Monday, 24 April 2017

Height, propagation 3 ways in one day, and the Sliced Bread Theory.

After thinking about the conundrum of several receptions of a station while the mast was lowered, I tried to work someone reasonably close on meteor scatter with the antenna deliberately lowered - 5m elevation rather than 10m. I do this even though I suspect it was just random chance.

It was not a perfect test and on its own it means nothing. I would need to run a series of tests to prove anything. But the theory as I understand it goes that lowering the antenna will tend to raise the angle of radiation. So with this in mind I worked OZ3ZW in lightening quick time on 20 April. It is a short 867km path and the software suggests an 11 degree elevation is necessary.

I would need to do a lot of tests to make any headway on whether this really makes much difference from my QTH. The first example of this for me was on 2m, whereas this test was on 4m. So the proximity to the ground in wavelength terms would be different. Also, OZ3ZW is handily placed in a direction where I have no other obstructions - using a 5m mast beaming south would be pointing direct into the roof of the house. So how practical it might be to use lower antenna elevation is a bit doubtful.

Also, I have a bit of a nagging distrust of ground gain calculations. The ground here is always dry, and is exceedingly dry just now. We get terribly bad RF earths. That does not seem to be a great foundation to achieve much. But lets see.
23 April was a busy day.

With the Lyrids peak scheduled for the weekend of 22 and 23 April I had hoped to exceed my results on the previous weekend.

Not a bit of it.

22/23 April seemed like a normal period for MS, save that it was more annoying than usual. I am referring to the odd conditions where you get isolated, strong, reflections. Usually at a peak you get long enough periods of ionisation to conduct a QSO quickly and easily, at least on 6m.

With the isolated strong peaks conditions you get very strong CQs from all sorts of interesting places, in this case particularly from Italy, and then nothing more. If you reply to the CQ you spend 10 minutes transmitting in vain. Bah!

Always the optimist I planned an early start on 23 April and this splendid attention to duty returned a 6m QSO with PA0TCA in JO21 square. Nice as this is, it hardly justified me stirring from my scratcher at 05:00 to get this at 05:55. Eventually at 08:24 I made a scratchy 4m QSO with Jurek SP9HWY who is in JO90 square. The intervening two and half hours produced nothing at all. For an acknowledged shower peak period that was disappointing.

The previous day was a washout and the more sceptical amongst us might have concluded that the Lyrids came a week early. However, old Isaac Newton was pretty good at his physics and these things depend on solar system gravitational forces and they are very predictable events.

I wonder a bit whether some of our old familiar meteor showers are becoming exhausted and are basically not a good as they were. Perhaps new comets and similar bodies will heave into view and leave us new trails. This process happens over a long time period, but I was not expecting it now. Another effect is the relative angles of the showers, which is also predictable and which modulates the intensity of the shower over the years. Perhaps we have just been unlucky recently.

Leaving that aside, there was nice Es opening on 23 April.
10m Es WSPR at GM4FVM on 23 April 2017
This looked like a proper Summer Es type event. Gianfranco, IU1DZZ was a good signal over a two hour period. Later I even heard EA8, though that seemed to be part of a very weak F layer event.

I count the start of the Summer Es season from the first 6m (or 4m if it is first) contact. I did not get one on 23 April, though other GM stations did. Just the luck of the draw really, or my lossy co-ax?

So with Meteor Scatter and Es during the day, I was able to complete an Aurora contact too, in the evening. I heard Clive GM4VVX calling "CQ A" with serious AU distortion on his signal so I had to have a go. I could not manage to plug in the key, but I proceeded with the CW memory in the TS-590. I had a simple QSO programmed in, so it was slightly formal but it worked. So all three propagation methods produced a QSO on that day.
As I write this on 24 April there has been another Es opening.
10m Es WSPR at GM4FVM on 24 April 2017
Once again I had no success working anyone on 6m though other GM stations did. Personally I blame the white sliced loaf. Since bread production went industrial nothing has been the same.

Mrs FVM has taken up home baking and our bread has improved no end, but she cannot change the world single handedly.

Sorry about that, it was another attempt on my part to match the crazy ideas others have about radio propagation. They never seem to need a reason for good propagation (apart from their own operating excellence), but they can always be relied on for something bonkers when they turn on and there is nothing but white noise.

I (of course) am above such things.

The Es area showing on DXMaps on both days was over the North Sea and too close for 6m propagation from here, though GM stations further north and west did better. This is an alternative explanation, but I am sticking to the bread idea.

Lets hope all three aspects of VHF propagation improve further.




Sunday, 23 April 2017

5 element for 50MHz up at last, Aurora missed.

