Friday, 15 February 2019

Of tropo, soldering and unusual work

I have been off the air for a while - the dreaded house decoration I mentioned before finally came to happen. I tried to avoid it, but there was no stopping it. So the shack was completely dismantled, everything in the shack was cleaned, and then dumped back where it had been dumped before. Well, not quite, my shelving has been dismantled and strengthened to take the weight of two Linear Amp Gemini amplifiers, which previously caused the top two shelves to sag. A stout piece of dowel now supports each shelf. Expensive stuff, good dowel, so this takes the form of a brush shaft sourced from that well known speciality emporium, "Homebase". That place definitely gets my brush shaft recommendation.
Strengthened shelving unit with added brush shaft and corner plates
The decorating original plan involved moving the shack desk, which did happen, and also moving the amplifiers to near ground level. In the event the amplifiers have remained where they were, but they now seem to be more or less level on a non-sagging top shelf.

Of course, as soon as this work was complete, one of the amplifiers (the 2m one) developed a fault, or rather showed again a fault it has been developing for some months. Thus it returned to the manufacturer for repair leaving a big gap in my 2m armoury.

I have been accused sometimes of writing too much - but regular readers know this cannot be true. It cannot be true because I have said it isn't true at great length. Nevertheless I did write a very long piece about linear amplifiers, preamplifiers and sequencing which I have decided to save for another day. Never mind the theory for now, what about the results?

With Hepburn's tropo predictions showing hopeful signs for yesterday (14 February) - a link to Hepburn is on the sidebar - there were also more signs of a possible lift in conditions. When somebody you respect suggests you should be prepared you take note, and then when two others of the same standing do the same, then you are obliged to get ready. And indeed, Colin GM0HBK, Jeremy, M0XVF and Dirk PA3FMP all suggested I should standby for better conditions. But I had no Gemini, which meant no working pre-amp too. So I needed a Plan B.

Without my Gemini 2 amplifier my hastily assembled Plan B was to use the parts I recently said I was stockpiling for some other, undefined, project. Viz, a second Down East Microwave (DEMI) sequencer, a "Bias Tee" from SSB Electronics, and to add to those my old Microset SR200 200W 2m linear amplifier. This assemblage would get my masthead pre-amp going and get me running enough power to work some DX. The only snag was that, starting yesterday morning, I had precisely nothing working. Some corners will have to be cut.

I had already got the Microset fixed in theory, although it had never been tested. I had called on the assistance of John, G1VVU, to investigate it. John quickly found that one of the output devices (it uses 2 2SC2782s) had gone short circuit and seemed to have died. I was able to find a new one fairly easily, in fact two, as it seemed best to change both of them. Well, not once we found how tangled the inside of the Microset was, so we changed the faulty one and kept the other new one as a spare. So far so good.

Apart from the fact that the Microset doesn't have a PSU, fans nor even N-type sockets, it should replace the Gemini fairly easily. The PSU is not such a stretch, as it only draws about 20 amps on full power. Then come the fans, so I dug out two dusty 12cm computer fans and mated them to a temperature controlled (27 degrees C fixed, but good enough) switch. Luckily I had boxed the temperature controller up with suitable sockets and so the cooling side of things could be organised quite easily. It isn't right that a transistorised amplifier should be perched on top of its own power supply as the heat of the PSU will rise, but for now that will have to do.
This jumble is the restored Microset SR200, fans, PSU and (left) the homebrew fan controller
Getting a replacement system going that morning was "the art of the possible". That stack of gear is not tidy but it worked for now.

Next task get the sequencer working. No need to explain what a sequencer is, that is for the later long-winded posting. (Is this not a long-winded posting?). Anyway, you need one if you are going to use a linear and a masthead pre-amp and not blow either or both of those up. With the DEMI sequencer this involves wiring a D15 socket and working out a wiring loom. No time for niceties, I got a bit of surfaced wood the right size for the shelving, stuck the sequencer to the wood with Velcro, stuck a chocolate box connector strip to the board with double sided tape and got soldering.

Oh I hate soldering D15 plugs. Actually, I hate soldering any plugs. I tried to cut a VGA cable in two to save the soldering, but despite it being an "all wired" cable, one pin (pin 5) was not connected. So soldering it was. Mrs FVM, who recently had cataract surgery, donated me her temporary +2.00 reading spectacles for the close work. Working out the sequences and testing the operation is fiddly. Once again lack of time meant a temporary arrangement and here it is photographed while I tested it...
Down East sequencer and wiring tangle under test, with the Bias-Tee lurking in the background.
Once I got this up and tested I even found time to organise the wiring, give it some strain relief and put the covers back on the D15 socket. Not before I got the wiring mixed up - why do I always think a D15 socket is a D18 socket with 6 pins on each row, and then get the rows upside down too?

The result is a total lash-up, and it looks awful. Stuff piled all over the place. The sequencer is on a desk at the other side of the shack. There is an SWR meter perched drunkenly on top of some books. But it was more or less ready when it was needed.

OK, everything working now, but will there be any lift conditions to justify all this work?

Due to the shack reconstruction I had not had a QSO since 25 January. I got basic operations going again in the "new" shack on 11 February with the Gemini but it was showing a fault. The Gemini went back to the manufacturer on the afternoon of 13 February. Thus it was only on the morning of 14 February that I started Plan B. Was there any point? Wouldn't the Gemini be back soon, and would all that work be justified by any DX before then at all?

