Sunday, December 18, 2011

RAC Winter VE8RAC(VE8EV) SO Mixed HP

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

Class: SO Mixed HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 20

Band CW Qs Ph Qs CW Mults Ph Mults
160:    23    5       4      3
80:     63   31       4      6
40:     96   91       9     10
20:    128  215       9     11
15:     97  303       9     10
10:     26  156       5      7
6:       1    1       1      1
2:       1    1       1      1
Total: 435  803      42     49 Total Score = 581,854


+11 RAC

What a deal, two contests with no aurora in the same year! I had lots of fun and was able to wave the RAC flag pretty evenly across all the bands.
Sure glad I'm not the one who has to answer all those VE8RAC QSL requests!

73 and Happy Holidays,
John VE8EV

Monday, December 12, 2011

Checks and Balances

My XYL is fond of reminding me that life is all about checks and balances. When it comes to amateur radio under the auroral oval that is especially true. When the high-latitude K-index is zero (as measured at the NOAA station in College, Alaska, only a few degrees south of us) propagation will generally be good. Higher than zero is not as good, and more than two is just plain bad. According to my research, there have only been 15 days this year where the high-latitude K-index was zero for the whole day. That means that for any particular event, like a contest or dxpedition, the chances of having good conditions are only 1 in 23 or about 4%, just slightly better than the odds of rolling snake eyes on a pair of dice. The rest of the time we just struggle along and do the best we can under the circumstances. More sunspots certainly help but that also increases the frequency of solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and other solar badness that rains down from space and stirs up the aurora.

I’ve been pretty lucky this past couple of years with having those long odds come in during expeditions and contests. If you’re planning an Arctic dxpedition you can at least try to increase your chances a bit by scheduling it for a period during the sun's 27-day rotational cycle with no recurring coronal holes. Coronal holes increase the solar wind and generate high K-indices. For contests and other fixed-date events though, it's all luck of the draw. I managed to hit the low K numbers for most of my island expeditions in 2010 but our trip to Tent Island in June this year was something of a washout due to the poor conditions. For many years I had fantasized about what the ARRL Sweepstakes contest would be like without aurora and this year it finally happened. The K-index was at zero for the entire duration of the contest and it was everything I always dreamt it would be. The high bands were open late, the low bands were productive, and new records were set. Only two weeks later I decided to get on during the CQ World Wide CW contest and maybe pick up some new countries for DXCC. A little bit farther south of us conditions were being reported as great although many had difficulty working stations on paths that crossed over the pole. The K-index here peaked at 4 and there was a solar radiation storm to boot. I could hear a few weak signals from the west coast of the USA but that was it.

The high Arctic certainly is an interesting place to live but it's all checks and balances when it comes to ham radio.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

ARRL 10-meter Contest

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

Class: SO CW LP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 14

Band QSOs Mults
CW: 322    63
Total: 322 63 Total Score = 81,144


Just 100 watts and a vertical for this one so I decided to go CW only. The marginal antenna, low power, aurora, low SSN and lack of time all conspired to keep the numbers low. Given my limited CW prowess it was probably just as well. When I had time to get on the radio I'd find a quiet corner at the higher end of the band and run callers with only an occasional foray to S&P the loud guys. I got up early Saturday and CQ'd away for four hours without a single caller, hoping for that mythical morning opening to Europe. It didn't appear and I suspect that from this part of the world in December it never will. Still, the band was open to everywhere in North America for at least five hours both days so I certainly can't complain.

My ability to copy CW is still a bit ropey and I was kind of nervous at the very beginning. Wouldn't you know the very first answer I get to my cq was 7K4QOK! Once I got through that the rest was fairly smooth sailing. The rate meter actually hit 100 for a few short bursts so I guess I'm starting to get the hang of it. Worked a pretty good cross section of W/VE, a handful of Asians, VK/ZL, and a few South Americans (although not as many as I remember from the old days on 10m).