It is hard for me to imagine this, but my 5 element PowAbeam has been lurking in my garage since last November. I had always planned to put a better antenna up on the CUG mast once it was in place. In the event it had to manage with the 3 element section of my old Vine 50MHz/70MHz beam for the past six months.

At last a day arrived when I had the energy and the weather to get the new antenna up. All it should take was an hour or so to assemble it and replace the co-ax plug ... ?

Aurora was predicted, so I was hoping for a quick job. The antenna is aloft now, but it did not go up there easily.
PowAbeam 5 element for 50MHz now installed at GM4FVM
The difference in scale between the two antennas goes beyond the increase in boom length - from 2m to 3m. The Vine is a compromise antenna for two bands, the new PowAbeam is specifically built for 6m. I am hoping for at least a 2dB improvement. And then again the PowAbeam is a lot more substantially made and should resist the winds well. Being larger, it is also a lot heavier. Whilst my old HF minibeam is heavier still, it has a much shorter boom. I suspect that this is the largest antenna I have ever used.

It is hard to represent the difference between the antennas, so I took some photos ...
The two antennas with car for scale

With the old Vine (left) you can see the 4m element remaining as this can be a dual band antenna
Anyway, PowAbeams are easy to build. All you need is the correct Allen Key ("hex key"), and a couple of spanners (10mm and 13mm in this case). They say you can do it in 10 minutes but I try to make sure that the elements are correctly measured in the centre using the Stauff mounting blocks. It was longer than 10 minutes, but still easy to do.

Taking the old antenna off and installing the new one on the mast was simple enough. First snag then was corrosion in the co-ax. I had to take off the PL259 plug used by the Vine and replace it with the "N" type used by the PowAbeam.When I opened the self amalgamating tape which was covering the existing connection the PL259s looked bright and clearly no damp had penetrated the seal. On removing the 259 I noticed that the solder inside seemed to have softened and turned to mush. Time to investigate further.

Cutting back the outer sheath revealed corrosion on the braid.
Corroded braid in the co-ax (note that the short length near the plug was relatively clean)
The black discolouration is familiar to me as I a similar problem with this run of co-ax when I tried to fit the ill-fated (and poorly performing) Mirfield "Quad Band" vertical about a year ago. At that time I cut the cable back for the same reason.

As the plugs seemed clean and there was no damp this time, I think this is another sign of the problem noted last year. Possibly I just happened to cut back to a short clean bit last year. Maybe there was further corrosion then if I had gone far enough back to find it. So this time I cut back in stages and found it stretched quite a way down the braid. I eventually found reliably clean bright braid after removing the last metre or so of cable.
Clean braid after cutting back a metre of cable
It remains possible that the damage to the cable may have gone further along and will cause further problems. For now though it seems only to be the end section, and the antenna seems to be performing well. 

That unexpected work took time, and to add to my frustration my mobile phone was constantly beeping to warn me of an Aurora. I also got a text from a local amateur to warn me. Infuriatingly I had to reply that my mast was tilted over and it was taking a while to get everything back aloft. I could have left 6m and operated on 4m and 2m, but once this job was started I though I had better finish. After all, the good weather might not hold.

When you want to get finished, I find that it is usually the last thing which lets you down. In this case it was the compression "N" type plug. It looked pristine, but when I took it out of the bag it turned out that there was solder on the brass centre pin. I must have used it before. I cleaned off the solder and tried to fit it. As usual, the two major issues I have with these plugs can to hold me up.

First, I cannot understand how you can effectively solder the centre pin. I know the theory, which is that if the pin is hot enough the solder will sink into the pin by capillary action and coat the cable centre. It is just that it never seems to work that way for me. With Mrs FVM diverted from some essential task to hold the co-ax I finally got it on somehow.

Then the second problem arose. As I so often find, it was impossible to start the lock nut threading into the barrel of the plug. As this compresses the rubber seal you have to do it, but in the process it is necessary to push the barrel one way, the nut the other way, and turn one relative to the other at the same time. As Mrs FVM had returned to whatever it is she does, I had to finish it myself. And it just would not go in. I knew that once I got the threads started it would be fine but ... grrr, it just would not start.

Eventually, of course, I got it going, got the mast vertical and the beam is now officially "up". Whether 2dB makes any difference remains to be seen. So does the question of whether it is indeed 2dB or a lot less. We shall see.

But progress has been made, I suppose. It took over four hours to do it.

The Aurora seemed to be over by the time I got back into the shack. Via Aurora I heard various beacons, and GM4VVX on 2m and GM4UYE on 6m. No contact resulted.

More Aurora is promised for later today. Now that I am ready, what chance is there of that happening?




Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Mother of All Meteor Scatter Contacts (MAMSC)

For someone who could have won the All Ireland Waffling Contest in his youth, and who went on to get better at rambling sentences with age, I write very terse notes in my diary. You all know how easy it is for me to fill a blank page (several pages really) on this blog, but the diary entry last weekend simply said :-

Lyrids Starts

And so they did. Hooray!
15 minutes of 6 metre meteor scatter reception as shown on PSK reporter on 16 April at 13:39
PSK reporter as shown above does not report all the contacts available as many stations do not turn it on.

The Lyrids meteor shower is one of the top five of the year and often produces excellent results. Hence the diary entry.

Even old GM4FVM got in on the act. It helped that I could not sleep very well and had some early starts. QSOs at 05:39 are not common hereabouts. Over the four days since activity suddenly picked up I worked:-

2 metres
OH6KTL (KP02 1505km) SM0EJY (JO89 1224)

4 metres
OK2BRD (JN79 1291), OZ2OE (JO45 742), OZ1JXY (JO46 732), OK1DIG (JO60 1228), SP9HWY (JO90 1539) LA9BM (JP40 798)

6 metres
S59A (JN76 1610), ON5PU (JO21 687)

All of these, except ON5PU, were stations I had worked before, but at least it was activity. And OK1DIG was a new square for 4m, as previously I had only worked Dan on 2m.

MAMSC, (the mother of all MS contacts) (why do we have these silly "mother of" things?), was working SM0EJY.

So here is the anatomy of a 2 metre meteor scatter contact.

Mrs FVM wanted to watch something on the television, called Broadband or something. Some sort of detective drama which is too dark for me to want to follow. It isn't the delightful "Brokenwood Mysteries" or similar comforting quirky series with flawed detectives and jolly macabre pathologists who are full of delight at doing another gruesome post-mortem. No, time for a bit of amateur radio for me.

With at least an hour to occupy I decided to call CQ for ten minutes each on 6m, 4m and 2m. It took a while to start, so CQ on 2m was from 20:42 to 20:52, beaming East. I had expected to be on for longer, but Mrs FVM emerged at 20:59 and said that she was tired and it was bedtime for her (almost 10pm local time). Not having seen any response to my CQs I decided to go outside and wind down the antenna and turn in.

On returning to the shack I found this on the screen:-

21:02         PJY 26 26 GM4FVM SM

Hmmm. This looks like SM?PJY, but there is no sign of that callsign in, so maybe something else. Nothing else for it but to go back out and put the antenna back up.

I turned the beam towards SM and started calling QRZ? GM4FVM. or QRZ? SM? GM4FVM.


Until this:-

21:21        26 26 GM4FVM?

The question mark was probably an invalid character. So who is this? Where to point the antenna?

Going through the listings, there was no SM callsign ending in PJY. There is, however, an SP3PJY, a Polish club station. I tried turning the beam a bit more South of East and tried calling QRZ there.


I decided to call beaming East until a hour after the initial CQ, which would be 21:52. Two metre meteor scatter can be like this. It can take a hour to get one piece of information. During the peak meteor shower, in the morning, you can complete a QSO in minutes. In the evening it can take ages. As the beams are far more directional on 2m, it is hard to know which way to beam.

In this case, almost an hour in, I had no idea of the callsign of the station calling. Nor did I know which country it was in. Plus it was getting late, and it was even later in clock time in either Sweden or Poland, or anywhere to the East.

This is getting like my two longest QSOs which each lasted about 3 hours. Both were in the evening, but in those cases I had been alerted by email so I knew that the station was standing by. This one might have gone to bed by now.

But still, the neurosis of the amateur digs in. This is the only time I feel any connection with Tony Hancock's spineless "Radio Ham". Waiting an hour to get the other guy's callsign creates amazing thoughts in the mind. Could this be a real DX station? Is this the QSO to set a record? It must be, if it takes an hour.

So at 21:52 I went out to lower the antenna and give up. On returning to the shack I found this:-

21:55    GM4FVM SM0EJY 26

I had been wasting my time looking for SM0EJY in, as Andy isn't even listed in it. However, I had worked him before, so the logbook provided all the details I needed.

Nothing else for it but to go back out for the fourth time and wind the antenna back up again. At least now I know who it is. I can point the beam the right way. But is he still there? Has he now gone to bed? After all, he has been sending the same message for over an hour himself. Is anyone else determined enough to spend so much time to complete a repeat QSO?

If it takes a hour to get the callsign, how long will it take to get the report?
Well, at least I can now change my QRZ? message into SM0EJY GM4FVM 26 26. So that is what I did.

The reply came after just 24 minutes!

22:19    PCR8 RRRR RRRR SM0E

Now you might think that this is not enough. It is only a partial callsign. The question is, how many SM0E.. stations might there be on 2m meteor scatter to confuse it with? I doubt if SM0EUI has decided to pop up here. If it was a contest I might take a different view, but in these circumstances this is good enough for me. Me, in a contest? Time to send 73.