First contact with the Plan B set-up was on 2 metres at 15:54 on 14 February to Dan OZ1BEF. I can work Dan in most conditions, but still that was positive sign. It proved that the Microset and my lash up were working.
2m FT8 stations worked at GM4FVM, 14 Jan to 12:00 15 Jan 2019
As usual, click the image to enlarge if you need to.

I have to say that I was rather pleased with that result. Could I have worked the same stations without all the work to get the temporary linear amplifier working? Well maybe, but the extra power does help get you noticed. Once they turn their beams it becomes easier and that extra clout means they find you while they are beaming at more obvious targets to the south of me. The linear was secondary, I needed the sequencer for the masthead pre-amp, so I had to do it all anyway.

Before anybody asks, yes both the Microset and the pre-amp have RF VOX and should, in theory, work without sequencing. That is very risky but more to the point, the IC-7100 objects to powering up into either RF VOX and so it cuts the output power. I did try briefly without the pre-amp it it was terrible.

70cms brought a new station worked plus one I had contacted last year. Both are much appreciated
70cms FT8 stations worked at GM4FVM, 14 January 2019
Both these 70cms contacts were the result of the stations suggesting we move band after a successful contact on 2m. This just goes to show that there are plenty of 70cms contacts to be had if we could only find them. DK0HAT even suggested going up to 23cms for a try, but sadly that is something I cannot do ... yet ... but even on 70cms he was new square.

During the opening there were long, strong, ducts forming. For example, Charly, DF5VAE was heard here on 2m for over an hour, and at stages registering +10dB on the WSJT software. That is a good 30dB over the minimum level I can reliably work anyone. I could hear Charly's signal loudly on the loudspeaker. Likewise, DK0HAT was heard calling CQ on 70cms for a long time. There was nobody around in GM to work them, which was a pity.

At the same time, at the other end of the tropo spectrum, there were short openings into various areas which came as a complete surprise. Unlike the ducts they were gone as soon as the contact was complete. SP6MJ calling me was a bit of a shock. Conditions held up just long enough for him to wait patiently while "Auto Seq" on WSJT-X answered and worked another station before reaching him. Then, contact complete, he vanished. SP6MJ, in JO81, was a new square on 2m and the best DX so far in this opening at 1370km. Several other 2m contacts contacts were near 1000km.

Is it over as I write? Well I have just worked OZ1CCM on 2m and he is clearly not beaming my way as I can hear him off the side of his beam working Polish stations. I also just worked OZ9PZ on 70cms after he came back to a random CQ call. He also asked me to go to 23cms - is there a pattern emerging here?

Was it worth all that effort to set up a ramshackle pile of gear to work one 18 hour period? I think so. 19 QSOs, 8 DXCCs, two new squares, and a test of my shaky constructional abilities. This hobby has to test us and I think it should never be easy. Certainly, I could have just sat back and watched a re-run of "Rising Damp" on the ITV hub, but that can wait. Radio happens when it happens.

I enjoyed jumping in and getting something sorted out, even if I have to take it all apart this afternoon. Eh? Well, the Gemini was only away for 36 hours - it arrived back at 11:00 this morning. Of course I did not know that in advance.

Thanks to Colin, Jeremy and Dirk for alerting me. The moral of the story, as the great Otis Redding almost sang on  "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" ... "I can't stop doin' what three people tell me to do, so I guess I'll never remain the same".

Now, I must unpack the Gemini and pull Plan B apart.



Thursday, 17 January 2019

Good blogging and the data mode take-over (not)

I like a good blog. I enjoy reading the thoughts of somebody who cares about their hobby and shares their thoughts with us.

One I have mentioned before is Olli's, DH8BQA, here You can find a link to it on the right hand sidebar too.

Olli is very good at saying the right stuff. He is also direct and to the point, not like me who rambles. He posts occasionally, not too often as I do. He has interests in a mix of subjects from VHF to HF, which makes it interesting.. He does contesting, which I don't do. I find that interesting, and I even hope that Olli will do well in contests because he is "on my side" thanks to the blog. That way I can do contesting without actually doing the work.

We share enough interests to keep me looking at his blog from time to time. The shared interests extend to the 10m band, tropo on VHF and many other things.

Back in October Olli added an interesting coda to his posting about the conditions then His remarks have been spinning around in my head, and I have been waiting to sort them out before posting something myself. Here is what he said about FT8 ...

While I see it’s advantages and therefor use it, too, I really hope it will not be FT8-only in the future because people are just too lazy and make it easy by just clicking around a bit on the computer screen (if at all and not automating things, automated QSOs are just machine to machine, this has nothing to do with amateur radio anymore). As long as it is just complementary I’m fine with it. If it ever turns to FT8-only (yes, there are signs of it ðŸ™) I’ll certainly need to search for another hobby. And that’s from someone who is burning for our hobby … but let’s think positive.

I agree with Olli on this. I have given it a lot of thought over the months. I think my viewpoint on FT8 comes from someone who has been using data modes for several years. OK, I was using RTTY in the 1970s, but I do not mean that. PSK came afterwards and pretty well rendered RTTY obsolete (I am ignoring several other steps here).

When I really got into data modes, it was to do things which other modes could not do. That was:-
WSPR - low power propagation study
JT6 and FSK441 - meteor scatter
JT65 - moonbounce

Possibly because I have never trusted my morse code skills I turned to these data modes as a positive step to explore the potential of our hobby, not to replace SSB and FM.