Lots of giggles in this one for some reason. The best was working the W8 with the drifting TX. He was zero beat at the start of each call but his frequency would increase with every key stroke until he was out of my passband. After three tries I finally opened up the filter to 3K and got him in the log. For some reason it sounded hysterically funny and I chuckled about it all day long. I also found it very amusing that it took me three tries to figure out why the KH7 station was laughing at me instead of sending his exchange. Is this what normally happens to people after listening to beeping for hours on end?

Happy Holidays and hope to hear everyone in the RAC Winter Contest next weekend!

John VE8EV

Monday, November 21, 2011


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

Class: Single Op HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 24

Band QSOs
160:      0
80:       1
40:      95
20:     431
15:    1009
10:     198
Total: 1734  Sections = 80  Total Score = 277,440


I had a whole assortment of issues all weekend but, oh boy, did the conditions ever make up for the things that went wrong!

I stayed in the chair for the whole 24 hours and for the first time ever I didn't run out of propagation. 15m was the money band all weekend. 40m was slow Saturday night but at least the rate meter never hit zero. When 15m got a bit too crowded for my liking on Sunday I went up to 10m and had a great run there for a couple of hours. I avoided 20m like the plague. It was wide open to everywhere at once and everyone was stacked two or three deep from one end of the band to the other although I did manage a nice run there during the last hour Sunday when it finally started to thin out a bit.

I went hunting for PR (last thing before bed Saturday night on 40m) and VI (first thing in the morning on 20m) and lucky I did as they were the only ones heard. All the rest came to me and the sweep was in the bag early Sunday. Also bested the old NT section record by almost 50K.

The computer crashed about a half a dozen times Sunday afternoon before I figured out the problem, apologies to those that I stranded in the middle of a contact. Despite the glitches, PowerSDR and the Flex worked like gangbusters dealing with the QRM and finding gaps to slide into.

Thanks to all for the Q's, especially all the '1 Alpha's that called in and muddled their way through the exchange for me to make the contact.

73 John VE8EV

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

As Good as it Gets

As regular readers might know, propagation at this latitude is always dominated by the aurora. Right overhead almost all the time, it seems that HF conditions here only seem to vary from "poor" to "nil". As this solar cycle started to ramp up (finally!) it seemed that things got even worse as the increased activity stirred up the aurora more than it improved propagation. Finally, though, I think we’ve reached the tipping point where the solar flux is high enough that signals are able to push through most of the auroral disturbance and thanks to a rare lull in the geomagnetic activity this past week the propagation has been absolutely astounding!

I’m in the process of moving so I haven't bothered to put the yagi back up after taking it down in July. With only a 23ft non-resonant vertical as a backup antenna I haven't been very active lately. Most of my contacts have been limited to the odd JT65 or CW QSO in the evenings. It was becoming rare to even hear stations on SSB (never mind trying to actually work them!) and I was beginning miss the days of zero sunspots and zero auroral activity when I could at least count on 20 meters to be open for a little while each day. Last weekend, though, with the sun spot numbers firmly in the triple digits and the solar flux index around 150, my perception totally changed. 10m and 12m were both open late into the evening here and 15m and 20m seemed to be going around the clock.

Friday evening I went out to the shack and was surprised to hear the T32C Kiribati expedition on 10m SSB. I easily worked them and then heard them again on 12m. And worked them. And then again on 15m. And worked them. In fact, just in the space of 90 minutes I had them in the log on 8 different band/mode combinations! With a just couple of hours again on Saturday evening and an early morning excursion Sunday for the low bands I had them on every band except 160m and a total of 18 band/mode slots all in one weekend. I’m usually happy just to make any contact with a big dxpedition. A couple of years ago I blogged about chasing the K5D Desecheo group and back in January I spent almost two weeks trying to work the VP8ORK expedition, only managing to eke out a single ESP-strength CW contact on 20m the one day that I could even hear them. And that was with the yagi and the amplifier!

According to the scientists predictions, this is it: the peak of cycle 24. Hopefully these conditions will last at least for the next several months. I sure hope so because the geomagnetic activity peak usually lags the sunspot peak by a few years. The forecast for this latitude a few years from now could be pretty gloomy...

