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 ...