It turned out that JT65 and JT9 were useful on 6m and 10m for fading long distance contacts, but that was a side issue. I never saw data modes taking over, and I hope they never do.

When MSK144 became available I stopped using JT6 and FSK because I found what Joe Taylor said was correct - MSK is better. When FT8 appeared I started using it instead of JT65 or JT9 on terrestrial stuff and now I keep JT65 for EME and beacons. Simple, I have not changed my methods other than updating the protocols as new ones come along.

Then recently I heard this mad howling from offended traditionalists. It turns out that they never noticed me on JT65 but now I am on FT8 I am a threat. Well, not me so much, but hoards of folk who think that HF = WSTJ-X = FT8 = data modes. NOT TRUE. WSJT-X is a resource of several protocols for various purposes, I have been using it since WSJT-X 1.3, and there has always been a lot more to it than one mode.

It turns out that newcomers are using FT8 in their droves, and this may or may not pose a threat to the world of amateur radio, or maybe the world in general. But how can I be part of that threat when I haven't changed? I have been using data for the majority of my contacts since 2010, so nothing new there.

So what is different is not that enthusiasts are using data modes for doing things that voice cannot do, but they are using it more widely - and getting further at the same time. And I can see the issue. When I tune to 80m or 40m the FT8 segments are totally overcrowded. There are signals everywhere, and most them seem to be doing exactly what can be done easily on voice modes. Of course, they are perfectly entitled to do that.

I say again, I agree with Olli. A fully FT8 world would would be terrible. I still use FM to talk to my pals, and I use SSB in contests. Sometimes I just use voice (because I want to). I find the mass use of FT8 on HF soul-less and rather pointless. Sure if I am in search of DX then FT8 offers advantages, but for QSOs round Europe on 40m? Even top band, that chat band par excellence, is full of signals relentlessly exchanging callsigns (is anyone home?). They would be better, in my view, changing over to WSPR and going to bed while leaving the rig on. If all you want to do is exchange callsigns you might as well give up.

I do WSPR and pour over the charts looking for patterns. I use FT8 on VHF probing the edge of the tropo or Es. But using FT8 just for local contacts? Come on! This hobby is supposed to be a challenge, or at the very least, an exchange of ideas. What personal growth can come from routine machine exchanges?

Am I saying that I am better than them, or that they should "do as I say, not what I do"? I do not think so. What I am saying is that I think a moon bounce QSO from here to North America, or one discovering winter Es on 6m, is more meaningful than 100 "Inter-G" data contacts on 80m. You can disagree with me if you wish, but I really cannot see the point of using a strict mode which limits your interaction in a general chat arena.

I bet this is fashion. Or at least I hope it is. I expect that a lot of people are just trying out FT8, and as they are only on 80m, then obviously FT8 is busy on 80m. I suspect that over time 80m FT8 will become the preserve of DXers and enthusiasts, and the bulk of the activity will move back to SSB or CW. If I was on 80m on a regular basis I bet I would have done the same. I do not blame FT8 for being popular, but I think that over time it will reach its own level (and mostly amongst the DX enthusiasts).

There are all sorts of doom-mongers around in this hobby. For example, they predict that digital voice modes and network radio are going to kill our hobby. To these people I say "nonsense". Our hobby has to be attractive to people, and if something else is more attractive then off they will go to those hobbies. We need to win them over, not blame them for making a logical choice. They said the same thing when VHF-only licences arrived in the 1960s. Then it was said that many people would go onto VHF and never bother "advancing" to HF licences. But I did. And today new entrants may well go into network radio, get a taste for communication, and see amateur radio as their next step. In the meantime, established amateurs are using network radio to support their needs, and attracting people over from there. Network radio can be the recruiting ground for amateur radio, just like CB was years ago.

Like those in the Navy, we in amateur radio are in "The Senior Service".

And, in my case, proud of it. Aye aye, Captain.

I think I have been moved to write this because a rather boisterous local told me that he had worked 500 stations on FT8, as if that required a medal or a certificate.We do not weigh our QSLs to see how many there are, we look at each one and judge its significance. One good QSO is better than a night full of clocking them off routinely on 80m. For me anyway.

I need a photo or the thumbnail of this post will look bare. Here is a photo of an IC-7100 with a nice new N-type socket added to the VHF side ...
... haven't we seen this before? No, because this is a second IC-7100. Do I need two IC-7100s? Probably not, but another one has appeared. Once it has proved that it works perfectly I may sell it on. It was in need of some TLC, new USB lead, firmware upgrades, and general tidying up. So far so good.

My FT-817 is seriously clunked. Its processor keeps locking up and while a reset brings it back, not for long. Unusually for me, the arrival of the second IC-7100 comes at the right time. The two things were not connected, but seem to fit together. Now, is the FT-817 worth fixing? The 7100 is vastly superior.

What does annoy me, still, is that the only place I can find an N-type panel socket with two holes is at Radioworld who charge £10 for them! Grrrr. I have plenty of 4-hole ones, but RS and eBay have none of the 2-hole ones. £10 for a socket. That is crazy.

D'oh. Am I ever likely to need another 2-hole N-type panel socket? No.

I said that the last time.




Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Never mind the Tropo, feel the Angst

I do feel amateur radio is a love/hate relationship for me.

Here I am off again. I said before that it is my "bad mistress" (not a good expression but it seems to fit).

I love it. There are lots of challenges and I am moderately good at some of it. But ...