The amazing conditions continued for the rest of the expedition!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Shack of Ages

I was going through an old family photo album and found a picture I didn't recall seeing before.  As a young 13-year old SWL this was my first "shack".  The old Philips receiver was an early 60's solid-state unit and I remember that it was supposed to be powered by a dozen D-cell batteries but I had it wired up to an old car battery and a charger.

1977 - I used the little 3-channel CB to talk to my buddies with "walkie-talkies"

Many happy hours were spent tuning the world and collecting QSL cards from short wave broadcast stations and my walls were decorated with the schedules and posters the broadcasters used to send along with their verifications.
I pursued other interests as a teenager and it wasn't until my late twenties that I became interested in radio again.  A new Yaesu FRG-8800 all-mode receiver quickly led to my amateur license and a second-hand Cubic Astro 151 rig.

1993 - The original ham shack. I spent a lot of time making digital contacts on AMTOR and the new (then) PACTOR mode.

A couple of years later I moved to a new QTH and upgraded to a Yaesu FT-767GX with the 6m/2m/70cm option modules.  I also modified my FRG-8800 receiver with a 70cm downconverter and the factory 2m option module and worked the world via the AO-13 satellite.  It was still a few years before cell phones, the internet, and text messaging and visitors to the shack were wowed by the amazing communications abilities via HF digital modes, intercontinental contacts through high-orbit satellites, and global messaging via LEO store-and-forward packet satellites. 

1995 - World traveller Gwen VK3DYL calls home from the Arctic.

Life goes on and when I started a new family and a new career ham radio fell by the wayside.  The equipment was disassembled, the shack converted to a children's room and there was very little free time left over for hobbies.  It would be another ten years before I was finally able to get back on the air.  This time I built the shack in a portable trailer so I could relocate it at will.  A new Kenwood TS-2000 replaced the old radios and new soundcard modes in software replaced the TNC's and dedicated computers.  Now, all the station functions were on a single PC and a single radio.

2008 - Back on the air after all those years.

The first time I ever saw an HP TouchSmart computer I knew I wanted one for the shack.  I had been contemplating a rack mount console arrangement for a long time and the touchscreen was finally the motivation to build it.  Both sides of console tilt forward for easy access to all the cabling in the back while all the controls are within easy reach.  A wireless mouse and keyboard keep the number of exposed wires to a bare minumum.

2011 - A Flex 3000 software defined radio is the latest addition.

Having used the new console layout for over a year now, I find it to be completely satisfactory in all respects.  I expect the layout will remain essentially the same for the foreseeable future and new efforts will all be focused on towers and antennas.  That will be a good topic for a future posting :)

Friday, July 29, 2011

VE8EV/P - Instant Expedition

I'll be operating from Victoria Island NA-006 this weekend during the IOTA contest and as time permits.  Hope to hear you!

Edit: operation was July 30 - August 1, 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011


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

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

Band  CW Qs  Ph Qs  CW Mults  Ph Mults
   20:  260    566      12        12
Total:  260    566      12        12 
Total Score = 97,200



292 VE, 7 RAC

For me this turned into two completely different contests.  The first one was Thursday.  All night I had lots of callers and good rate on both modes.  When things slowed down at 0630z I already had 500 QSO's in the log and had bagged all but a few multipliers.  I grabbed three hours sleep and when I got back on things were still pretty slow and just went downhill from there.  Lots of power line noise and very few signals to be heard.  I struggled all day Friday to put 300 contacts in the log over 13 hours.  I spent most of the day on CW as very little was coming through on phone.  There were several zero rate hours around midday and I eventually threw in the towel an hour early, took my toys and went home.  Apologies for all the mangled callsigns and CQing in the faces of callers I couldn't hear.  Better luck next time!

Low points:

- What should have been an easy run of Europeans at midnight turned into a packet frenzy when someone spotted me as a rare IOTA island.  I went split for a while but eventually gave up and retreated to the friendlier waters of the Pacific.

- I'm not a CW guy.  I'm having lots of fun contesting in CW but my 20wpm repertoire pretty much ends after callsigns and 5NN+exchange.  I felt like a deer in the headlights several times when guys felt the need to chit-chat.  All FB, but I'm just not there yet.  Maybe next year...