And then of course we get into the 73 dilemma. I need to receive a 73 because it lets me know to stop sending my 73. It provides "closure". He needs to receive my CQ for the same reason, but he is under no obligation to send one. It is not an essential part of the QSO. It would be nice if he did because it would end it for me and it might provide some more characters to confirm the last reception.

For once I need not have worried too much as the reply came at 22:30

22:30    ,CM0EJY 73 SAP

There is a sequence there M0EJY 73 S which is a slice from the repeated SM0EJY 73 which was what I was after. Time to turn off and wind the antenna down, again.

So what is to be learned here? Well, outside the peak morning session, MS QSOs can take a while. This one was not quite up there with Father of All Meteor Scatter Contacts (FAMSC) or even Uncle Terry of All Meteor Scatter Contacts (UTAMSC), which were three hours each. But they were skeds, pre-arranged, and I knew at the start who they were with. This was a random contact coming from a CQ. That is the way I like it (no KST chat room here). At 20:52 to 22:30 it was only 98 minutes (or 108 minutes maximum, as I am not sure when Andy heard my first CQ). A mere split second in the great scheme of things. I mean, which HF DX champion would spend less that an hour and a half on one single QSO?

Sometimes I sit and listen to HF contests. I hear stations using CW so fast that it puts me off even trying to listen beyond the callsigns, never mind actually coming on and giving them a point. How many QSOs do they get into 98 minutes? On the other hand, I judge a QSO by how difficult it was to complete, rather than how fast I can cram it in to my busy schedule. You may come to your own conclusion. And of course there is room for both.

It is a contact like this which gives rise to habits. If I cannot get a reply now, I know that the thing to do is to go outside and wind down the antenna. Maybe not.

Could it be that lowering the antenna might have raised the take-off angle and made the contact possible? I doubt it, but you never know. The software suggests a 6 degree take-off angle as the optimum for this contact.

I have been ranting on for ages about how easy it is now for anyone to have a go at meteor scatter. This is still true. On 6m you can find your feet. On 4m it gets a bit racy. On 2m you have to become a deer stalker, using your patience to catch the prize. Even if the prize is working someone you worked before.

By the way, if I had not installed the quiet lights, I would almost certainly have missed this QSO. I put them on when I go out to wind down the antenna, and the old ones would have created quite a bit of noise while I was doing it. And the key decodes in this contact happened while I was out there.

If only people on 2m used MSK144 instead of FSK441 life would be easier. I bet the contact with SM0EJY could have been done in half the time or less on the better mode. And if we had been using WSJT-X, we could both have gone to bed after the exchange of callsigns and left the software to finish it (only joking, I would not do such a thing - and anyway, who would be there to wind the antenna up and down every quarter of an hour or so?).

But hey, I have had my fun, and that's all that matters (as Father Fintan Stack famously put it in the wonderful "Father Ted" TV series).
Other diary entries:-
22 April "Lyrids"
23 April "Lyrids"
25 April "Lyrids ends"

I suggest that to maximise results and to prevent very long QSOs, call CQ in the morning. So my message is "do as I say, not as I did".



Saturday, 15 April 2017

War on LED lights, VHF conditions pick-up, GMs switch on radios.

My comments recently about (hopefully) eliminating LED lights around here seem to have struck home. Several e-mails suggest I am not the only amateur with noisy lights.

Firstly I need to say that all these outdoor lights are not some fantasy illumination scheme dreamed up by me. In fact, all of them were either here from the time when the house was built or installed by the electrician who wired the extension.

Living in the country and generally away from whatever sreetlights there are, means that it is pitch black here at night. The visibility of stars is superb.

Lights are just one aspect of noise. The only influence I have over most of the noise is to turn things off when not in use. This appears to be the main step to take in reducing the noise floor. Turn everything off at the main switch when not in use. Never leave a light, charger, printer, or anything really, in "standby".

I have managed to find an eBay source of compact fluorescent floodlight units to replace the two LED floodlights which are left. After they are sorted that leaves one 150W quartz element which I object to as it uses so much energy, and one LED security light. The new Osram LED security light seems perfectly quiet. I am now pondering replacing the remaining noisy LED security light with another 2 x 6W Osram fitting. It is only my reluctance to change a light that still shines with a more expensive quieter one that stops me doing it. I need to know that it is value for money before I change it.

The Osram LED proves that quiet LEDs are possible, and the compact fluorescents show that for a small price in extra wattage consumed even a floodlight can be quiet.
Slowly VHF is waking up again after the Winter low.

Between the second week in January and the end of March we VHF-ers find that Meteor Scatter and Es have deserted us, so we have to rely on whatever other crumbs fall off the propagation table. Usually some tropo or an Aurora comes to our aid. This time there have been very few crumbs falling in my direction.