I hate it. Things keep breaking down and I have to fix them. I have to. Or at least I have to try.

If there are no problems on the horizon, I invent some more problems. If I have a few minutes to think I will add a new mode, add a new band, try a new antenna. And each of these has the potential to be a new problem to solve.

That's it! For me, amateur radio is about finding problems to solve. If there are no problems, I invent some. I do not need to do any of it, it is a hobby. I do not earn a living at it. I could stop tomorrow. But if I gave up what would I do? Invent some new problem to solve. Standing still is not an option.

My Yaesu FT-817 decided to die on me. I do not have to run WSPR on HF, but I choose to. In the middle of everything else, it went potty, with a readout suggesting I was on broadcast frequencies with a locked radio. Various re-boots did nothing. Nor did a partial reset. Then a full reset and it is going again. I had to do all the settings again. What was that all about? No time ... got to deal with the 2m linear.

Oh dear. Is this a hobby or an obsession?

I am not a great admirer of the FT-817. Portability is its main plus. I would rather have something better for my HF activities, but then again I do not rate a bit of WSPR as something which justifies using a really nice bit of kit.

If I did not say all this it might look easy. All those maps of mine showing QSOs all over the place where VHF is not supposed to go. How does he do that with such ease, you ask? EASE! I am permanently flustered. I am in a constant campaign against entropy - the physical property of all things to revert to disorder. Entropy is about everything striving to reach the lowest energy level, which in radio terms means broken down and falling to pieces. My task, which I have chosen to accept, is to prove that VHF radio (and a bit more) can do brilliant things, but I admit it is hard work to stop everything constantly breaking down and reverting to chaos.

The problem of the moment is that everything appears to be falling apart at once. Including me.

Moving on ...

It has been a notable few days at GM4FVM from the radio point of view. As reported last time a high pressure system dropped anchor south of These Islands. This is rather unusual as long-lasting highs are more usually over the North Sea. So instead of the more typical openings from here into Netherlands and Germany, this time we had openings into France and Spain.
144MHz contacts at GM4FVM 3 to 8 January 2019
No chance to put the callsigns on that map because there are so many they overlap. I did however put on the 100km circles. I did manage many QSOs into France, all of which I regard as good going.

Best contact in France was F4EZJ in JN05, 1170km. That is near Angouleme which is a long way - I know because I drove there once and I remember vividly how long it took. I would be happy with that, were it not for two new countries as well and even further DX.

A new country on 144MHz was Spain. Somehow I have never worked Spain from here and I certainly did not expect to do it barefoot. It seems fitting that my first EA contact on 2m was with Fidel, EA1HRR (IN83, 1387km). I have worked Fidel many times on 4m and 6m, so he now joins the select group who have worked me on three bands. Fidel is always cheerful and enthusiastic on the air. I have also visited the Basque Country a couple of times and I do have some sort of affinity for it (but then that applies to most places I have visited). This may be a scientific hobby but there is some room for feeling in there somewhere.

I actually managed to work three Spanish stations during the lift. After one failed attempt I tried again the next day and finally worked EA4GMY in IN80 (1717km) near Madrid. I have never been to Madrid but I'll take that one, thanks. That counts as good 2m DX in my book.

There were repeated ducts during which stations between South West and South East from here were appearing and disappearing. Some stations in Northern France were audible for most of the three days the lift lasted. Stations in Netherlands and Germany could not be heard by me, but they seemed to working West into Wales and Ireland. I could see other GM stations in the Highland and Islands working far into South Western Europe, much further than me. If you happened to live outside the area covered you missed it completely. Such is amateur radio.

The other new 144MHz country was provided by a contact with Richard, GU8FBO (IN89, 714). That means Richard also joins the three band (50/70/144 MHz) club, and some other club I have not yet started for propagation modes (tropo/aurora/meteor scatter/Es). Maybe I need yet another for transmission mode which Richard could join (JT6M/SSB/MSK144/FT8). I am very clubbable. Or am I?

432MHz was also pretty good during this lift too...
432MHz contacts at GM4FVM 3 to 8 January 2019
France and Belgium on 70cms tropo! I think that is a great success from here. I also feel that 70cms could be a lot better if there were more stations active.

F6KBF in JN18 is 820km, good for 70cms from here. And my first QSO with G0MJI on any band was notable too.

Of course, all that still is not enough for me. I have still not managed to work the Netherlands on 70cms. Another place I have fond memories of visiting, and surely fairly easy to reach form here. Not during a southern facing lift. I need to find one of those old fashioned North Sea highs.

I am not easily pleased.

This period of enhanced propagation thanks to tropospheric conditions fell at about the same time as the Quadrantids meteor shower. That shower looked pretty good but I only have time for a few contacts such as these on 4m ...
70MHz contacts at GM4FVM 1 to 8 January 2019
I suppose that the tropo opening was distracting me, plus the absence for now of my 2m and 6m linear amplifiers. As I said last time, power is not everything on meteor scatter, and I was happy with these contacts on 70MHz.

So all in all a good period for DX. There may be a wee bit left in the High. At the moment a weather system is tracking down the North Sea, but we may have a day or two of high pressure left after that.

When it gets to the middle of January we reach "the end of the VHF season", meaning that high pressure are less frequent (round here anyway), and the meteor season goes into a lull until April. Sporadic E is more or less absent until May. Sure, there may be some moon bounce or aurora work to be done, but broadly it is time to polish up the antenna for next season. And what about fixing all those things that were bugging you?