High points:

+ First contest with the new Flex, all integrated with the touchscreen and N3FJP for CAT, keying and voice.  Sweet!  Not a single hiccup through the whole event and when all the big signals were booming in Thursday night the sharp filter skirts almost brought a tear to my eye.

+ Almost making the dual-mode mult sweep.  I had VY0HL call me on both modes Thursday night and at the end I only needed VY1 on CW and (doh!) NT on phone.

73 and Happy Canada Day!
de VE8EV

Monday, June 20, 2011

XK1T - Snake Eyes

Every time I activate a rare island in the Arctic I always remember to give a large part of the credit to luck.  Bad weather, either on the ground or especially in space, can scuttle the plans of even the most well organized expeditions.  On our trip to Tent Island (IOTA NA-193) this time luck was definitely not on our side!

Planning for an activation of NA-193 began almost a year ago.  Herschel was the only island in the Yukon Territory Group and it had been activated three times before.  Despite the activity, demand for the group had increased over time and this year it landed back on the official IOTA "Most Wanted" list.  Herschel Island is a bit far from here so I began studying the coastline with Google Earth and the official Canadian government mapping data.  I quickly found Tent Island which was just a few kilometres inside the Yukon border and only 130 kilometres (by air) from home!

Gerry, VE8GER, has a 19' boat and our original plan was for a summer trip to the island during the IOTA contest in July.  Gerry happened to make a trip up that way last summer and reported that in addition to very shallow water the area was inhabited by thick swarms of ferocious mosquitoes!  We quickly decided that a snowmobile trip in the spring would be a far better idea and began to make plans accordingly.  As spring drew nearer, however, we just couldn't fit a trip into our schedules and had to come up with a third option.  We would go by boat in early June when the water levels would be highest and the mosquitoes would (hopefully) not be out yet.

It was a hot, sunny day when we set sail for Tent Island.  We spent the afternoon packing the equipment and loading the boat and by 5pm we were underway for what was expected to be a four hour cruise.  The route to Tent Island took us down the Mackenzie River through a 120km long maze of channels in the river delta followed by a 35km stretch across the aptly-named Shallow Bay on the Arctic Ocean. 

Tugboats and barges along the river as we head north towards the Arctic Ocean.

We made good time through the river channels but once we arrived at Shallow Bay our luck started to change.  We took this part of the trip very seriously as there have been many fatalities over the years with boaters running aground out in the bay miles from shore.  Despite several attempts we could not find deep enough water to get out into the bay.  After several close calls we decided to back-track and head an hour further north towards Langley Island and try to cross the bay from there.  By this time the weather had turned cold and cloudy, a fog had rolled in, and there were two-foot swells rolling down the bay.  By GPS and depth soundings we picked our way between the islands and finally made it out onto the bay.  The heavy seas and fog made for slow going and there was rarely more than four feet of water under the keel all the way across.  The swells were frequently breaking over the bow but we made steady progress.  Shortly after midnight the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we caught our first view of Tent Island in the distance.  Even that close to our goal we were still not sure we would be able to land.  We tried several different approaches to the island that were all too shallow but eventually we found our way in and made landfall on the east side of the island.  Two huge driftwood logs had blown up on shore and made for a perfect place to pitch the tent and provide anchors for the tower.  We spent the next three hours unloading the boat and making camp.  Our tent was a huge 12'x14' canvas wall tent and we took our time to make sure it was well secured.  We were both well aware that the two big logs we were anchoring the tent to did not just fall out of the sky!  When a storm blows in off the Arctic Ocean the surge can go several hundred metres inland and being only 2 metres above sea level it was obvious that anything on Tent Island could easily be washed away.

Setting up camp under the midnight sun at Tent Island, Yukon.

The following morning was a beautiful, calm, sunny day as we worked on assembling the tower, yagi, and HF station.  Luck was still not on our side, though.  The yagi had been strapped to the side of the boat and the heavy seas coming across the bay the night before had filled the traps with water.  We spent the next two hours disassembling the antenna and taking apart the traps to dry the coils.  Just after midnight zulu we finally had the antenna up and working and got on the air. 

