Thursday, 14 January 2021

Nice Winter Sporadic E opening

My mood remains dark. Amateur radio is not my best friend right now.

In a glum e-mail to a sympathetic amateur recently I explained that I have a need to go QRT for a time to recharge my batteries. However, in the same e-mail I confessed that if there was a warning of a good opening I would be back.

There certainly seems to be a tendency for old men to become more grumpy as time goes on. I try to resist this ever-encroaching crabbed-ness. These grumpy hams tend to believe that they have all the answers - that they have nothing to learn and lots to ramble on about. They have each become, in the words of Granny Reavey, "an old stumb". I speak in particular of those who issue pointless propagation predictions advising us to look out for "two or three weeks" for an opening due to the way the wind is blowing. I kid you not.

OK, so I am like that too. However, I still think that I have a lot to learn in this hobby. The old "rules" (were they ever rules?) are open to revision. This is particularly so when considering propagation where we are always learning more. 

Amateur radio is a scientific hobby. The scientific approach means we should establish theories, but these are always open to revision as we learn more.

The conventional wisdom is that a phenomenon exists called "Christmas Es", a form of sporadic E which happens at the Christmas season. This idea is clearly nonsense as the ionosphere does not recognise the calendar. Could it be that many amateurs take Christmas off work and spend their time avoiding their families by coming onto the radio - and thus noticing a phenomenon which has got nothing to do with Christmas?

Anyway "Winter Es" seems like a more sensible description and as I have rambled on for several years on this blog it can occur for several weeks on either side of the Winter Solstice. Also, despite endless waffling from these people about "stratospheric air currents" (the latest wheeze to cover the fact that Jet Streams are not responsible), the best way I have found to predict these events is to watch the reported levels of charged particles coming from the Sun as indicated by the magnetometers. Especially useful for this is the Norwegian Line list for which there is a link on the right panel of this blog.

There was a really nice Winter Es event here on 12 January 2021, with a smaller opening the next day. I was ready to emerge from my hibernation because there was an auroral opening the evening before. The aurora is a sign that a high energy particle flow is streaming past the Earth. Not that every flow from the Sun will "trigger" and Es opening, but if we are in the period when there might be one the flow will push it over the threshold.

So was I more or less ready, given that it was within the Winter Es period and I had some warning?

Well, surprisingly so. I have also been ignoring all sorts of wisdom about sunspot cycles. Seeing the latest figures I had added another attic dipole to my existing on 10m one. The two dipoles are at right angles controlled by the antenna switch on the second hand MFJ-929 ATU I acquired for almost no money some time ago.

On the new 28MHz dipole I managed to work CA3SOC, a distance of 11852 Km, on 29 December 2020. I was fairly happy with this as it was done on 25 watts and an indoor antenna. Sufficiently emboldened I then put up my Sirio Gainmaster HW vertical dipole. I reckoned that there might not be much going on yet, but I should be ready for it when it does happen. This is a bit of a lash-up and it is fed with less than perfect coax. It was quickly clear to me that I can do better on 10m. I am not getting out well as the ATU is doing a lot of work. Eventually I hope to replace this vertical with the full size Gainmaster which is also still in the garage.

Anyway, come the opening on 12 January I was able to use 10m as a guide to what was happening on 6m. This is my preferred method of working Sporadic E. I watch the bands from the bottom up, starting with 10m, then point my antenna on 6m in the direction I can see from the lower band is likely to be best. Given that the 6m opening was at times divided between North East and South this was very useful.

I use the same tactics on 6m and 4m, 4m and 2m, and then for tropo openings 2m, 70cms and 23cms. I know this method runs contrary to the way most amateurs work. I am not most amateurs. From what I can see most amateurs invest a large sum in a vastly expensive radio and then sit on one band. I am not sure whether they care what is happening on the other bands. I prefer to divide my money between several rigs none of which is perfect, but the result lets me hop about chasing DX.

Anyway, enough of all that. 

The result was 108 QSOs, reaching 74 squares and 22 DXCC on all bands. Nearly all of these QSOs were on 12 January, while 13 January produced 9 QSOs and 6 DXCC.

Looking at 6m, which is where my main interest is:-

50MHz FT8 contacts at GM4FVM 12 and 13 January 2021
This was 46 QSOs, 35 squares and 17 countries on 6m, best DX IT9RZR in JN76 2474 km.

For me this opening shows the joy of the Winter Es. OK, the aurora gave me some warning but the surprise was still there. My aurora warning software went off twice the evening before, but the QSOs recorded were all to the North East of me. Nevertheless, it alerted me to be ready to try the following day. What I did not expect was the size and duration of the opening.

It is not really possible to predict Es openings accurately, given the current state of knowledge. Even if we could, it would probably be impossible to say if would affect any particular station. Most openings to the West and North come to nothing for me. That makes the ones that do happen all the more interesting for me. I remember the feeling when I fall outside the zone covered, so I make hay when I am inside the zone.

As for using space weather to predict Es openings on a general basis - well I find it works during periods when we might expect an opening anyway. But during the "off season", say in February or October, well, then we are very unlikely to get an Es opening which we could predict. 

Increased solar wind might kick an incipient opening into action.

I used 10m to guide my 6m activity. Even with an antenna which was not radiating very well I had 57 QSOs, reaching 43 squares and 15 countries, with best DX being UA6HJT in LN14LC at 3405 km.

Sirio Gainmaster HW showing the lovely January weather at GM4FVM
The real purpose of the Gainmaster is for F-layer DX. That QSO to Chile has raised my expectations.

As I write this on 14 January I have just worked another 11 stations on 6m in 7 different DXCC. I had to take a look today as there was a large disturbance in the Norwegian Line of magnetometers between 20:00 and 23:30 last evening. Co-incidence? Well, I am not about to turn into a grumpy old fart droning on about this. I encourage people to make up their own mind.

Right. I am off to my darkened room to listen to the cricket on the radio. And I have to watch Junior Bake Off too. VHF ham radio? Really? At this time of year? Surely not, as that would break all the rules.



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