On the cards for GM4FVM is a complete removal of the shack while the room is repainted. This is an opportunity to get the vacuum cleaner into nooks and crannies not often visited by cleaning apparatus. Time to check all the RF plugs, clean out the fans and put everything back in a different place than before. Whoop-de-doooh.

I will keep you posted on that exciting prospect.




Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The frailty of modern technology (and my ego)

Mrs FVM can certainly take a flattering photo
Katy and GM4FVM enjoying the Hogmanay celebrations.
Least said about that the better.

"Lose some weight you doughball" might be the least said then.

Moving on.

I feel that modern solid state power amplifiers are a weak point when it comes to being "brittle". They break easily. It is not surprising as we expect so much of them. We push them to their limits, we expect them to be sold a low prices and yet we also expect the highest level of reliability from them. They are generally made by the second-string producers, the big three having more or less backed out from this sector (maybe because of the reliability issues). So probably I can expect these things to have short lives and need regular repairs.

Or maybe I just break them.

Maybe I am careless with these fiddly devices. I could say that, but regular readers here know that I have had the same experience with good old solid reliable valve ones too.

Could it be my fault? Nay, surely not.

When my latest 2m linear arrived just 9 months ago and I placed the Microset SR-200 into reserve. I meant to fix it at some stage. Why did I not fix the Microset? I have just found, having a reserve that does not work is rather like not having a reserve at all.

Yes, to add to the list which already contains the 6m linear, my main Gemini 2m linear has also developed a fault. SWR trips when there is no SWR problem. As it is only 9 months old it has been packed off back to the maker and so I dug out the Microset. Surprisingly, having sat in the cupboard for 9 months it has not fixed itself.

Discussing it with John, G1VVU, he immediately suggested power starvation. Of course! Why did I not think of that. I am a chump. One of the DC supply leads looks the worse for wear. It turns out that is not the fault (John was just making a suggestion), but I certainly blamed myself for a basic error. Basic errors I can do well.

So what is the fault with the Microset? We don't know. Investigations continue. Perhaps I should put it back in the cupboard and see if another 9 months will help.

Leaning against the wall on the other side of the shack is the 6m linear. I should be fixing that too. But wait a minute, I decided to do without it for a while and working barefoot seemed OK on 6m. Why not just stick with barefoot on 2m for a while longer?

So, with 50 watts I venture onto 2m FT8 ...
144MHz FT8 contacts at GM4FVM 29 Dec 2018 to 2 Jan 2019
Well, maybe there was a bit of a lift on, but 50 watts of 144MHz seems to be OK really.

Click the images as usual if you need more detail.

I also wondered what 95 watts of FT8 on 70cms would do ...
432MHz FT8 contacts at GM4FVM 29 Dec 2018 to 2 Jan 2019
I am pleased with that. Working France on any VHF band is very good for me, but F6DBI (IN88) on 432MHz it is a bit special, and at 833km not bad on UHF in any sense. I worked the same station on 2m this week (three times actually), and I would have been happy with that. As it turned out, F8DBF (IN78 at 849km) and F6APE (IO97 at 949km) on 2m are not shabby either.

OK, I am making a meal of this. My linear amplifiers are really just here to get stations to turn their beams towards me. In almost every case, 50 watts is fine, and usually much less is enough. Living rather out of the usual line stations beam in, I find a bit more umph is handy to get them to turn their antennas and beam at me. I live in the south east corner of IO85 square, and that is not where most stations think Scotland belongs. If they are already pointing at me, barefoot is plenty.

Having no linear certainly rules out moon bounce on 2m - but I am still active on 70cms, and this past few days I have worked Germany (first time on EME) and Switzerland (first time on 70cms by any means). 95 watts - Phew! - QRO for now.

Yes I will get those linears back into action soon. In the meantime, I am very happy to go along with what I have.

Sometime I must tell you how 2 watts on HF is doing for me - rather well in fact.




Friday, 21 December 2018

VHF Sporadic E when you least expect it.

It is sunset here as I write this - today sunset is at 15:36. Only seven hours of daylight today, with the Sun rising at 08:37. Not exactly the type of day one might associate with Sporadic E. Yet I am reporting on a really good Es opening the day before yesterday, the 19th of December.

This is my second post today, the other one is here

In the midst of being on the lookout for December meteor showers it is easy to overlook seasonal Es. The same applies in early January. The things to look out for are when your MSK144 graph fills with a single strong station. Watching 10m is another trick, which is how I found it (thanks to Jaap, PA0O, whose 10m WSPR drew my attention to it). Then again one could watch DX Maps, PSK reporter or set up alerts on your phone with EsSense.
PSK reporter showing 15 minutes of 6m Es on 19 December 2018. Note that was already dark at ground level.
Or maybe just listen for it ...

There is often Winter Es about at this time of year, which is frequently wrongly called "Christmas Es". That name tends to makes people look at the wrong time. It could happen during my annual appearance on the RSGB Christmas Cumulative contest, but it never does. Not yet anyway. Sometime between early December and mid January seems to be the time. You just do not know exactly when or how often. It is usually a middle of the day thing, so having it in the dark is a bit unusual.

The opening here lasted two hours and 40 minutes, and I worked 36 QSOs, 22 squares, and 8 DXCC in that time. Plus I had a contact with Dale MM0INH at the end, when we tried to express how tired we were using the few characters you get in the FT8 mode.
6m Es contacts at GM4FVM on 19 December. The guy due South thinks he is at the South Pole (he isn't).
9A3ST (JN75) looks like the best DX at 1652km.

