Monday, July 28, 2008

There Was A Star Danced, And Under That I Was Born....


The words of the Bard are fitting considering all the fun I've been having working meteor scatter on 2 Meters. 8 QSO's and more importantly to me, eight new grids. I've also had a couple of terrestrial contacts and new grids using the JT6M mode of the WSJT software.

For those who might think that I'm strictly computer guy, I also picked up a new grid over the weekend using that oldest of digital modes, good old CW. But the digital modes offer a significant advantage over even CW, with JT6M and other modes that are part of the WSJT suit able to detect signals several db below the noise level. Given my compromised antennas, this allows me the chance to work a lot of stations that would otherwise be impossible to log.

One of those stations that I've been trying to work most of the month without success is Dan, VE2DSB. A few nights ago he turned me onto a great tool that helps to visualize the current meteor showers, and the direction of those rox.

After doing a little reading in the out of print book, "Beyond Line of Sight", you can begin to grasp the geometry involved. But using the Virgo Sky View tool makes it much easier to visualize.

See for yourself at:

Virgo Sky View

There are also some great links available to help you understand how the direction of travel, speed of the meteor, and other factors affect your chances for a successful meteor scatter contact. Hope these are of help to other newcomers, as we approach the August 12th peak of the Perseids meteor shower.

The International Meteor Organization: Theory of Meteor Reflection

James Richardson, The American Meteor Society: Some Notes and Equations for Forward Scatter


While Sky View can help you to understand which directions of the azimuth have the greatest chance for success on any given day, don't forget that random meteors are constantly striking the earth's atmosphere. These meteors are not part of any shower, and thus don't fall from a given direction (or radiant as they say). The random nature of these events means that successful contacts are possible between almost any two stations within about 1,200km of each other, if they're patient enough.

Thanks to DL1DBC Sabine Cremer for creating this JAVA based web tool, and to my friend Dan, VE2DSB for sharing it with me.

73 DE N1LF

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Love on the Rox


The most important factor for becoming a successful meteor scatter operator is summed up in one word, "patience". Contacts on 2 Meters typically run 15-20 minutes, and can take considerably longer. During major showers, such as the upcoming August 12th Perseids event, QSO's can be completed much more quickly, but during the average session, boredom can become a factor!

To increase my chances at success, and waste less precious operating time to unsuccessful attempts, I'm trying to educate myself on meteor burst communications. Thankfully, Uncle Sam provided me with a lot of it years ago when I worked at the "Special Communications" C-School at the US Naval Submarine Base in Groton, CT.

At the time, we were using a state of the art "burst" communications system for submarines that relied upon exact synchronization of clocks, high power, and highly accurate receivers and transmitters. The system used meteor burst as it's propagation mode, and as such, we were required to learn quite a bit about how that mode worked.

I've refreshed some of that knowledge and learned much more by reading a great book called, "Beyond the Line of Sight", which is a compilation of articles from QST on the various V/U propagation modes. It has some great articles on Meteor Scatter. Though it addresses mostly CW and voice modes which were more commonly used at the time, almost 100% of the information applies directly to WSJT modes like FSK441 as well.

It's out of print, but you can pick up copies on Amazon.com. I highly recommend that all VHF Men obtain a copy.

Another great resource is an e-mail list devoted to meteor observations called, www.meteorobs.org. While most of the discussions center around visual observations of shooting stars, there are also discussions about radio observation. In fact, several amateur radio operators also operate "observatories" to chart, and record the number of radio meteors observed at their location daily. This information is shared with professional groups and is very helpful to the scientific community.

You'll not only learn a lot about which angles and times of day will offer the best chance of success between two stations, but you'll also be more aware of minor showers. These are often not visually spectacular, but on the radio front can be pretty darn special.

Hope these resources can help others getting into MS mode! Hope to hear you on the rox soon!

Staying Motivated

VUCC on 2 Meters is considered by many to be one of the more difficult operating awards in amateur radio to achieve. Just six months into my personal campaign, I can believe it.

To date, I've worked a total of 29 grids on 2 Meters, most via local troposcatter. A few have come via two brief Sporadic E Openings, and a handful via meteor scatter using the WSJT software. But progress is often slow.