The almost-Aurora continued for several days after I worked SM2GCQ on Auroral Es. All the measures continued to promise an opening but nothing happened. So when the GOES magnetometer showed a wobble I was about to write it off as another false alarm.

At last, on 27 March, this did produce a small Aurora at GM4FVM.
OVATION Auroral map, showing two potential areas, but Scotland facing neither
 As so often, my first contact was LA9BM on 4m CW.
With a K number of 7 I was on guard for something happening.
Then on 4m SSB I reached GI4SNA, OZ2OE and GM4JJ, before switching to 2m SSB to account for GW8JLY and GM4JJJ again. Then back to 4m SSB for GM6CMQ.
Auroral contacts at GM4FVM on 27 March 2017.
27 March was not bad given the lack of Auroral success so far this year. The historical trends show that Auroral activity peaks in the two years after Solar Cycle Maximum. We must be past that stage now. On the other hand, Auroral activity never actually stops at any stage of the Solar Cycle, so we must wait to see how we do over the next year or two.

Meteor Scatter conditions have been steadily improving.
Meteor Scatter contacts at GM4FVM 24 March to 15 April 2017
The map tends to disguise the lumpy nature of these contacts. I was only active for 5 days during the period, and on those days the number of contacts were 1, 3,1,1,3 (with one station worked twice). I did call CQ a lot, but it turns out that some stations now use MSK144 and the PSK Reporter as a spotting tool for all-day reception. This is perfectly acceptable, but it does result in DXMaps suggesting that there was a lot of 6m QSOs going on, whereas in fact one station calling CQ can result in 4 or 5 spots on the map.

I do this myself. I often put MSK144 on to receive to see what is happening at times when I cannot be in the shack. I choose to turn off PSK Reporter spotting while this is going on.Each to their own of course.

Once we have Es back on 6m I suspect that the number of stations listening on 50.280 all day will decline dramatically. I will certainly change my habits once I hear some serious DX via Es.

As I write this on 15 April there are quite a few strong reflections noted on 4m Meteor Scatter. Thank goodness. It has been a long Winter.

I am now getting regular Es spots on 10m into EA8. Perhaps the Summer Es are not far away from VHF now.
Another aspect I have noted during recent openings (not that there have been many), is that I no longer seem to be alone. For quite a time there were perhaps only one or two GM stations active during VHF openings. Now there can be five or six. I have had DX station complain to me how little GM activity there was. Some squares are still hard to find of course, but recent activity seems to cover several GM squares. And this comes even after one or two long-time activists have departed the scene.

Perhaps everything is not doom and gloom when it comes to activity. Can this be due, at least in part, to the new rules in the RSGB UKAC contests? Whether you agree with the new contest rules or not, GM VHF activity appears to have risen from "terminal decline" to "modest". That is quite an achievement really.
I have been away again, this time for a short caravan trip to Grantown on Spey in IO87. The only radio equipment I took was a dual band 4m and 2m hand portable, which remained totally silent during the entire stay. In recent years this trip took place in May when there was Sporadic E around, but this year it had to be taken earlier in the year.

The consequence of taking the Grantown holiday earlier is that I should be here during the early parts of the Es season. Often in the past I missed vital moments.

I cannot be here all the time. Perhaps I should try ...



Monday, 3 April 2017

Outdoor LED lighting, targets and M0XVF's philosophy

There was an interesting article in RadCom, the magazine of the Radio Society of Great Britain. In the April 2017 edition the regular EMC column dealt again with LED lights. This EMC column is usually excellent and full of ideas on how to sort out various interference issues.

I have had problems with rf interference from LED floodlights, one a generic LED movement sensitive fitting, and another LED conversion for a halogen bulb.
This generic LED motion and light sensitive fitting radiates a lot of RF
The LED replacement floodlight bulb radiates particularly badly on the 10 metres band, though I have another one of a slightly different design which causes no problems for me at all.
This generic LED replacement for a Halogen R7 bulb radiates strongly in the 10m band

One item in that RadCom article caught my attention. In previous articles a generic LED flood light had set the bar for the author's ire - it was very noisy on the amateur bands. This month he tested an Osram LEDvance floodlight and found that it passed his tests and produced very little rf interference.

I took some heart from the news that this Osram had passed this test. I needed to replace a 28W compact fluorescent (CFL) bulkhead light and move it to take the place of a faulty bulkhead fitting which also had a CFL bulb installed. I decided to try a different Osram light - a NOXlight.
Osram NOXlight 6W LED motion and light sensitive fitting which causes no problems (so far)
It is not for me to say in a general sense, as I have no specific test equipment. I can only comment for the bands and situations I use. So far the NOXlight fitting is causing no problems at all. Beware though, as I do not use HF much below 10m, and I am not listening on UHF at all (apart from 70cms FM). For that reason I cannot recommend the Osram brand for every situation, though this one seems to work for me.