Great fun, totally unpredictable. All we need now is an aurora and a strong tropo opening and Christmas is complete (well, unless I get any "Co-op for Men" that is).

This says to me that the 50MHz band is a key part of my all-round VHF activity. I do find it a bit "easy", but then again not when I am pushing for DX. However, when I am putting together a year-round schedule of things to do, 6m has a habit of surprising me (in a nice way).

Simple antennas are very effective on 6m. Wire dipoles, crossed dipoles, HB9CVs, and verticals can all play their part. I was still using only 50W or so from the IC-7100. Being around at the right time is always important.

I did not do much on 4m during this opening, and I find that Winter Es rarely reaches 70MHz. However, I did hear a German station on FT8, but just long enough for one decode. 10m was also quiet, perhaps because activity is low. This is especially true on the WSPR mode which I use so much. I am beginning to think that WSPR is doomed, which is a pity given its ability to make antenna comparisons and run all night. I will not give up on WSPR in a hurry because I think that it still has relevance.

Anyway, that is amateur radio. Like life, you just never know what is around the corner.

Perhaps that is just as well.




The etiquette of a meteor scatter contact

I have a couple of postings nearly ready so this one should be quickly followed by another. Nevertheless, there are some things I want to get on record before we move on. These are about how we make meteor scatter QSOs, not about the data mode technology or the science of the meteors themselves.

First of all though, as it is nearly Christmas, I have to clear up some doubts amongst you all about what to buy me for a present. It is customary to give some manly scent at this time of year, but the one I use is not available in most shops because it is, of course, a designer label. Not for me (the man who has everything) something common to the parfumiers of Paris. No, coming in a subtle plain grey tin, is my "Co-op for Men". It will only cost you £1.00 for a 250ml spray, available via the exclusive Co-operative Wholesale Society of Manchester (branches all over the UK). Do I have sophisticated tastes, or what? Plain postage will do, no need to send it "signed for".'

Moving swiftly on, I know that some beginners on MSK144 and meteor scatter are flummoxed by the strange way contacts are carried out. It is not easy to know where to beam. Also, the long gaps in the QSO when nothing appears to be happening can be confusing.

As for beam angle, WSJT-X's meteor scatter solution, MSK144, offers two suggested beam directions when you put in a callsign and locator. These are "Az", the true direction, and "B", which is a suggested direction (sometimes B is called a "Hot bearing", which I thought was when the wheels fell off your Morris Minor). In theory the true direction will not work at all. Beaming directly at the station should produce no result as the meteor trail will block the direct path. In practice this is not quite true, but there are still better results to be had by beaming slightly off the true angle.

The angle WSJT-X suggests will provide a path to one side, and the relative deviation suggested to the other station should have you both pointing to the optimum point in the sky for communication. The reality is that my beams are not very gainy so they are wider than perhaps the designers of WSJT expect. So for me, a smaller correction seems to suit better. I generally take the true angle and add some correction up to about half that suggested. However, I always correct on the same side of the true as the "B" angle suggests so that we both point on the correct side of the true path.

Note that the deviation suggested will depend on the distance to be worked. So the two stations I worked along the same true beam heading in my last post, the Drammen Radio Society, LA2D, in JO59 (522km) suggested a deviation of 14 degrees north of true (Az54, B40), while Jukka, OH6UW in KP22 (1742km) had a suggested deviation of only 10 degrees north (Az54, B44). Other factors come in, but generally the further away the smaller the deviation. The less directional you antenna is, the less this matters. For a short yagi you can pretty well forget about it.

The other oddity for someone trying MSK for the first time are the rather un-nerving silent gaps between decodes. Because the meteors are often sporadic, you might transmit for 5 or 10 minutes before the station at the other end hears you. This is understandable (not everybody is as good an operator as you) but then there might be another 5 or 10 minutes before you hear their reply. So there is a variable wait to get the reply, during which you do not know whether to  keep sending, give up and try to work somebody else, go and have a cup of tea and a fig roll, or abandon meteor scatter entirely. My advice is to keep sending for as long as you can without overheating your equipment.

How difficult this can become depends on whether you are operating during a strong meteor shower or looking for "random" meteors at any other time of the year. During a major shower things work like an FT8 contact, you get the reply immediately and every signal is long and  strong so you feel comfortable. But when the shower slackens off you have long gaps of unpredictable duration. This adds to a joyous period of expectation during the quiet periods.

Take yesterday ... I heard that German stations had now got access to 4m again. So I went to 70.174 to call CQ. I heard from DK2EA and we exchanged reports. I never heard his RRR and the next decode I got from him was him working  G0CHE. At the same time OH3XF in KP10 called me. At this stage I do not know if DK2EA has received my report. He may have replied or not, I may have missed his reply, and he has gone on to work G0CHE. As clearly he now is doing something else, I decided to turn my beam to OH3XF instead.

After exchanging reports with OH3XF I heard him sending 73. At this stage many stop, but I decided to sent 73 three times to show OH3XF that I have heard him. In theory this could go on for ever, as not hearing anything might mean that OH3XF has stopped, or just that the meteors are not falling at this right moments and he is still trying to send me 73. There is no positive way to know.