Yagi all dried out, stood up, and ready to get on the air!

Conditions were only fair the first night.  After working North American sunset and some Pacific contacts we turned our attention over the pole to Europe.  More bad luck.  Only a handful of Scandinavian and Russian stations were making it through.  We found out later that despite the promising auroral forecast, a solar coronal mass ejection and several small solar flares had conspired to keep the K-index at 2 or higher.  We shut down at one in the morning that day with only 300 contacts in the log.

The next day was windy, cloudy and cool.  The K-index was at 3 and we limped along until late afternoon when the propagation gave out entirely.  I switched to CW and called CQ for over an hour with only 4 replies!  Fortunately, I had also brought along my portable satellite gear and worked many stations via AO-51, SO-50, and AO-27 satellites.

Making our own propagation via amateur radio satellite. 

Things eventually picked up during NA sunset and then improved steadily all night.  I had high hopes that we were finally going to get a big opening to Europe so while Gerry worked the early risers I took a nap and planned to come on at 0600z and run as long as I could.  I dozed and listened to Gerry making slow, steady progress with what sounded like an unruly pileup.  This was his first experience running with a big pileup and I thought about relieving him early but he was holding his own.  I decided it would be better to rest up so I could focus on rate later on. 

VE8GER running his first pileup and doing a damn fine job!

Once again, though, lady luck spat in our eye.  I got up around midnight and took over right about the time we ran out of propagation to Europe.  I was expecting the band to stay open all night but now the only Europeans making it through were weak and watery and couldn't hear us at all.  I stayed at it for several hours and put a few hundred JA's in the log but that was it.  Around four in the morning the generator ran out of gas, the wind came up, and it started to rain.  I went to bed happy that we were at least starting to make some progress and was sure that propagation would be even better tomorrow.

First thing the next morning Gerry was woken by a crash as the flapping tent had pushed the watt meter off top of the amplifier.  I started to come around when he came back in from starting the generator, dripping wet from head to toe.  The wind and rain had continued all night and water was running into the tent from numerous places.  Upon trying the radio we found that the rain had soaked the traps again and the SWR was off-scale-high.  We decided the best course of action would be to pack up the radio gear for safekeeping and wait for the winds and rain to die down so we could fix the antenna.  I felt better after the gear was safely stowed but conditions continued to deteriorate.  A support for the corner of the tent let loose and we struggled in the wind and rain to get it retied.  Worse still was the ground.  When we were setting up we found that the permafrost was only about six inches below the surface.  With the heavy rainfall the ground was now becoming quickly saturated.  Puddles started appearing in the tent as the ground under the tarpaulins kept getting squishier.  Soon everywhere you stood a puddle would quickly form around your feet.  Not yet willing to give up, I kept making satellite contacts from inside the tent, but things were not looking good.  Around four in the afternoon I went outside and was horrified to discover the boat had come partially untied and was threatening to wash up on the beach.  Having high seas push the boat up onto the beach and stranding us was my biggest fear!  Worse still, it had dragged the rope across our fuel cache knocking over several gas cans which were now leaking our precious fuel!  I hollered for Gerry and we spent the next hour repositioning the boat and getting it safely re-tied.

Once the boat was secured I surveyed our situation.  The storm was not showing any signs of letting up.  Our campsite had turned into a swamp and was well on its way to turning into a lake.  Even if the rain stopped right away we would still have to abandon the camp site and (maybe) find a better place to pitch the tent.  The yagi was still out of service until we could take it down and dry out the traps, and if we moved the tent we'd need to relocate the tower as well.  We were both soaked to the skin and there were limited prospects of getting dry any time soon.  I suggested to Gerry that maybe we should think about packing up and heading home. 

Our perfect campsite transformed into a swamp and was now becoming a lake!

We kicked around the options and decided that there were only two.  Either way we had to tear everything down and load up the boat and then we could either go home -or- we could wait out the storm in the boat, try to find a new campsite, and start all over.  Given the conditions, finding a better spot seemed unlikely.  Even if the rain quit right away it would still be days before everything (including ourselves!) dried out.  The wind was pushing the water into the bay against the river current so the water levels were up.  We decided to get while the gettin' was good.  Gerry and I flopped around in the mud and rain for the next couple of hours tearing everything down and loading up the boat.  We pushed off around 9PM and after an hour of pounding through the three and four foot swells on Shallow Bay we were safely back into the river channels and headed for home. 

