of the afternoon and nothing to be heard ever on 10m. The only thing that stirred up the aurora was high solar wind speeds caused by coronal holes. These would come around every 27 days like clockwork allowing fairly accurate predictions of whether band conditions would be good or bad on any particular day.

Now, with the continuing solar maximum, things are very different. Streams of solar nastiness from flares and CMEs pour into the polar regions wiping out the bands for days at a time. The aurora is omnipresent, and the K-index rarely dips below 2. Now it is the lower bands turn to be non-existent. Nothing to be heard from here on 80m or 160m. 40m can go either way. Heavily affected by the D-region absorption it stays mostly quiet but on occasion low auroral activity will allow it to perk up somewhat. The upper bands provide the best communications. 20m and 15m stay open for hours on end and when the solar flux gets high enough the 10m band can push through the aurora with strong enough signals to overcome the heavy absorption. It is still very much hit and miss, though. You just never know from one day to the next whether there will be anything at all on the radio.

So what to make of all this? I have finally reached the conclusion that any solar activity is better than none.  I've been having just as much fun working DX on the higher bands as I used to on the lower bands. Recently, I had been listening for Elmo, 3C0BYP, on Annobon Island off the west African coast.  Yesterday evening he finally popped up on 20m in the middle of his night time. I had no trouble working him for an all-time-new-one. This morning, still somewhat pleased with myself for the previous day's DX, I got up and turned on the radio again. As I sipped my coffee and tuned through the bands I heard many European stations coming over the pole on 10m. This alone doesn't really excite me anymore (it sure did last fall though!) but while I was listening a 10m DX spot came up for Carson, ZS8C, on Marion Island in the far south Indian Ocean. About half way between South Africa and Antarctica, this is one of the most distant DXCC entities from here at 11,000 miles away. I had listened for ZS8C many times in the past but had never before heard even a whisper on any band. This time I could hear a whisper. Down in the noise and not quite strong enough for 100% copy but audible nonetheless. I called a few times but soon had to turn off the radio to get ready for work. A half hour later I had a few extra minutes before I left for the day and decided to quickly fire up the radio again and take another listen. This time ZS8C was perfect copy peaking at S5 and five minutes later he was in the log for another new one. On 10m no less! That decided the question for me right then and there. Working Marion Island on 10m easily makes up for many days of no signals at all.

Now I'm ready to begin the search for an answer to my new question: "To get into 'Ham Heaven' do you need to 'work 'em all' (all 340 DXCC entities) AND have '5-band DXCC' too or is either one by itself good enough for admission...?"

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Missing Link

For years and years I tried to understand HF propagation from the Arctic.  At my location just above the Arctic Circle it was fairly easy to figure out when it would be bad.  The sun throws off high energy protons from the solar wind or solar energy particle events like flares and coronal mass ejections. The charged particles interact with the earth's geomagnetic field and the north and south poles of this magnetic field attract the particles just like iron filings on a magnet.  When the particles get dense enough to collide with molecules in the upper atmosphere they emit light energy visible at night as the aurora (although its still there in the daytime, just not bright enough to be visible).  Extreme levels of aurora tend to reflect higher radio frequencies (like 6m and VHF) back in the general direction of their source.  This can be great if the auroral oval is just to the North (or South) of you, not so great if you're right in the middle of it!  Radio frequencies in the HF range are scattered by the aurora and lose most of their energy with the majority of the attenuation occurring on the lower HF bands.

The auroral oval goes right over my head and most of the time we're right in the middle of it.
If the K-index was high that would indicate auroral activity and I knew to expect poor conditions. The 160 and 80 meter bands would go completely dead and usually 40 meters as well.  Sometimes the higher bands held up a bit better but as the aurora becomes more intense the degradation increases in frequency.  It was a simple matter to take a peak at the K-index and I knew at a glance how bad things would be.  