As a general rule, up to now I have been avoiding LEDs and sticking with CFLs. I have not yet had any problem with CFLs. My experience with LEDs has been that two of them were not OK and one of them was OK, but those were generic items bought on EBay. With generic items, or those with unknown branding, you just do not know what you are buying.

It appears that Osram lights are twice the price of generics, but I will be trying some more. It may well be that other branded LEDs are suitable for use near amateur radio stations, for example Philips make some interesting fittings which I may try indoors. But in my experience the cheap generic ones sold on EBay seem to be pretty hit and miss.

Once I had fitted the Osram NOXlight, I moved the CFL bulkhead fitting from there to replace the other faulty one.
TAMLIGHT 28W CFL bulkhead fitting beside my mast supporting the 6m beam

The TAMLIGHT 28W "2D" CFL is now located right beside my 6m mast. This is a sensitive location, as the same mast supports my 40m dipole. I am pretty confident that the CFL will cause me no problems. It was fine in the other location. In fact, I have bought another 28W 2D CFL to replace another faulty bulkhead fitting.

So why am I bothering with LEDs if I am so happy with CFLs? Well, in Europe it is getting harder to find CFL bulbs, especially to replace halogen tubes in floodlights. The supply has more or less dried up as LEDs claim to be "energy saving" (though many pollute the radio spectrum). The neater looking fittings are now automatically supplied with LEDs (the NOX light looks a lot neater than the TAMLIGHT!!!). Attractive fittings cannot be found unless you are willing to accept LEDs. Then again, CFLs are not very suitable for movement sensor use as their operating life is reduced if they are regularly used with on/off cycles of less than about 15 minutes. My motion sensitive lights have much shorter "on" times, so the CFLs need more regular replacement, and they also use about twice the energy of LEDs.

I have stuck with CFLs as the obvious choice for low rf interference light use. Indoors we have no LEDs at all. Outdoors I have been forced to use a few LEDs which are not very good, but the Osram light shows that if I choose the right one I might be OK.

My next task will be to experiment with some LEDs indoors to see if I can get satisfactory results there too. You can bet that they will be branded items, and no doubt more expensive too.
I had an interesting QSO recently with Jeremy, M0XVF. Jeremy is one of those many operators who is not far from me (133km), but one I cannot work due to the Ayton Hill cutting off that part of the radio map. However, I have managed to work him by Aurora and meteor scatter in the past, and this time by tropo during a short lived enhancement.

Jeremy said that he does not collect squares and regards all stations as DX. He seems always ready to have a good chat on the radio.

After the QSO I thought a bit more about Jeremy's philosophy. I also like a good chat, but I like collecting my squares too. This was a useful reminder that radio need not be a competition. Sure, I want to test my equipment and operating methods. I want to make sure that I can reach as far as possible. But I do not wish to sacrifice the joys of this hobby by turning it into some constant competition to collect DXCCs and squares.

I like Jeremy's approach and I think that I should take it to heart.
So, in the spirit of cherishing the joys of the hobby, and still refusing to enter competitions or apply for awards, I have been doing my annual review of what has been and what I can hope for next year.

Now, thanks to Gabriel's VQLog, I have a better guide to my performance judged by those pesky squares and DXCC entities.

6 metres = 241 squares and  48 DXCC entities (4 continents).
4 metres = 186 squares and 38 DXCC entities (2 continents)
2 metres = 92 squares and 19 DXCC entities (1 continent)

I only had the figures for 4 metres last year. It is likely that both the 2m and 6m figures under estimate what I have worked, but let us just take them as being correct for now.

On 4 metres I managed to work 18 new squares and 4 new DXCC last year. That was particularly nice as some of the new ones, like Andorra, are hard to find. Despite having been heard in Asia, I still have not worked a station in that continent on 4 metres. The possibility of working the American continent seems to have returned with at least one Greenland station back on the 4m band. My best 4m dx is unchanged at the Canary Islands. Tantalising DXCC targets remain for next year, including several Central Asian states, Capo Verde and The Dodecanese. I can only wish Sweden and Germany (which already have certain stations active from time to time), plus France and Switzerland, would give general access to the band, plus of course Italy might return next year.

On 6 metres most progress was made by collecting squares via meteor scatter. There were two nice multi-hop Es openings and W3CP became best dx at 6452km. There is scope for more multi-hop Es next year and I would be especially keen to make some progress towards the East. I suspect that I may have missed the small number of Russian stations which appeared on 6m over the past year.