Final QSO total was only 830, fairly evenly split between North America, Europe, and Asia.  Of those, 35 were on satellite and 5 on CW.  Better luck next time, I hope!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

XK1T Update: Back on dry land

Had to cut the expedition short and abandon the island as a storm came in off the Arctic Ocean early this morning with high winds and torrential rainfall.  Details to follow in the morning but we made it back, soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone, but nevertheless safe and sound.

John VE8EV

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

XK1T - Update

We didn't get nearly as much prep time as we wanted due to busy schedules leading up to our trip.  We'll start packing gear and loading the boat in the morning (Wednesday) and we'll see how it goes.  When we're ready to go, we'll go!

Weather and propagation (aurora) are both predicted to be marginal but at least there's no snow in the forecast.  We had snow almost every day last week but today it's +22C.  Just depends whether the wind is blowing in off the Arctic Ocean or not.

As with all my previous trips we have a very detailed list of equipment to pack and a spacious 16'x20' tent to operate from so once we arrive on the island we'll be good to go.  It's about a four hour trip from town out to the island.

I'll update this post right before we leave.

John - VE8EV

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

XK1T - Tent Island NA-193

The dates are set for the next island trip. VE8GER and myself will be activating Tent Island, Yukon in IOTA NA-193, and a new one for CISA from June 16th through June 19th. Our primary mode will be SSB but look for us on CW later in the operation or if conditions are poor. We'll have the yagi, amplifier, and wires, and will mostly be active on 20m. Some operation on 30m, 17, and 15m is also likely.

I'll post another update prior to departure or if anything changes.

John - VE8EV

Thursday, March 3, 2011

When All Else Fails...

The ARRL has adopted the slogan "When All Else Fails..." to highlight the critical role amateur radio plans in the aftermath of natural disasters.  But what happens when "All Else" just fails on its own?  Last week I had yet another opportunity to find out.

Living on the edge of the world has it's communications challenges.  For many years up until around the turn of the century we were served by a robust and multi-layered communications system.  There was a chain of microwave relay sites going south that handled all the telephone and low-bandwidth digital circuits.  Most private networks were carried by satellite.  Commercial HF radio was still widely used across the north for aeronautical and marine communications.  The nascent internet was still a low bit-rate, dial-up affair.  Then the telephone company upgraded it's network.  The old analog equipment was replaced with a new chain of high bandwidth, all-digital microwave sites.  Suddenly, bandwidth was cheap(er) and plentiful.  Companies dropped their private satellite links and leased lines from the telco.  The commercial HF networks were still there but now they were operated remotely from the south.  In the same timeframe, Internet usage exploded and the "cashless society" emerged.  Paper money became passé as most people only carried debit and credit cards.  The digital revolution had finally arrived.

This wasn't the first time everything had come to a screeching halt.  About once or twice a year "the network" goes down.  In the south everything would be instantly re-routed but up here at the end of line that isn't an option.  Usually service is restored within a few hours and until then the stores put up "Cash Only" signs in the window and everyone grumbles about not being able to get on the Internet.  The only difference this time was it went down right before the worst blizzard to hit the area in years.

I got up Friday morning and like most people the first order of business was a cup of coffee and checking my email.  When all the usual troubleshooting failed to make the Internet work I grabbed the phone and dialled a long distance number.  "We're sorry.  Your call cannot be completed."  I had seen the blizzard warning the day before and I knew that we might be without comms for more than just a few hours. I dropped by the mayor's office to discuss emergency communications options, including ham radio, and just about the time I got home it started to snow and the wind picked up.

