Tuesday, December 15, 2015

DX Year in Review

About this time last year I wrote about how much fun I was having chasing DX. Between the new station and the good band conditions I was working DX like crazy and loving every minute of it. In 2015 the pace slowed way down. Not so much because of conditions either but mostly because there were just fewer new ones to work! I was also busy on a lot of other projects this year so had less time to spend on the radio. That said, I still had lots of fun chasing DX this year and there weren’t many "ATNOs" (all-time-new-ones) on the air that I missed. Here are some of the highlights:


1A0C Sovereign Military Order of Malta

Actually located in Italy but qualifying as a separate "entity", a fairly large expedition-style operation popped up from there without warning at the end of last December. I had my shack all torn apart for a major reconfiguration and was even using it as a guest room over the Christmas holiday. As soon as I could reclaim my shack I quickly cobbled a few things together and was able to make a quick contact on 20 meters SSB before their operation finished.





K1N Navassa Island

This was the big one. A once in 30 years opportunity to work Navassa and the big-name dxpedition operators did not disappoint. Everyone needed this one and band conditions cooperated for me to get them into the log on several different bands and modes.





PY0T Trindade and Martin Vaz Islands and
TI9/3Z9DX Cocos Island


These were both small, limited time DXpeditions to very rare South American islands and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to work them both. Many others were not so lucky.



3B7FA St. Brandon Island

I wasn’t expecting to work this one at all. It was a short, one-man expedition to a tiny island in the South Indian Ocean. He was only using low power and a small antenna and preferred to use a certain digital mode (PSK63) that does not do well coming over the pole through the aurora. Luckily for me, however, he just happened to be on the air one morning when we had a perfect grey line path right during my usual "radio time" first thing in the morning before work.



VK9WA Willis Island

Not a super rare entity but a new one for me, this South Pacific island near Australia was put on the air by an international team of operators in November. I was pretty sure I’d be able to work them and was even hoping to get a contact on 80m to put me one step closer to the nearly-impossible-from-the-Arctic "5-Band-DXCC" award. Well, as it happened, the operators were excellent, conditions were superb, and I worked the heck out of these guys. I even made that contact on 80m :)





J52HF Guinea-Bissau

I heard that IZ3BUR Livio would be operating from the Cumura Mission Hospital during his spare time for a few weeks in late November/early December. His "spare time" was usually in his midday which was the middle of the night here. Shortly after he started operating I got up in the middle of the night to have a listen. He was on 20 meters SSB and I could hear him ok but by the time I had the amp warmed up and ready to go he had gone off the air. I tried again the next night but this time he was on 15 meters and I couldn’t hear him at all. And the same thing the next night. And the next night. A couple of times he popped up on 20 meters in our early morning after I had already gone to work but most every day (night!) it was the same thing, only active working Europe on the higher bands that I could not hear over the pole. After three weeks of sleep deprivation I had resigned myself to the fact that I just wasn’t going to be able to work him. I was leaving town for 4 days and he was heading back to Italy while I was gone. The day I was traveling I had taken the whole day off work and, wouldn’t you know it, that morning he popped up on 20 meters just as I was getting ready to shut off the rig and start packing!




2016 is going to be a great year for DXing. Most of the top-ten most-wanted entities will be on the air but we're also starting the long slide towards solar minimum. I just hope I’ll be able to hear them...

Seasons Greetings and Good DX in the New Year!

Monday, November 23, 2015

SS SSB VE8EV Multi-Op HP

ARRL Sweepstakes Contest, SSB

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

Class: Multi-Op HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 23

Summary:
Band QSOs
------------
160:
80:       1
40:      89
20:     599
15:     588
10:      49
------------
Total: 1326 Sections = 83 Total Score = 220,116

Comments:

SS from NT is always about the aurora. After the relatively quiet conditions during CQWW exactly one solar rotation ago, I knew conditions for SS Phone were going to be above average. With the solar cycle on the wane I thought this might be the last chance to take a run at a section record so I went as "Multi" for this one.

I could tell the geomagnetic field stayed fairly quiet as conditions on 40m were fair from up here (which means I worked almost everyone I could hear) but the lack of sunspots showed on 10m where activity was way down from the past few years. 15m and 20m were beyond crowded. I got pushed off a run frequency more often than I could count but thankfully the spotters were out in force and starting over wasn't the chore it usually is. Another few years and we'll all be jammed onto 20m again :(

Despite battling with a flaky T/R relay that got worse and worse all weekend, I hung in there almost til the last hour. I made my final few contacts on 20m barefoot and then worked a couple of guys on 40m by hitting the foot switch and manually pressing the KEY TEST button on the amp at the same time. Fortunately by that time there was nobody left that I hadn't already worked so I called it a day.

