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?




Tuesday, 11 December 2018

WSJT-X 2.0.0 is here

The new version of WSJT-X released yesterday introduces new functions and makes various improvements, including making the WSPR decoder more sensitive.

You can find it here

Please note that I directed everyone to the WSJT Homepage because of course you will not just want to download the suite itself but YOU WILL WANT TO READ THE NEW USER GUIDE before you use WSJT-X 2.0.0.

You will read the user guide, won't you?

Ah. Go on, go on.

Don't be like the two dunderheads I heard discussing this subject recently without the benefit of having read any guidance. I am not so good at reading these things myself but I have learned by experience - everything you need to know is in the guidance and most things people tell you about WSJT-X are wrong.

No need to believe me either, just read the guide.

I think we can take it that Joe Taylor and his team know more about this than I do.

As the latest versions of FT8 and MSK144 are not backwards compatible, the advice is to change over to the new versions now and encourage everyone to change over by the end of December at the latest. So please do that.

Nice to see that the Scottish MSK144 community are already on the right path (though it seems we still have to accept the frequency everybody uses and regard the band plan as advisory) ...

Good to see the new mode being used.

There have been warnings about this impending change-over for months now so we cannot say that we were not aware of it. I do not promote general use of release candidate versions on this site, but there have been 5 successive limited release trial versions to iron out the bugs. I do not encourage general users to download these trial versions after problems with earlier ones escaping into general use. Now that we have the "General Availability" version, off we all can go.

I have (probably forlorn) hopes that, as this upgrade answers all the issues of the meteor scatter community about contest working etc., maybe 2m meteor scatter operators will finally change over to the latest version of MSK144.

So far I have already had a QSO with 2E0RUS on 2 metres FT8 (IO91 distance 505km). The QSB did get in the way a bit but that is number one in the log at -01/-08. 40m seems to be crowded with the new FT8 mode too.

The actual changeover was fairly stressed here because it came immediately after switching the two IC-7300s over (don't ask why) and following the departure of my Kenwood TS590. Yes, I have done it again - sold my TS590. I did that before, missed it, bought another one and you couldn't rule out me doing that again either. The TS590 is very nice radio, but time marches on here and I just take notions.

Anyway, with multiple instances on one computer, and multiple configurations on each instance, it has not been a simple transition. However, it is done now.

Incidentally, it is true. That was me on Top Band recently. 160 metres. Whatever next?



EDIT Just another thought - the new FT8 mode allowed this genuine callsign - HG90MRASZ