During my quest to work my first 100 grids on six meters, if a day went by without working a new one, I considered that a flop. On 2 Meters, that period of time is more like a week, sometimes longer. To date, I've worked 149 grids and five countries on 6 Meters, but on 2 Meters I've worked only two (Canada via WSJT Meteor Scatter)

The recent CQ-VHF contest was a major disappointment. Conditions here were generally poor on both bands, and I had high hopes that this event would draw out more nearby stations. Instead, I worked the "gang" that is usually on here most mornings, and added only 2 grids to my totals on 2 Meters. Not the outing that I expected at all...

By Sunday afternoon, I found myself staring at a ARRL Grid Chart...a handful of them colored in with a yellow highlighter. 29 grids? How on earth am I going to manage to work another 71 grids?

On the WSJT front, despite having over 600 registered users of the software, most days on Pingjockey.com seem to bring out only the "regulars", and I've worked most of them already. To say the least, I was singing the blues...

Then a conversation with a VHF Man in Florida lifted my spirits. Located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, stations in Florida find themselves surrounded by "water" grids with no stations to work. For even some of the Big Gun stations there with Kw amps and large arrays, VUCC remains just out of reach, he explained. His personal quest had taken from 1998 until 2005 to complete VUCC on 2.

As he explained, "It's a marathon, Les...not a sprint".

That helped to put things back into focus. He also pointed out that since I'd only been on since December, I'd yet to even experience my first real tropo opening, or an e-skip opening that lasted more than a few minutes. I hadn't been active during the peaks of the Perseids showers in August, or most of the other storms. In short, the best was yet to come.

29 grids isn't a ton, but considering the limitations of both the operator (work full time, 2 kids, etc.) and the station (indoor antennas, low power), my progress was pretty good. VUCC wasn't out of reach, it just might take a few years.

Like weight loss, staying motivated to achieve the goal is a big part of the battle.

73 DE N1LF

On the Shoulders of Legends...


After weeks of trying, I finally managed to work Rex Turner, W5RCI in nearby EM44. For weeks I've been listening to Rex chat with some of his buddies in the early morning hours, but have failed to attract his attention with my small signals.

I deliberately avoided working any other stations in EM44, wanting Rex to be my first for that grid. Why you ask? History, I suppose. I've always been a fan of studying the past, and that extended into my interest in VHF. For years before getting involved, I read CQ-VHF, The World Above 50mhz, and related materials, knowing that someday I'd want to be involved in weak signal work.

Over time, certain callsigns appear over and over in those pages, and Rex's call was very well known even to a newcomer like me. Rex has been one of the dominant weak signal operators in the Southern part of the United States for almost half a century. He helped to pioneer most of the advances that we take for granted today. Long haul tropo, meteor scatter, EME, and perhaps most importantly, the 222mhz band.

Rex has long had one of the best 222 signals on the band, and has championed it's use for decades. He's nearly everyone's "Mississippi" on 222.

One of the best books written about the weak signal world is an out of print book called, "Beyond Line of Sight". It's a compilation of articles from the pages of QST that cover most of the propagation modes used on V/U. Just scanning that book, I must have noticed Rex's callsign two dozen times.

Just days before the July CQ-VHF contest, I finally worked Rex on 2 Meters, he reported my signal right at the noise level 5/5...but I couldn't have cared less. It was just a thrill to work him and know that his QSL card would soon grace my collection.

Days later during the contest itself, Rex got on for a few hours on Sunday afternoon to hand out some contacts. His signal was loud and powerful on 2 Meter SSB---and he reported my own signal 5/9. We quickly QSY'ed to 432.1mhz to attempt a 70cm contact. While I could copy him with ease on SSB, he couldn't pull me out of the noise. So I switched to CW using an old J-5 straight key.

Immediately Rex came back to me reporting my signal 599...we chatted at about 20wpm for the next few minutes. He told me that he hoped to work me on 222 soon. (My 736R is in the shop right now)...and I replied that I couldn't wait for that.

