Monday, November 30, 2020

Here It Comes!

On November 16th, 2020 the reported sunspot number was zero.  Since then it has rocketed up to an astonishing 83 as of November 29th.  The sunspot number wasn't forecast to hit that level until 2023 but, ready or not, here it comes: solar cycle 25.  The starting date of a solar cycle is actually determined retroactively and a few months ago it was determined that cycle 25 really began a year ago in December 2019.  For hams, though, the real beginning of a new cycle is when the solar flux starts getting high enough for the upper HF bands to open up and starts generating stronger signals than we are used to on the middle bands.  I had noticed quite a few times recently that the 12m band was open, mostly to the US west coast and Asia.  Last Friday, however, even 10m was open and I made my first new contacts on that band since 2015.  Just for fun, I even made a series of QSOs that started on 10m and progressed through each band all the way down to 160m (I didn't have any luck on 60m, even though I was hearing a few weak European stations).  A couple of days before that I had worked a guy in Washington state on 40m FT8, off the back of my beam, only running driver power (15 watts) and I got a report from him of +23dB.  I was seeing him at +31!!  I can see how the effectiveness of the FT8 mode may soon become somewhat degraded as more and more powerful signals are crammed into such a tiny sliver of spectrum on each band.  Some expansion of the FT8 sub bands seems very likely in the coming years.

Ol' Sol has unexpectedly become quite active!

Its not all fun and games, though.  The more active the sun becomes, the more it tends to disrupt propagation for high-latitude stations like mine.  The more active part of the cycle is marked with lots of minor disturbances that stir up the aurora and generally degrade propagation.  Now the increased solar flux is making for stronger signals that can more easily break through the disturbed conditions.  On days when the absorption is low and the flux is high (like last Friday) radio conditions here can be outstanding.  There is also an increase in major disturbances like the little M-class solar flare that we saw this past weekend. I saw icons and colors on my propagation monitoring software that I haven't seen for years as the D-layer absorption spiked here and both the x-ray flux and proton flux climbed off the bottom of the scales where they've generally been sitting for the past few years.  I blogged about how this tends to degrade the signals here back at the beginning of the last cycle and the details haven't changed at all.  See here and here.  An active sun makes for some very interesting effects up here in the polar region.

Colorful, isn't it?  :(
When the last solar cycle was winding down in 2015 I put a lot of effort into getting my station ready for the sunspot minimum and it was well worth it. I received my 5-Band DXCC award by finally working the necessary number on 80m and I'm even up to 72 countries worked to date on the 160m band.  Now, with the changing of the radio seasons upon us, I'm thinking about putting up antennas for the high bands again.  I don't know yet how the coming of the new maximum will change my operating habits but it always has before.  I don't expect that this time will be any different...

Monday, August 24, 2020

Marine Mobile

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of camping out on the water in our family's big cabin cruiser.  My dad would bring along a Heathkit receiver that he built and while we relaxed and fished he would listen to interesting stuff like hams and marine HF-SSB ship-to-shore traffic.  I would marvel at the fact that we were on a boat out in the middle-of-nowhere in the Arctic and listening to cruise ship passengers phoning home from the Caribbean.

After languishing under a tarp at my dad's place for 20-odd years, the old boat eventually followed me home and in 2015 I did a complete restoration on it.  Ham radio was in the plan from day-one.  During the refit I made sure to install all of the antennas and cabling that would be required.  The HF antenna is a 19-foot long two-piece fiberglass vertical mounted on the gunwale with a counterpoise of 2-inch aluminum foil tape run along the inside of the hull right at the waterline.  On the roof I installed an MFJ-1436 tri-band whip for VHF/UHF and 6m.  I used the aluminum tape again under the fiberglass to form a suitable ground plane for the whip which I intended to use mostly for working satellites.  Summers up here are quite short and it was already August that year before the boat was finally ready to go in the water.  The installation of the radios had to wait until the next season.

Back on the water after all those years.