Visibility was down to near zero as I hunkered down in my shack trailer and started making contacts.  Around lunchtime I touched base with a "local" VY1 station (about 800 miles away) on 40m but most of the day I just ran stations on 20m in JT65 digital mode, smug in the knowlege that my little station was still firmly connected to the outside world.  The storm raged all day and all night.  Saturday morning I went out to discover that the snow had drifted in blocking the door to the shack and even covered the exhaust vent for the little gas heater.  I shovelled the door clear and cleaned the snow out of the heater flue and got back on the radio.  Every fifteen or twenty minutes, though, I had to force the door open and shovel the snow away. By lunchtime I was on the verge of being trapped in the shack and, although I can think of worse places to be trapped, I finally gave up and went into the house.

The storm showed no signs of letting up.  I kept peeking out the window to make sure my antennas were still up and, surprisingly, they stayed up all weekend.  That night the local cell phone company rigged up a satellite link for outgoing long distance calls so at least we had some communications.  I had let all my friends and family know I could get messages out via ham radio if they needed but most only wanted to update their Facebook status.  It was around this time that the novelty of the whole situation started to wear thin.  With no ATMs or debit card machines machines we pooled our cash and made a run to the store for necessities.  Canada has always been far ahead of the rest of the world in electronic banking and particularly so here in the north where banks are few and far between but just then it didn't seem so great.  It was lucky that we just happened to have a few hundred dollars in cash on hand because usually we don't.  Others weren't so fortunate and had to beg or borrow to get by.

On Sunday the winds let up little but at least it stopped snowing.  I got called into work to deal with storm-related issues out there and by mid-afternoon when I got home the winds had finally abated enough to start digging.  The snow was almost to the top of the door on the shack and I spent the rest of the afternoon shovelling.  And shovelling.  And shovelling.  By nightfall I was back in the shack and had all the steps and sidewalk clear.

Monday morning the winds were finally calm and the sun was out.  The phones and internet came back up and life quickly returned to normal.  I spent the rest of the day looking for my truck...

I know I left my truck around here somewhere.

Friday, January 21, 2011

NanoSail-D: Sailing the New Sea

"We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people." - JFK 1962

The idea seems simple enough. Have a sail that can capture the solar wind and use it to propel a spacecraft. This is the concept behind NASA’s Nanosail-D satellite. A joint project between NASA’s Ames Research Center and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Nanosail-D was launched in November 2010 as a sub-satellite riding on another NASA research satellite called FASTSAT. The mission was at first thought to be lost when the Nanosail satellite failed to eject from FASTSAT however on January 19th the satellite unexpectedly popped out of its carrier and began transmitting telemetry data. NASA quickly issued an appeal to amateur radio operators across the world to assist it in collecting data from the satellite.

The next day I got an email from a local ham and avid space enthusiast Nelson, VE8NE, looking to borrow a yagi antenna and a UHF handheld radio to try to receive the signal from Nanosail-D. I knew from experience that picking up the low-powered signal from a tiny microsatellite is really not something you want to attempt for the first time, outside at 35 below zero, and in the dark, so I invited Nelson to come over in the evening and we’d use my satellite station to receive the data.

Now all this wasn’t really news to me. I’d seen the request from NASA in passing but it didn’t strike me as anything unusual. The use of amateur radio frequencies on tiny research satellites is not uncommon and neither is asking the amateur radio community for assistance to downlink the telemetry. It’s usually a rather ho-hum kind of deal but as I looked into this one I realized that it was actually going to do something exciting. Exactly three days after being released from the
"mother-ship" the satellite was programmed to automatically unfurl a gigantic solar sail and that 72-hour timer was due to run out tonight! A quick check of the orbital parameters showed that the satellite would pass by several times and, shortly after the sail was set to deploy, it would pass almost directly overhead. Looking at the ground track I also realized that the satellite would be flying over mostly open ocean on that particular orbit and we might even be one of the first stations to confirm the sail deployment. Needless to say, I got more interested in a hurry!

I dug up the data format for the telemetry frames and hacked up a quick Excel spreadsheet to decode the data so we could tell what was happening. Shortly before the first pass Nelson arrived and we got everything set up. My entire station is automated so once the satellite came over the horizon all I had to do was push a button. The exact position of the satellite is computed mathematically based on the current orbital elements, our precise location on the earth, and the exact time. The tracking software calculates the antenna pointing angles and passes that data to my antenna control program. It also figures out how much to adjust the receiver frequency to compensate for the Doppler shift as the satellite approaches and passes that information along to the radio control program. Finally, the signal from the radio is fed back into the computer sound card where another program turns the received audio back into digital data and displays it on the screen.