2 metres remains my Cinderella band. I am sure that I have worked more squares than this, but I cannot be bothered to plough through the ancient log books to find them. Yes, I want do more but other things always take precedence. I missed the chance to work EA8 and EA9 which were both heard in Europe, either of which would have been a new continent as well as a new square. Ah well, better luck next time.

I am not going to set any target for 10 metres this year. Band conditions seem to be what you might expect during solar minimum.

So that is what my targets look like taking account of my new found doubts about counting squares and DXCCs at all. I want to try to steer a centre path. I need to measure what I am doing to check that I am on the right lines, but I do not want to take that too seriously.

Thanks Jeremy


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Holiday operation from Portugal, and action on the Es/ Auroral Es front.

I do not plan my holiday operation like a dxpedition.

No doubt, if I was to go on a dxpedition (it has not happened yet) I would do some very meticulous planning. In this case with a 5 day trip to IM57 square (Southern Portugal) in mind, I could easily have fallen back on the tried and tested combination of FT-817, laptop and loaded whip antennas.

For 5 days it hardly seemed worth the effort. You see, my radio operation has an inverse relation to the success of the holiday. If I have time on my hands and the holiday is dragging on I tend to do radio, whereas if the holiday is flying past as I am enjoying it so much, then I do not do much operating. And five days is not really long enough to get bored.

So I thought I might bring my tablet computer and my Fun Cube dongle. With about two days left to test it out, things were not going well. While the tablet could run the dongle or the software, it could not quite run both. I tried various options, but I could not find a solution before I was getting ready to pack.

Given that the tablet could run the WSJT-X suite, I decided to ditch the dongle idea and take a real radio - my Robert R861 portable. This rig was bought by me about 15 years ago for this very reason - a portable SSB receiver to take on holiday. It replaced the tiny folding Sony SW100. The Sony had failed for the common reason they do ... a folding radio with a ribbon connector is never going to last for long. The Roberts, about 5 times the size but still relatively small, soldiers on.

I had spoken to another amateur who used the R861 (or its Sangean equivalent) on WSPR and he reported that it drifts like mad but can be used if you are careful. He said that if he opened the shack door by an inch the temperature change caused it to drift too much for WSPR. Still worth a try.

So the entire equipment was 1) radio, 2) roll of antenna wire, 3) 3.5mm plug to plug audio lead, 4) tablet, and 5) (not really necessary) a USB audio board. It did not really look like much of a radio station.
The Roberts and tablet in Portugal
I experimented first by listening on 20 metres to JT65. That was really quite interesting, especially as all the other bands appeared to be dead.

WSPR needs a lot more frequency accuracy and stability than JT65. The radio only has a frequency readout down to 1kHz, though the frequency control clicks every 40Hz. So a bit of counting the clicks got me to the correct frequency.

In the end I was only on WSPR for 44 minutes - so the holiday must have been going well. Of course I heard fairly well all round Europe,  including 9 x G, 1 x I, 1 x IW0, 2 x DL, 1 x HB, ON, and PA.
European stations heard by CT7/G4FVM on 18/3/17 on 14MHz WSPR
I was a bit surprised to hear from outside Europe too, with 5H3YH in Dar es Salaam being quite a surprise.
Non-European stations heard by CT7/G4FVM in 18/3/17 on 14MHz WSPR
VE and W I could have understood more easily. You can see that I do not know much about 20 metres.

So what is to be learned? I enjoyed keeping it simple and just taking a receiver. Listening on WSPR was easy, though the rig did drift a lot. With a bit of practice I could have done more (putting more of the antenna in the clear would have helped too). But I think it was worth it for just a short while.

I enjoy taking the radio on holiday. Usually I take the FT-817 but it is heavy and fiddly to tune the antennas. This was simple to do. To listen on data modes, all you need is an audio connection to a modest computer.

If the holiday had not been such a success I might have listened for a lot longer.
On 21 March there has been another "not quite" aurora, again with some decent Auroral Es. I was able to work SM2GCQ in KP15 square on 6m SSB - which is a handy 1710km.
SM2GCQ worked on 6m SSB via Auroral Es on 21/3/17
I also heard some beacons on 6m and some wide OIRT broadcast stations on 70MHz, though I heard no beacons or other amateur stations on the 4m band.
Broadcast station on 70.340 via Auroral Es on 21/3/17
Over the past week I have also noticed some Summer Es creeping onto 10 metres in the shape of several PA WSPR stations.

Let us hope things are looking up, after a long period in the Winter doldrums.


Saturday, 11 March 2017

Non-aurora, Mad March optimism and computer maintenance.

Despite the fact that there has been no significant radio aurora here for almost six months, conditions have been close to auroral several times.