My plan for the radios got somewhat complicated.  What I really wanted was an SDR version of my venerable old Kenwood TS-2000.  My Kenwood was gathering dust, having fallen victim to the dreaded "ceramic filters failure", and there was nothing available in my price range that did 100-watt HF, full-duplex all-mode VHF/UHF for satellites, and was SDR-based.  The closest I could come up with back then was a Flex-1500 QRP radio with an HF amplifier and transverters and amplifiers for VHF/UHF.  I'd mount all the gear in a portable travel case and bring along my laptop to operate with.  To make it all work the way I wanted would take a lot of homebrewing.  The HF part was easy, or so I thought.  In the junk pile I had an old commercial HF transceiver.  I pulled the 100-watt amplifier off of it and added connectors and a T/R relay.  Since I planned to operate into a non-resonant antenna, I bought a cheap manual antenna tuner which would also take care of harmonic filtering.

The VHF/UHF part was even more complicated.  The little Flex radio had a separate transverter output so I built a pair of switchable transverters and brick amplifiers for each band.  Since I needed full duplex for satellites, I opted for a separate receiver using an RTL USB dongle built into the transverter box.  With everything bench tested in the shop and mounted on a plastic board in a carrying case I was ready to go.  Or at least I thought I was.  I took all the gear and put the VHF/UHF whip on my truck to see how it worked.  It didn't.  I couldn't seem to hear anything.  I pulled out my Arrow dual-band yagi and that seemed to receive ok but, despite my best efforts at shielding when I built the transverters, there was significant desense when I was transmitting on the opposite band.  I had a FunCube Pro SDR dongle which I pressed into service to replace the RTL stick (thereby bypassing the 10m IF chain) and it worked but obviously
some re-engineering was needed.  With the 2017 boating season fast approaching I decided to just focus on getting the HF setup going.

As I mentioned before, the summers here are short.  If time and weather cooperates I can
maybe get the boat in the water a dozen times between mid-June and Labour Day.  Over the next couple of summers I'd bring the radio case and the laptop out with me every once in a while but getting it to work on HF proved surprisingly frustrating.  The manual antenna tuner was very finicky and the laptop running the PowerSDR software would frequently lock up from RF on the USB cables before I could get the tuner adjusted.  I'd spend a half-hour or so and then give up until next time.  More ferrites.  Different cables.  Oops, the amp blew up, need another one.  Maybe an auto tuner?  Nope, won't tune with so many unattenuated harmonics.  Oops, blew up another amp. After the summer 2019 season I officially gave up.  That winter, I sold off the Flex radio and the auto tuner and decided to just fix up the old TS-2000 and use that.  A handful of new ceramic filters and a couple hours of delicate solder surgery was all it took.

With the repaired TS-2000 in the boat this summer, I got the HF working right away in June.  I had initially assumed that the auto tuner in the radio would be able to load the big fiberglass vertical but alas it would only tune up on 30m.  Before the next trip I put the old manual tuner from the previous iteration in and was then able to operate across the HF bands.  I also gave up on the big laptop and opted to use the Pipo X8 that was already mounted on the dash.  The little nav computer was a bit slow but would run WSJT-X without much difficulty.  I still wasn't having much luck with VHF/UHF though.  The MFJ antenna didn't seem to work at all.  After checking all the cables I started to think that there might be something wrong with the antenna itself.  Since by this time it was long out of warranty, I decided to just buy a new one.  At the same time, I also opted for another automatic antenna tuner.  The manual tuner did work but was still finicky and the longer this project dragged on the less patient I was becoming.  After scouring the marketplace I found that HRO in Anaheim had stock on both an MFJ-939 auto-tuner with the Kenwood cable AND a replacement antenna.  Being so close to everything finally getting sorted out, I also opted for express shipping.  Even here in the far north, Priority Express mail from the USA gets here in about a week.  HRO shipped them out the same day and I followed the tracking as the package passed through LAX and landed in Vancouver two days later.  Then, nothing.  No more tracking updates.  USPS said it arrived in Vancouver, Canada and Canada Post said it was waiting to receive it.  I thought maybe it fell off a truck or something!  After 21 agonizing days (yes, THREE WEEKS!) Canada Post finally received the package and sent it to clear customs.  It was out of customs the same day and arrived here a week later.  I have no idea what it was doing all that time at the airport in Vancouver but I did see anecdotal reports of mail backed up at the border for weeks on end so I was just happy to have it eventually arrive here intact.

The HF station mounted at the helm.  The radio on the left is a marine VHF.