Thanks to everyone for all the Q's especially, as always, the 1-Alphas that take pity on me CQing away on 20m after everyone else has already moved down to forty. Last contact in the log was K6LL on 40m who said "let me turn the beam your way" and made it an easy one for me. Sure wish I had a magic button to make *that* happen all the time!

73
John VE8EV










Sunday, November 8, 2015

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): 1

Summary:
Band QSOs
------------
160:
80:
40:
20:
15:
10:
------------
Total: 54 Sections = 29 Total Score = 3,132

Club:

Comments:

I had planned on this being my first serious CW effort in SS but with the lousy conditions and the hired-gun down the road in VY1 I decided it wasn't necessary. When conditions picked up a bit Sunday afternoon I ran for an hour just to prove I could do it and then S&P'd a few guys on 20m before I pulled the plug. I'm expecting much better conditions in two weeks for SS Phone. See you then!

Monday, October 26, 2015

CQ World Wide SSB - Hitting The Wall

Radio conditions this month have been dismal.  I mean really, really bad!  As we head into that awful downward slide of the solar cycle, we get increased solar nastiness and incessant aurora.  Most days there's nothing on the radio at all and, thanks to the 27 day solar rotation, we can expect these exceptionally lousy conditions to recur over and over for most of the winter.  The only bright spot is that this year the CQ Worldwide SSB Contest just happened to land right in the middle of a tiny lull in the geomagnetic conditions.  There was a big asterisk on the nice forecast, however, as it was also calling for active geomagnetic conditions due to the arrival of a CME that was scheduled to hit the Earth around mid-day on Saturday.

I wanted to put in a full effort this year so I got as much rest as I could in the days leading up to the contest.  My plan was to go as long as I could and then grap a ninety minute nap.  I hoped that between that and drinking enough coffee I could work at least 40 out of the 48 hours of the contest.  This time I didn't want to miss out on all that interesting propagation in the middle of the night.  It can be a lot of fun up here when there's no aurora to absorb all the signals and a big contest with lots of stations on the air around the clock is a great time to take advantage of our unique location at the top of the world.

I had a nice long nap Friday afternoon and was on the air for the opening bell all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  As usual, I started the contest beaming out to Asia but, unusually, 10 meters was open so I started there.  I did pretty good business in that direction for the first couple of hours and then dropped down to 15m for another hour of steady callers from across the Pacific.  When things started to slow down I pointed the big TH6DXX over the pole and switched to 20 meters.  With almost no aurora the band was wide open to the Eastern hemisphere and for the next several hours I ran a continuous flow of callers from the far side of the world.  At 0500z I decided I'd built up a nice QSO base so it was time to do some multiplier hunting.  I dropped down to 40m and worked a handful of stations but it was still a bit early for the lower bands. I went back up to 20m and S&P'd my way through the entire band picking up everyone I could.  A quick check of 15m revealed lots of action there so I spent the next two hours sweeping back and forth working everyone I heard and then back to 20m for another hour cleaning up anything new since my last go through there.

By 0900z I had worked my fill of the high bands and it was finally time for the next item on my "middle of the night to-do list": the low bands.  Being the most affected by the absorption in the polar regions it is a rare treat indeed to have good conditions during a contest and to still be awake late enough to take advantage of them.  Conditions weren't great but 40m was at least OK and I had little trouble working all the continents.  Not so much on 80m but at least I made a few contacts.  Finally at 1100z I was ready for a break.  I decided to grab a bit of sleep, satisfied that things were looking pretty good after the first night and if the CME arrival wiped everything out on Saturday at least I'd had some fun while I could.

Three hours later I was back at it again.  20m was absolute bedlam as all the "weekend warriors" hit the airwaves and 15m was in and out so I spent the whole morning hopping back and forth between 40, 20, and 15m waiting for conditions to improve enough to try running.  Shortly before 1800z the stateside signals on 15m were staying strong and everyone was answering me on the first call.  Run time!  The rate meters immediately all turned green as I took off with a 200-hour beaming down the middle of North America. I was ready for the CME to arrive and spoil everything but the bands hung in there and for the next three hours I filled the log with 2-pointers. When I finally got pushed off my frequency I did a quick mult sweep and then turned the beam out to the Pacific. I was rewarded with another nice run, but this time mostly 3-point JA's.  Not quite the same "set your hair on fire" rates as the Americans but steady for another 3 hours.  At midnight zulu I hardly missed a beat as I dropped down to 20m and carried on the same way.  Unfortunately, I was already starting to feel the effects of the lack of sleep the previous night and after another couple of hours running I had to sneak off for a quick catnap.