After that, having sent 73 three times I went back to DK2EA and tried to finish that QSO (which might be finished anyway). I then received DK2EA sending CQ twice, but he did not reply - or I din't hear him reply.
GM4FVM trying to work DK2EA but succeeding with OH3XF
Frustrating? I do not know for sure that I worked DK2EA, but the fact that he did not come back to me later suggests that I did.  I did work OH3XF, (KP10, 1575km), a nice bit of DX. He replied to my CQ, and it took me about 5 minutes for me to get that reply, during which time I had started a QSO with another station. This is not unusual. You then have to decide which one to work (or try both, as some stations do, sending messages alternately). Most people just go for the best DX.

So it can get confusing. This variable 5 to 10 minute gap can mean that it is 20 minutes before you get a reply to your call, during which time you are feeling a bit on edge. The better the DX, the longer you are likely to wait. Some random contacts can last for hours if you have the patience, but the message is not to give up.

During all the time I was working OH3XF I could easily have received a further message from DK2EA (I didn't, which suggests he was beaming somewhere else by then). Anyone can call you at any time, they having heard your CQ of 30 minutes ago. This requires you to be flexible and ready for anything.

The QSO with OH3XF was quite quick at 4 minutes 15 seconds after I heard him, but I do not know which of my CQs he was replying to. Depending on which one of 18 CQs sent by me over  a period of 9 minutes, it was a total of 9 minutes or 18 minutes or probably somewhere in between.

For comparison, I had a QSO with DF5VAE, Charly, (JO64, 1004km) on 2m on 12 December. I saw a CQ from him and replied and the whole QSO took 18 minutes and 30 seconds. I waited 12 minutes and 30 seconds between hearing his report and receiving his confirmation that he had got mine, during which time I was sending him my report every 15 seconds. Charly emailed me with a very nice message - it turned out that he had called me after an earlier decode but it had only been one way at that time. You just never know ...

Remember, if you hear someone replying to your CQ of 30 minutes ago then they have been calling you for 30 minutes, i.e. 60 times. They must want to work you!

Despite all this complication, during meteor showers most QSOs are fairly quick and easy. It is only nutters like me who love random CQs who plod on for hours flogging lost causes. Many times I have sent a report and waited ages for a reply, even sometimes seeing the DX station working someone else in the meantime. I hope that when they do eventually see my message they will reply to it - and they usually do. If we have exchanged reports they can feel free to work somebody else while I send RRR, provided of course they reply to me once they do eventually get my signal. And persistence often works.

I say I like random meteor scatter, working outside the showers. I also like random QSOs, not involving skeds. Sure, I can do individual skeds and I welcome anyone who want to set one up. What I do not do is use chat rooms to organise my QSOs. There is one, KST Chat, which many use. I do not use KST. I find that people use it to avoid listening on the bands. Sure there are good folks (don't write in to say you are one of these good ones) who use it to advance their activity. Many others simply use KST to avoid having to listen and thus avoid doing the work of an amateur. They prefer to chat about irrelevancies and repel all newcomers to KST. It isn't what I want to do, but they can do what they please. It is a free world, or at least it is supposed to be a free world.

I find that those who claim this to be a free world, or a free country, often use the expression to avoid responsibility. With the privilege of an amateur radio licence comes some responsibility to other amateurs. It helps to actually listen to the radio. If your head is up your rear end on a chat room you don't hear very much (unless you do it with headphones on of course).

I just do not like chat rooms. Now we have network radio for setting up skeds, and that seems like a nice radio-alike way of doing it. Chat rooms seem to take the amateur's attention away from the radio and into the world of Narnia. But fine, off you go, nobody is stopping you. Just do not write to me to complain because I do not like KST. It doesn't mean I do not love you as a person, it means I do not use chat rooms.

OK, meteor scatter is daunting for the beginner. I cannot deny that long and worrying silences, strange beam headings, odd spells of heavy activity with weeks of seemingly nothing, uncertainly about who you are working and if you are finished, a distinct lack of 73s, plus lots more, seems to be a long list of off-putting peculiarities. However, it is very rewarding. Just imagine sending a signal and waiting in hope for ten minutes for a reply, which might come right now or later. Then ages later, out of the blue, some DX appears. Delayed gratification - just what we hair shirts love.

On the 6 metre band, at least, you can operate for a lot of time as if you are on a "conventional" mode.

Finally, it helps to set up a separate WSTJ-X "configuration" for MSK with longer watchdog times and so forth, and I hope to cover that at some stage too.

Speak soon (I'm usually on Echolink).




Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Geminids gone but there is still time for a month of action

The 2018 Geminids were pretty good from my point of view...
Meteor scatter contacts at GM4FVM 8 to 14 December 2018
Click to enlarge the image, if need be.

The image shows all three bands I used, 6m, 4m and 2m. Several of these people I have worked during various showers over the past 10 years. Some surprises this year included SM5EPO, at huge strength, on 2 metres. I have worked Per-O 14 times before during meteor showers, but previously only on 6m. SP9HWY was my 27th MS contact with Jurek on 4m, but needless to say many of those were random contacts outside any particular shower peak.

It was nice to work OH6UW on 144MHz after a gap of almost 5 years. I think that pretty well represents the different nature of 2m meteor scatter - it is more irregular in my experience. Just to prove myself wrong, I have worked YL2AO on 2m in the Geminids shower each year for the past three years. S52OR's record with me on various showers on 4m goes back to 2014.