I installed the new tuner right away (works great!) and a couple of weeks ago I got around to replacing the VHF/UHF antenna.  Unlike the HF (which only works on the water), I could do this part in the driveway.  Armed with my SWR meter, antenna analyzer, cables, and the HF/VHF/UHF triplexer, I pulled the boat out from under the carport and put up the new antenna.  After checking everything and hooking up all the cables and the triplexer, I made a satellite contact on AO-91.  After four years of monkeying around I finally had it all working!  I gathered up all of my tools and test gear, closed up the boat, and put it back under the carport awning, eagerly anticipating the next boat trip. 
I paused as I walked into the house and a sinking feeling came over me.  I went back outside to look and, sure enough, I forgot to fold over the antenna after I was done and broke it off backing under the carport. $@#%!^@#$!!!

Actually, this story does have a happy ending.  All that broke was the brass NMO mount and I was able to quickly rustle up a replacement and install it.  I loaded fresh Keplerian elements into Orbitron and set up WiSPDDE to handle the radio tuning.  In between fishing and relaxing last weekend I made over a dozen satellite contacts as we swung on the hook in a beautiful local lake.  Life is good!

Saturday, February 8, 2020

DX Year in Review

I suppose I could have just left the rest of this post blank.  For the first time since I was licensed (and active) there were no new DXCC entities worked in a calendar year.  Ducie Island in 2018 was the last one.  Things are looking up for 2020, however.  Preparations for the expedition to Swains Island in March are proceeding apace and has now been joined by a surprise announcement of a trip to St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks, also in March.  And maybe, just maybe, this will also be the year that the Rebel DX Group makes it all the way to Bouvet Island.  Time will tell...

In the meantime I've been chipping away at 160m and picking up the odd one here and there on 80m.  I just noticed recently that I'm only about 50 away from the DXCC Challenge award for working 1000 band/country slots.  Not quite sure how I managed that but I guess they do add up over time.  To that end, when nothing else interesting is going on I'll watch 40m and pick up new ones there if they pop up.

Hopefully I'll have more to write about in next year's review!

73 and good DX

Update: Since I wrote this less than two weeks ago BOTH Swains Island and St. Peter St. Paul Rocks expeditions have been postponed or cancelled!  I will surely be stuck at 321 forever :(

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

What Goes Around Comes Around

At this point in the solar cycle (and especially from my high-latitude location) coronal holes on the face of the sun have the most effect on HF propagation.  The coronal holes spew high-energy streams of particles which are deflected by the earth's geomagnetic field and generally rain down on the polar regions causing high absorption and displays of Aurora Borealis.  On the lower bands the effect is especially pronounced.  An absence of coronal holes and weak solar wind makes for good radio conditions.

There was a recent mention in the K7RA Solar Update (and the Contest Update) of a NASA web page from a couple of years ago showing how different latitudes on the sun rotate at slightly different speeds.  It was an interesting thought exercise but most of the earth-directed solar badness seems to come around on a fairly reliable schedule every 28 days.  Equally as important, if not more so, is that exceptionally quiet solar conditions recur on the same schedule.

After finally working 100 DXCC entities on 80m last winter, this season I turned my attention to 160m.  So far, this has been a great season for "top band" propagation into the polar region.  Since the end of September I've been working a steady trickle of new ones on 160m CW and FT8.  One date, however, stood out.  Conditions were amazing on October 22nd!  I worked a total of FOUR new ones on that day and I immediately marked my calendar for November 18, exactly 28 days later.

The rest of October and early November were pretty good for 160m from the Arctic.  I typically spend an hour in the morning before work and an hour or two (or three...) at the radio in the evenings.  Sometimes a new one, sometimes just North American stations, sometimes no propagation at all.  Then, just like clockwork, that quiet spot on the sun finished rotating around and faced the earth again.  The solar wind and other numbers didn't really seem to be much different from the days before but, sure enough, band conditions were stellar.  I worked FOUR more new ones on November 18th!

The dates in this table are the UTC dates which roll over in the evening here.
If things continue like this it looks like another seemingly impossible task, DXCC on 160m from inside the auroral zone, should be wrapped up in the next couple of years.

Hope to work you on December 15th!
John VE8EV

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

For Sale

I'll often hang on to extra things I have 'just in case' but with ham radio stuff I think its time to let go of some things. I've been procrastinating on posting my surplus equipment for sale for a while now but I recently firmed up plans for a couple of road trips so I might be able to deliver the heavier items or at least move them closer to civilization. It would be great to see these things get into the hands of other amateurs that can enjoy them.