After the contact, I was reminded of those Visa commercials:

IC-910H-$1,700 dollars
Directive Systems Yagi-$125 dollars
SSB Electronics Pre-amp $380 dollars
Working a legend on 432 with a straight key $Priceless

One of the best things about being a VHF Man is that most of the people who pioneered these bands are still with us, and many of them are still active on the air. Unlike HF, where the immortals are long gone, on the high bands, we can still sit at the feet of the masters, learn from them, and work them on the air.

Thanks, Rex. It was an honor.

73 DE N1LF

Monday, July 7, 2008

Stars Fell on Alabama...


Of course this phrase refers to the classic 1934 jazz tune, and earlier than that, a book by Carl Carmer, describing the spectacular Leonid meteor shower of 1833. But in my case, it is a fitting description for the July 4th weekend this year.

My operating time was very limited. I awoke at 6AM, and rushed out to the shack, attempting to hear some of the stations checking into the East Tennessee 432mhz net. Scatter was poor, with no enhancement noted. So instead, I called up the boys on PingJockey, and decided to give WSJT another try.

Within three hours of sitting down at my desk, using this amazing software, I'd managed to work four new grids, and thanks to VA3WLD, my 2nd country on 2 Meters!

Learned a lot in the experience...including that my recently acquired ARR 144mhz GaSFet pre-amp was DOA. That's a shame, because it's clear that I'm near deaf on 2 Meters using the Icom pre-amps.

Today, I'm shipping all three ARR pre-amps back for service, just to verify that they're working correctly before I install them. One of the hazards of used equipment.

Everything I can read on the net tells me that my Icom mast mounted pre-amps are on the noisy side with noise figures of over 1db...but even if I can improve that with the ARR's it may not translate into real world success. Why? Super low noise pre-amps at best suited for EME work, where antennas are pointed at "cold" sky...for both meteor scatter and tropo work, most of the action is at the horizon.
Pointed down there, the noise floor comes up sharply, and 1db may already be below the noise. Having antennas in the attic can't be helping either.

One station that I worked on Saturday reported hearing me well on nearly every sequence, while I could only copy his station during audible "pings" (bigger rocks and louder signals)

So still a lot of work to do here. I'm installing slightly larger antennas for both 2M and 222 soon. Improvements should be on the order of 1.5-2db. Not huge, but every db counts, right? That will max out the room for hardware, though.

Another "trick" that someone on the WSJT group suggested is to "tilt" the 2M beam up towards the sky more. Perhaps as much as 15 degrees. I may try this too...pointing up would allow better pre-amps to help out for sure.

Still all in all...quite a thrill, and a huge aid to the VUCC hunt! Now I want to see if my puny station can manage WSJT on 222, or even 432.

If you haven't tried MS yet...download WSJT and give it a try!

Hopefully a lot more stars will be falling on Alabama soon!

73 DE N1LF


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Congratulations on VUCC. Please sign the divorce papers.


Often after a disaster, the victims will look back and comment how it was such an ordinary day at first. Yesterday was such a day. It began with a simple phone call at work.

"Honey can you be home a bit early from work today. We've got company and I'm making this wonderful Chilean sea bass". My XYL of 26 years, Abby is both an understanding ham's wife, and a fantastic cook. Her skills in the kitchen inspired our son to become a chef, and their mutual passion is a source of much pride in our home.

"Oh...and on the way, can you pick up a new coffee maker, ours is acting up again". Ah! I saw a chance to impress her. In the dim corners of my mind, I knew that she'd be eying one of those commercial style Bunn coffee makers for weeks. A quick trip to the store on the way home, and coffee in 3 minutes would be within her reach.

On the way to the store, I switched on the Yaesu FT-857D in the truck. It's not much of a V/U set up. A 1/4 whip on six, and a small KU4AB loop for 2 Meters on the back. To my surprise, the Magic Band had awakened from it's two week nap, and a few Maryland stations were worked on the drive home. Nothing new, just the regular grids including CT, NY, and MD.

I switched over to 2 Meters...dead as usual, but there was THAT noise. You know the one, right? That strange brewing sound...and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Hmmm...