IV3GTH was a nice contact on 2metres. OK, I have worked that part of Italy before on meteor scatter but it still never fails to amaze me that this is possible. He heard me calling CQ while I was beaming much further East. I saw him post that on PSK Reporter and I thought I might as well beam towards IV3GTH and call CQ. Much to my amazement he came back to me and then the contact started in earnest. He did peel off for a while to call another station in a much more attractive square than mine (I don't operate from an oil rig in the middle of the North Sea), but he came back to me later and we completed a nice QSO.

That contact proves how useful it is to tick the "Enable PSK Reporter Spotting" in WSJT-X. You never know who is watching PSK Reporter and may call you if they only knew you were there.

I asked before, why not try meteor scatter (here)? The same considerations still apply. If you can operate FT8 on VHF you have a station capable of working during meteor showers. The commonly held idea is that MS requires high power and big antennas but this is really no longer valid. The WSJT-X suite put paid to most of that. Of course, more power (how much? Just more...) might help, and so might a huge antenna. This year on 6m I have been using a two element HB9CV and about 55 watts. Not exactly earth shattering, but perfectly suitable.
6m HB9CV in use at GM4FVM ready for the windy season.

The eleven tips I give in the posting I linked to above are still valid. David, GM4JJJ added a twelfth. After listening on the bands this year I would just mention again some things worth remembering.

Please stick to the protocol for calling in the right segment in the right direction. Broadly speaking, if you are beaming South and East always use the second segment (don't check the "Tx even/1st" box on WSJT-X). If you are beaming West or North DO click the "Tx even/1st" box. Obviously, if the best DX in the world turns up on the "wrong" segment nobody will mind if you work them, but remember that while you do so you are probably wiping out all the receivers of all the stations around you. So be quick.

Best plan is - only call CQ on the correct segment (point 2 in that article). And don't waste everybody's time by calling stations who are calling in the wrong segment because they are almost certainly beaming away from you and are not interested in working you (point 3).

I know it is difficult to stick to this, and it is difficult to avoid making a mistake by clicking on a station in WSJT-X to reply to them before realising this would put you on the wrong segment. We are all understanding. We all make mistakes ourselves. But please don't just ignore the protocol. Try to stick to it.

Nor should this put anybody off. We all have to learn and newcomers will be treated with respect. Probably.

Do not imagine that high power is always needed. I was amazed to watch MI6XZZ working YL2AO with just 10 watts on 2 metres. I rather wondered if that was going to be possible. When I saw the reports exchanged and YL2AO sending RRR I realised that my doubts had been misplaced. Certainly 50 watts is fairly comfortable on 6m, and 200W is just fine as far as I can see. Many of the stations at the other end will be using 1000W and big antennas but meteor scatter is not a weak signal mode. During a peak the signals are remarkable strong. What you are doing by improving your antenna or using more power is to extend the length of time a signal can be heard at the other end while the meteor tail fades. Thankfully, MSK144 is very good at decoding very short signals, so it can pull messages out of very short pings.

And finally, operating on meteor scatter has informed my thinking on what constitutes a QSO. When every second counts you cannot stand on ceremony. All those 73s in the WSJT box of tricks are all very polite, but they are not strictly necessary. During meteor showers, and to some extent during auroras, the 73 is something not everybody waits for. They may not even send them. Did you get the callsign and report? If the answer is yes, you can fill in a QSL card, and exactly what else do you need? A "roger" from the other end certainly proves it, but so does the QSL saying he got it. I wait for the "roger". Do I wait for 73? Sure, for a while. But  do not think a QSO is invalid without 73s, and the arrival of the QSL card or other confirmation is enough for most meteor scatter operators. For most of us, seeing the other station calling CQ after we have all the other details is all the confirmation we need. A meteor shower only lasts a day or two so nobody stands on ceremony.

I was driven to write the above paragraph after reading quite a few snarky remarks on people's QRZ page along the lines of "If I didn't get your 73 you are not in my log". Well bully for you. I try to live in the real world. I love friendly expressions of good will but I don't penalise people for moving on to work some more DX.

So why not get out there and try? Meteor scatter is particularly accessible on 6m, and that HB9CV of mine is probably the minimum most people have. Even that log periodic you put up never thinking about meteor scatter would do. It isn't even the motorcycling season, so no excuses like that. Barefoot from a commercial transceiver (say 50 watts or so) should get some results on 6m or 4m. If you only have a low power licence it is still worth trying though you might have to pick strong signals to reply to. Especially on 2m, where long Yagis are narrower in beamwidth, you may have to pick your targets rather than call CQ. So listen first and see how others are doing it. Then just have a go..

A vertical or a dipole antenna may work on 6m but may not be so well liked by your amateur neighbours. If you use a vertical or dipole, stick to the same transmitting segment as the others around you or you will not be appreciated.

Really, anyone who can use FT8 can try MSK144. For this season, we have the Quadrantids shower to come. It peaks around 3 January. It is a broad shower so a week on either side can be productive, and that brings us close to the Ursids too. The Ursids are not very strong but occur on and around December 22. So the period between now and mid-January can be quite good, and it is often worth trying outside the shower peak during this time. Weekends are usually better, morning or late evening may be best. That would be best, but anytime is good. A modest antenna should bring stations 1000 to 1500km within range, with 2000km being about the maximum theoretically possible.

After mid-January there is usually a lull until April with just random meteor activity which falls to pretty low level in February and March. So now is the time to get going. Why not?