I came right back to the same frequency two hours later, turned the beam North, and picked up right where I left off.  Over the next two hours I'm sure I worked every single station in Zone 16!  At 0600z a quick check revealed a few signals on 10m.  I spent way too much time trying to make some "midnight magic" happen but all my efforts only resulted in three central Asian mults (zone 17/18/22) on 10m before the signals faded.  After I gave up on 10m I tried to find something else productive to do but I soon realized I was fading as well.  I don't know if the mid-evening nap made things worse or not but it sure didn't help. I really wanted another night like the previous one but, as motivated as I was, it just wasn't happening.  I knew I could probably run Europe all night on 20m but the QRM and splatter was just too much for my internal DSP.  With my concentration gone I finally stood up, turned off the lights, and stumbled off to bed. I didn't even set the alarm!

Back in the shack the next morning I suffered through the usual morning doldrums by S&Ping through the bands.  20m was still a mad house with signals stacked two and three deep from one end to the other but, surprisingly, 40m was still somewhat open even though it was almost noon here. Only a couple of the Europeans were able to hear me but I did grab several Asian mults and even 9K2HN somehow pulled my signal out of the noise for the double-mult!  In the afternoon I kept an eye on 10m hoping it would open to North America but it never really did so I just stuck to 15 and 20m.  Alternately running and mult hunting I would briefly get some good rates going but the QRM was so intense that eventually I'd get shoved off my run frequency and have to start all over.  I had my last good run going on 20m but about a half-hour before the end of the contest I saw a BY station that I couldn't hear get spotted only 1 kHz above me and I knew I was done for.  Sure enough, within minutes the hordes descended right on top of me and I had to move.  With not much time left I decided to just hunt multipliers for the last few minutes.  Signals were great out to the Caribbean and everyone I called answered right away.  With only a couple of minutes remaining I quickly swung the beam Northwest and in the dying moments worked 9V1YC and 9M2YAA to tie the ribbons on.

I had a great time and there were lots of high points:

  • the big 10m opening to the Pacific on Friday night to start the contest.
  • working XE2X and LU1VM for new ones on 80m (I could possibly live long enough for 5BDXCC!)
  • spiking the 10-min rate meter at 360/hr working 15m stateside stations Saturday afternoon.
  • seeing a spot come up for TT8AMO on 20m CW and ducking out for a minute to quickly work him for DXCC.
  • being called by TY4AB and D3AM over the pole in the middle of their night time on 20m.
  • the hours long run of zone 16/17 stations on Saturday night.
  • working VU2RCT on 10m at my local midnight.
  • having 9K2HN answer my first call on 40m at my local noon.
The only low points:
  • hitting the wall late Saturday night and missing 8 hours (xOx)
  • the intermittent (TR?) relay in my amp
  • something awry in my switching network causing high SWR between the radio and the amplifiers.
I'm really glad I made the effort to get on for this one.  I'm not 100% sure how the sun is going to affect the rest of this contesting season but in the near term I rather suspect that Sweepstakes CW is going to be a total bust.  On the other hand, there's a sliver of hope that Sweepstakes SSB, being just 27 days away, might also fall into this same tiny little window of decent propagation.  Let's hope it does!






CQWW SSB VE8EV SOAB(A) HP


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

Class: SOAB(A) HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 32

Summary:
Band  QSOs  Zones  Countries
------------------------------
  160:                   
   80:    6     4        5
   40:   77    19       33
   20:  720    32       98
   15:  965    29       80
   10:   52    17       21
------------------------------
Total: 1820   101      237  Total Score = 1,525,732

Club:

Comments:

Outstanding propagation from the top of the world, especially compared to the dismal conditions of the last three weeks. I tried to go hard this weekend but I crashed and burned late Saturday night. Maybe I should try energy drinks? Still, lots of great runs and interesting propagation. I'm sure I worked everyone in Zone 16 and 17 Saturday night on 20m and then later on worked a VU on 10m at midnight. 40m through 10m all seemed to be open around the clock and if that forecast CME hit us I didn't notice it. What a nice going away present from Cycle 24!