The coffee maker was purchased, and by the time I'd made it to our home, six meters was really hopping. More importantly, the grids I was working were moving closer to Alabama. Still nothing on 2, except for more of that sound...

I rushed in and greeted my niece and nephew, visiting from TN. My wife was thrilled with the new coffee pot, and I could smell the sea bass broiling in the oven. Fresh spinach and baby corn ears were simmering on the stove. I explained that six was open, and I had a feeling about 2 meters as well...My wife smiled and said, "Go ahead and see who you can work".

I rushed to the radio room and switched on both the Icom 756Pro III and the IC-910H. Six was open, but not booming. I tried to work a few CQ'ers on .125 but the QRM was getting extreme. Too many stations from multiple directions...so I announced that would QSY to .145.

Thus began the "Sea Bass Fiasco".

A quick CQ on .145 suddenly put me into the midst of a pileup! Stations were calling me like crazy. One after another...and I struggled to get up to speed. At first it was more of the familiar FN19's, and 20's. More Maryland stations, but then things began to shift. I was getting calls from PA, and then WV...and then VA! I turned up the volume on the IC-910H, trying to keep an ear on 2 Meters while working the pileup.

Then I was literally flooded with calls from VA, TN, GA, and KY. These stations were literally right on top of me. Some less than 300 miles away! Even with my limited experience, I knew this was no ordinary opening. I kept thinking, 2 Meters must be open.

I checked the APRS map...still nothing. The 144 logger...nothing except others noting the short skip on six and asking for noise on 2. More stations worked me, one after another. All within 500 miles...How could 2 Meters not be open???

The pileup was thrilling. I struggled to work stations, and had to resort to saying things like, "Ending in November", or "The Whiskey 2 Station only". To their credit, all the operators I heard would stand by and wait for their turn. I wanted to work them all, because I knew how rare this kind of short skip was.

One station in SC mentioned that he needed only Alabama for WAS on Six Meters. He had worked the state two years ago, but no amount of begging or SASE's had resulted in a card. Would I please QSL?

Yes, OM, I QSL 100%...He thanked me over and over for helping to make his dream of WAS on Six come true. He didn't know that being asked was a like a dream come true for me.

NC, SC, more GA stations...and then a flood of Tennessee stations filled the log. In the midst of it, I forgot to check my computer monitors to see what was going on on 2 Meters. I had my hands full with the pileup...

Then a polite tap on my shoulder. My wife smiled and said, "Dinner's ready". AHHH!!!!

I quickly came up with a plan. I turned down the volume on the 6 Meter rig, and turned up the volume on the IC-910H. If Two Meters opened, I'd be able to hear it in the dining room.

Dinner was spectacular. The Chilean sea bass had been marinated, pan seared, and then broiled briefly in the oven to finish. Fresh spinach leaves mixed with baby ears of corn danced in a ginger sauce. Hand whipped mash potatoes, and a creamy dish of fried corn chowder rounded out the meal.

Just as the first bite of fish and spinach melted in my mouth, I hear a loud voice on 2 Meters in the next room. I sprang from the chair and bolted into the room. 2 Meters was open! The APRS map showed a huge red star burst pattern right over the Southeast. And the 144 logger showed stations working all around me.

A quick CQ was answered but the station returning my call was just too weak. The operator called me again...I could make out my own callsign, but not his---KA--something. He switched to CW, "This guy is pro thank god!". I reached for the pencil and the bottom dropped out in the middle of my own callsign. No!! Damn it!!

I began twisting the beams and listening hard on 2 Meters....after about ten minutes, my wife brought the sea bass still steaming on the plate into the shack. More static and weak calls....had I missed the opening on two or had it simply skipped around EM63?

A few minutes later my cell phone rang...my wife answered it and brought it to me immediately. "It's Jimmy Long [W4ZRZ]...he says that there's someone on 432 who wants to work you".

Jimmy had been moving folks up to 432 from 2 meters---it had been his powerful signal that I heard on the speaker, not a E-Opening. Todd, N4QWZ in EM66 [TN] was coming in great tonight on 432...did I want to try to work him with my single Yagi? Sure!