"Close to auroral" is a common condition here. Solar wind speed raised, Bz minus and fluctuating, HF disturbed ... even beacons heard aurorally, ... but no contacts.

Isolated periods of Winter Es are often associated with auroras, and often called "Auroral Es". I had a hunch that there might be some AuE activity about yesterday and put the 10m WSPR on.

Auroral Es noted at GM4FVM on 10 March 2017

Auroral Es openings are generally best to the North from here, so OK2SAM was unexpected.

Classically I expect AuEs directly after an auroral opening, but of course it does not always happen. However, I have noted AuEs quite often after "close to auroral" conditions. As I discussed last year, isolated Es openings during Winter appear to be highly correlated to increases in X-ray flux, which is an effect noted during auroras.

I read recently that a seasoned observer was trying to link "Christmas" Es to cold weather at his address. I doubt it, as Es conditions exist from 500km to 1000km from the stations who are actually in contact, and the weather is usually different over that distance. "Christmas" Es occur most years, but then so does cold weather in "These Islands". This does not necessarily mean that the two are linked.

Another cause of Winter Es may be "Cosmic Rays". These are not rays at all, but the term is usually used to mean charged particles from outside the Solar System. Many can be remarkably energetic, far more powerful than anything created in the (vastly powerful) large hadron collider at CERN in Switzerland.

When Cosmic Rays encounter the Earth, thankfully, they generally collide with particles high in the upper atmosphere. These collisions result is intense ionisation, and the creation of a large number of lower energy ions, which in turn collide as they reach lower levels in the atmosphere and the result is a "shower" of ions which can cause Es. So so we think.

Because the Cosmic Rays come from outside the solar system (maybe from other stars or even star collapses and super-novas far into deep space) they are not confined to our Summers, as is the case with conventional Es. Beware though that some people will use the term "Cosmic Ray" rather loosely and include in their meaning particles released from the Sun. Beware also those who will tell you that Es activity is related to cold weather at their house.

I  have written a long piece about radio auroras which I have not posted. I have been waiting for a radio aurora to use as a good example. As no example has turned up, I may break it up into pieces and post it here over the next few months. It is not so much about the scientific process of auroras, rather it is about how to predict (!), understand warnings about, and operate during, radio auroras.
March is another dull month in the VHF calendar. Not as bad as February though, as I find that meteor scatter activity begins to pick up. Whilst auroras and tropo openings are unpredictable, the annual Es campaign is now just beyond the horizon. Of course I will fret when we get to the stage where 10m has Es but there is none yet on 6m or 4m. Expect a posting about the dates of the first Es over the past several years, and various other anxious remarks. But, so far, Summer Es has always arrived eventually.

Thinking of the first date for Es each year reminds me of boring class in Geography in school, tracing the northern-most extent of olive growing, which was represented on a neat map. If only I could do an Es map like that.

Other things to do in March include keeping in touch with people. I was glad to meet Bruce, GM4BDJ, for a coffee recently. We seemed to have a lot to talk about, and the garden centre sold two coffees and two hot chocolates to these two old duffers who sat and talked for over 3 hours. Not a good sales rate for them, but we had a splendid blether.

It seems strange to me that a hobby like ours, which is after all about communication, can be so solitary. We can sit here with our microphones and feel quite isolated. Graham, MM0XXL, has organised a series of meetings at his QTH where various local amateurs have been able to swap experiences. This is what radio clubs are for, though sadly these clubs often seem to get bogged down in personality clashes.

So I think that we need to get out and meet people, even if on an informal basis.
All that talk about computers last time made me think that it would be worth showing you all a photo which should shame me. I will show you an "after" and a "before" shot ....
My PC main processor after cleaning
My PC main processor before cleaning
Now, I did think that the operating temperature of the main processor was getting very high, very quickly.  However I was not expecting it to be completely blocked with fluff. This is what happens when you take a machine with a fan, put it out of sight under a desk sitting on carpet, and forget it for 6 years.

Also discovered on this inspection was the fact that the extra case cooling fan which I installed did not seem to be working. It is temperature sensitive, but it should turn over at start up. Closer inspection showed it to be seized solid. It was impossible to free up, and I had to throw it in the bin. There was not much fluff in it of course.

A cautionary tale here. In this case no damage resulted because I caught it on time. But just think about any rig you have with a cooling fan. Many modern rigs allow you to monitor an internal temperature. For example the IC-7300 can display the power amplifier temperature, as well as having an over temperature warning. If you have temperature sensing fans, do they come on more often than they used to? What about your power supply units fans, are they on for a lot of the time? Remember too that fans can seize, so if it gets quieter, that too can be a warning.

Is it not time to open things up and have a good rummage around any fans you may have? Time for a thorough vacuum?

Maybe checking the fans is a March task, or maybe they need more attention than that ...