The first pass was a bit of a disappointment. The signal was much weaker than I had anticipated and all we decoded were a few partial data packets. As the satellite disappeared over the North Pole and passed over Europe we watched the Twitter feed coming from mission control at Santa Clara University in San Francisco to see if there was any news. A ham in the Netherlands had stayed up late to help relay data (it was the middle of the night there) but the last bits he was able to capture were still a few minutes before the sail was supposed to deploy. Nanosail-D slid down the far side of the world and headed over Antarctica as mission control pleaded on Twitter for someone to send them the data that would confirm whether their experiment had worked or not. Anyone in Australia or New Zealand? What about Hawaii? Alaska? Anyone..?

While we were waiting I had re-calibrated the antennas and moments after the computer said the satellite was back in range we could hear the signals from space. Nelson climbed up on the roof of the shack to see if the satellite (now supposedly sporting a 110 square foot solar sail) was visible to the naked eye while I stayed down below and tweaked the digital filters as the signals got stronger. Finally, after numerous partial decodes, a complete telemetry frame appeared on the screen followed 10 seconds later by another. I quickly pasted the data into my spreadsheet and there it was: SAIL DEPLOYED!

Screen shot of the decoded telemetry. The sail deployed right on schedule!

I hollered to Nelson (still up on the roof) that we got it and immediately transferred one of the frames to NASA with the comment "Merry Christmas!" in the notes field. After Nelson announced on Twitter that we got the confirmation of sail deploy, the guys at mission control asked us (via Twitter) to also send the data to them by email. Shortly after that here is what they posted:

@NanosailD I have data from @naeisel and am checking. First look is promising. Sorry that I have to verify and confirm. Will let everyone know soon.

@NanosailD John @naeisel has done it! I have two valid data sets and both have the correct signatures.

@NanosailD NanoSail-D has sent data that it deployed the sail. Will wait until tomorrow morning for ground based tracking to confirm.

I got a nice email from NASA the next morning confirming that our data was good and we were the first station to report the indications they had been looking for. Never a dull moment in this hobby!

John - VE8EV

The automatic confirmation page received after submitting telemetry.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

VE8SUN - Here Comes The Sun

Living above the Arctic Circle gets me the strangest gift from Mother Nature on my birthday. Every year on December 6th the sun sets and doesn't rise again the next day. Or the next week. In fact, it doesn't come up again for a whole month. After 30 days the sun finally peeks above the horizon for a few minutes and then a bit higher and longer every day after that. The good citizens of Inuvik, Northwest Territories celebrate the return of the sun every year with the Inuvik Sunrise Festival. Bonfires, fireworks, and other public events help to kick off the new year and remind everyone that the days will only be getting longer and warmer from this point on.

To share the fun with everyone else, the Inuvik Amateur Radio Club decided to run a special event station this year in conjunction with the festival. I applied for and received the callsign VE8SUN and on the advertised date we fired up the VE8EV mobile shack. The aurora was pretty heavy so we mostly stuck to 15 and 20 meters. As the electronic overcast flared and subsided it was interesting to hear a big pileup of loud stations calling one minute and then dead silence on the next over. To make up for the lack of HF propagation we also worked the satellites, which generated a surprising percentage of our total contacts!

It was a very pleasant experience to operate with a different style than my usual contest or DXpedition QSO machine. No matter how many were calling I did try to spend a minute or two passing along interesting tidbits about the event and the unusual QTH, although with the unstable conditions it was sometimes difficult. I worked several ops that had visited Inuvik before (either for work or pleasure) and even worked one station in Arctic Norway that was located further north than we were and wasn't expecting their sun to return for another two weeks!

After a lengthly absence the sun just peeks over the horizon.

Full-colour QSLs and certificates will be printed shortly and should be available in a month or so. For QSL details click here.

John - VE8EV