I did up a separate web page of the for sale items:

Update 11/19/19: Everything is sold except for the monster amplifiers and the rx array system.


John VE8EV

Saturday, January 5, 2019

10 Years On

It seems hard to believe but its been 10 years since I first started my little blog here.  So much has changed over the years.  Ham radio still has its exciting moments but I don't seem to feel the same urge to prattle on about things as I used to.  Whenever something new and unusual happens I do try to write something about it but the past few years have mostly been just working DX and incremental improvements to the station.  What strikes me most looking back is how my interests have evolved along with my station improvements and, mostly, the progress of the 11-year solar cycle.

Beginning back at the last solar minimum it was so difficult to make contacts here.  I just couldn't understand how a single station could make thousands of contacts during a weekend radio contest when we struggled up here just to get a hundred into the log.  Boy, that sure changed as the cycle ramped up and we finally started to have some decent propagation.  I nearly lost my mind the first time operating in a contest where the signals never got snuffed out by the aurora: (ARRL DX - Life is Like a Box of Chocolates...)  Only a few years later as the cycle peaked I was setting records and hanging contest award plaques on my wall.  Unfortunately, after the highs of the solar maximum I seem to have completely lost interest in radio contesting.  Going back to the huge disparity between the conditions up here and "down south" after seeing what I was able to do on a more-or-less level playing field kind of saps one's enthusiasm for that sort of activity.

Some things just got left behind as the cycle ramped up.  I really enjoyed working amateur radio satellites and had hoped to one day build an EME-capable station.  One of my all-time most popular blog posts is the story of the capture here of telemetry from a wayward NASA satellite: (NanoSail-D: Sailing the New Sea)  As HF conditions improved, however, I spent most of my time building out that part of the station and the VHF/UHF stuff was put aside for another day.

Other things were left behind for different reasons.  Several extremely rare IOTA island groups were nearby and I invested a huge amount of time and treasure in "activating" them.  The culmination of my efforts was a 5-day stay on Greens Island in the NA-182 group: (CK8G - The Perfect Storm)  I made almost 5000 contacts from there in April 2010 but after that the novelty started to fade.  The next year VE8GER and I traveled to Tent Island in the NA-193 group.  Propagation was lousy and we ended up getting chased home by some unexpected bad weather: (XK1T - Snake Eyes)  It made for good stories but I haven't really had the urge to go back to any of these places yet and, thanks to my efforts, they are no longer considered that rare.

I had always been a bit of a DXer but once conditions had improved I realized that if I paid attention to what countries were active I could generally work anything that was on the air.  Between the countries I had worked as a beginner back in the nineties and the new ones that came along regularly, I did a pretty good job of getting everything in the log that was available, at least on one band or mode: (The Verdict is In)  By the time we slid into the current solar minimum I was needing only a couple of dozen more to have "worked them all".  The new ones keep trickling in and I try to make sure I don't miss any.  I still need a few that have been around sporadically (like SV/A and VK0M) but sooner or later I'm sure they'll find their way into the log.

The biggest shocker of all was the low bands.  When solar minimum conditions returned in 2017 I knew that was time to concentrate on trying to work new ones on 80m.  I thought that maybe if I focused my attention it might be possible to work 100 countries there and be eligible for the 5-Band DXCC award before I passed on.  I figured I might have four years now and at least four years at the bottom of the next cycle.  After that I wasn't so sure but if I worked at it then maybe it would happen.  What I didn't count on was how the new FT8 digital mode would take the ham radio community by storm.  Released in mid-2017 it allowed contacts to made under very marginal propagation conditions.  The instant popularity combined with being able to "see" all the stations that were active meant that instead of taking a lifetime it only took me 13 months to work those last 70 countries I needed to earn DXCC on 80m.  Now I think that DXCC is possible from up here even on 160m (and I'm well on my way already!)

I intend to keep writing here, perhaps not as often as I used to, but certainly whenever something noteworthy happens.  I don't know how many people out there actually read what I write but I love being able to go back myself and take a little walk down memory lane once in a while.  Maybe someday I'll turn it all into a book.

John VE8EV