What I had a much harder time understanding, though, was why it happened frequently that the auroral activity numbers would suggest things should probably be ok but, in fact, HF propagation would be lousy.  Then I discovered the D-RAP.  "D Region Absorption Predictions" are provided by NOAA and they opened up a whole new world of understanding about what's going on up there in the ionosphere especially at high latitudes.   In the context of amateur radio, the lower ionosphere is cited as the reason the low bands are only open at night.  The sun causes it to absorb low frequencies during the daytime.  What is actually happening is that the same aurora-causing high energy protons given off by the sun tend collect in a specific region of the upper atmosphere known as the D Region.  Since the earth's magnetic field tends to concentrate these particles towards the poles we have this layer overhead almost all the time.  What the D-RAP predictions do is to quantify exactly what the effect of the particles (and x-rays as well) will have on any specific frequency at any particular point on the Earth.  It takes the solar wind strength into account and also measures the effects of other solar particle events like flares and coronal mass ejections. 


The little chart on the right side of the image breaks down the amount of attenuation in the red areas. Click on the image for a larger version.
The NOAA D-RAP site  provides the data in a pretty easy to understand set of graphics that show the level of absorption (in dB) at specific frequencies.  Now its easy to see the piece of the puzzle that had been eluding me for so long.  Solar particle events throw off huge amounts of charged protons and if they are directed towards the earth they stream into the upper atmosphere for days afterwards.  A quick check of the data at any time will show which bands are affected and how much.  By combining this lowest usable frequency (LUF) data with the maximum usable frequency (MUF) calculated by the solar flux index one can instantly know which is the optimum HF band for paths from (or through!) the Arctic in real time.  Unfortunately for me and the other high-latitude operators, periods of low solar activity tend to lower the MUF.  When a solar particle events occur right after or during these quiet times the net result of a low MUF and a high LUF is no HF propagation from up here on any band!  The trick is being on the air at the just right time to catch those opportune moments when the flux is high enough to support propagation on the upper bands but with low attenuation from the D Region.  That happens just often enough keep me tuning the bands waiting for these interesting opportunities to communicate.

ARRL DX SSB VE8EV SO Unlimited HP

ARRL DX Contest, SSB

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

Class: SO Unlimited HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 40

Summary:
 Band  QSOs  Mults
-------------------
  160:    0     0
   80:    0     0
   40:    6     4
   20:  254    58
   15:  374    81
   10:  298    79
-------------------
Total:  932   222  Total Score = 620,712

Club: 

Comments:

The big X-class solar flare earlier in the week sure knocked the heck out of the bands up here. On Thursday evening 160-10m was completely dead but 24 hours later at the beginning of the contest things had at least improved enough to let the higher bands start to open up. Even then the absorption was strong enough all weekend that I was never able to get a decent run going anywhere, save for a couple of hours on 10m and 15m over the pole in the middle of the night on Friday. The low bands were a total washout, nothing heard at all on 80m and 160m, and only a tiny handful of "nearby" mults on 40m after midnight Saturday.

Highlights:

- Finally being able to prove my theory that the best time for 10m to Europe from here is in the middle of the night. I sensed a considerable amount of skepticism from the other side but WFWL happily prevailed.

- On three separate occasions someone in a pileup with me got through to the DX station and after making their contact told them to "listen up, there's a VE8 calling you". I was humbled each time but of course wasn't paying enough attention to catch their calls. Thanks for the multipliers!

- Collecting enough entities on 10m to push my DXCC total on that band to well over a hundred. Now I can stop worrying about missing out on 10m at the top of the solar cycle and start working on how I'm going to live long enough to work a 100 on 80m for 5BDXCC...


Other than stellar/dismal band conditions (depending on your perspective) the only lowlight was trying to tell guys wanting to pass me down to 20m in the middle of the afternoon that "Sorry, I've got no propagation on that band." Strange days, indeed!

Depending on my travel schedule this might be the last contest operation from here until CQWW in October. If so, see you then!

73
John VE8EV