73
John VE8EV

Sunday, March 8, 2015

ARRL DX Contest SSB

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

Class: SOSB/20 HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 28

Summary:
 Band  QSOs  Mults
-------------------
  160:          
   80:          
   40:          
   20:          
   15:          
   10:          
-------------------
Total: 1018    94  Total Score = 287,076

Club:

Comments:

I thought this would be a good year to go single-band 20m.  I still think it was the right choice but the band conditions had me pulling my hair out most of the time.  The band was open to Europe for almost the whole weekend but not many are awake during my best openings in the wee hours before their sunrise. I would frequently run out of callers and have to give up and come back later.  The solar flares and and aurora would often make for very slow going at times.  N1MM says almost 23 hours of off-time but a lot of that was just when no one was answering. There also seemed to be very few JA's about and only one lonely ZL heard from all of the South Pacific despite spending a good chunk of time beaming out that way. In contrast to the propagation over the pole there was hardly any North-South propagation except for late Sunday afternoon when I scrambled to find as many Caribbean and South American mults as I could.


High point(s): The handful of African stations that kept popping up in the middle of their night, almost like a "midnight peak" on both nights.

Low point: I overshot a nap overnight on Saturday and instead of having Europe all to myself the band was packed from top to bottom with loud EU stations working the USA East coast shortly before 1300z. When I finally found a spot to squeeze into and got a run going some sort of solar wind anomoly wiped out the entire band in a matter of minutes!  Eu was completely gone so I turned the beam to see if I could scare up some South Pacific stations.  After a dozen or so unanswered CQs I pulled off my headphones and turned to find the XYL standing at the door of the shack holding a bleating CO detector and looking EXTREMELY unimpressed...

All in all, not too bad considering the flux numbers, the solar flares and the geomagnetic situation but I find I'm missing the early days of the cycle when the sun was a bit calmer.

73
John VE8EV

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Stationmaster


Back in October I wrote about finally getting around to building my multi-port antenna relay matrix.  The matching component to "The Matrix" is my automatic antenna tuner/selector which I've christened "The Stationmaster"

In concept it is a very simple device.  The upper deck is an antenna tuner with motor-driven tuning capacitors and inductance selector.  The lower deck contains a microcontroller which adjusts the tuner components, selects the antenna matrix relays, and sets the channel on my amplifier (which also has motorized tuning presets for each amateur band). Although it all sounds fairly straightforward, the devil is in the details and between the massive amount of wiring under the hood and writing all the software, I'm relieved (and even a bit surprised) that it actually works!  



The entire contraption is built into an old UPS chassis.  I even found a way to utilize the original AC power receptacle opening for some switches!


The tuner uses a differential-T circuit with an extra tunable capacitor instead of a roller inductor.


Just about everything came out of the junk box except for the microcontroller.  No Arduino or Rasberry Pi here, for this project I used a controller from JKMicro called the Flashlite 186.  This board emulates an old 80186 processor and runs a freeware version of MS-DOS.  On top of having loads of digital I/O ports to drive relays with, you can program it in old-school BASIC!  That was just fine with me as this project wasn't about learning new tricks, it was about getting the job done.  I wrote all the firmware using Microsoft QuickBasic in a DOS box under Windows Virtual PC.  I hadn't written anything in QB for years but it all came back to me pretty fast.

There's no school like the old school...

The board at the top is the microcontroller, the one on the bottom is an analog I/O board with a real-time clock.  The three smaller boards are 16-port relay drivers and the terminal strips are for interfacing to the Matrix and the amplifier. There's almost a 100 feet of 30 gauge wire wrap in there!
On my main station computer I added a bunch of new code into a Windows project in Visual Basic that I wrote a couple of years ago to track propagation indicators and display some nice clocks and the weather.  The VB software was also straightforward although I'm a real hacker when it comes to coding.  I'm sure a professional developer would call my VB code rubbish but, happily, once its all compiled and working no one can tell the difference. Now, when I change bands on the radio (and in some cases when I change frequency within a band), my software will automatically determine which antenna is required, what tuner settings (if any) might be necessary, and what band-channel preset needs to be called up on the amplifier.  It sends all that data to the serial port on the Stationmaster which then goes about switching relays and turning knobs for the desired effect which is a 1:1 SWR on the proper antenna and full output from the amplifier.


The whole shebang.  I had to put in a bigger rack to make room for everything.