I quickly QSY'ed to 432.1, and worked Todd on the first call. I think we were both surprised at how easy it was. I listened to Jimmy work several weak stations, most of them below my noise floor. Jimmy has a terrific new array of 15 element Yagi's, eight of them in all with a power divider from his mountaintop home. He's even louder on 432 now than 2 Meters!

Six and two died down after that...with little more heard until I switched them off and returned to our company.

My wife smiled and made small talk the rest of the evening...never once complaining. A bit later after I'd finished my evening exercise, I went to ask her about our dogs, and while she responded kindly...I got THAT look. You know the one.

In a flash, I realized exactly what I had done. AHHH!!! How could I be so stupid? She made this incredible dinner and I had deserted her and our guests and then never even apologized for it.

Even though it was nearly 1AM by then, I made a point to talk with her for almost another hour. Apologizing over and over for my mistake.

This morning the alarm went off at 6AM, and I got up to head towards the shack. My plan was to try to work some new grids on 2M via WSJT. As I approached the radios...I remembered that discretion is often the better part of valor...and decided not to switch the radios on at all.

Instead, I showered, then gathered up some laundry, stacked a few dishes in the dishwasher, and prepared our dogs for their vet appointment (which I volunteered to take them to). I even made sure that some fresh coffee was brewing in that new Bunn.

When I left, I apologized once more, and Abby smiled and said, "I understand...when the band is open, it's open. You have to work them when you can".

Isn't she great? But just to play it safe, if today brings the band opening of the century, you may not hear the N1LF callsign there. I've got some making up to do. And hey, let's face it. They'll always be another band opening, but there's just one Abby.

73 DE N1LF


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I Wanna Rockkkkkkk!!!!!!!


It's official. I've become a rock-hound. This morning, I made my first two official Meteor Scatter QSO's using the digital sound card mode WSJT!

For those forced to operate with less than optimum antennas or power, this mode is a god-send. Also if you're planning a expedition to a rare grid, WSJT should certainly be in your bag of tricks. It allows propagation in a range of 500-1400 miles virtually round the clock, and it's possible to work a ton of stations using small antennas and low power.

This morning, I was able to work W9NHE in EN53 (WI) and WA5UFH in EL19 (TX) within the span of about an hour. Both operators are experienced meteor scatter operators and were very patient with me as I struggled to master the software and exchanges. In both cases, "pings" or meteors entering the atmosphere were few and far between, so contacts took a while, but I've worked much harder on SSB and CW to work someone two grids square distant from my location!

I used my standard VHF/UHF rig (An Icom IC-910H) along with a soundcard interface like you'd use for PSK-31 or other modes. In my case, I'm using a SignaLink USB interface made by Tigertronics. I got it from DX Engineering, which is one of the best companies that I've ever dealt with.

This interface is a great one, because it has a built in sound card, leaving your computer's free for other tasks. Set up is simple and requires only the single USB cable. They sell inexpensive cables to connect the radio to the interface too.

If you're new to the mode like me, let me give you a few pointers. The "Calling Frequency" for the mode is 144.140khz. Most activity takes place in the morning hours starting around 6AM Central time. There is also activity in the evenings just after dark, and few die-hards who are available just about 24/7.

You can call "CQ" on the calling frequency but most contacts are scheduled or arranged on the fly using an special internet chat server called "PingJockey". You can simply post a message that you'd like to try a contact and one of the more experienced operators will guide you from there. You agree on a frequency, and a message format (short or long), etc. Usually the station that is the furthest West will transmit first in exact 30 second time periods.

It sounds a lot harder than it is...but much like PSK-31 and other digital modes, once you get started it seems to come easy.

I highly recommend that you download the software for the mode, which is free of charge here at:

http://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/K1JT/

You should also download and read the short manual, which helps you understand how to operate the mode at:

http://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/K1JT/WSJT_User_600.pdf

And lastly, you should download and view a great PowerPoint presentation on the mode created by K0SM.

http://mail.rochester.edu/~af006m/K0SM-RVHFG.PPT

There is a lot of information out there on the web, but frankly it can all make this mode seem mysterious and complicated, it's neither. Just give it a try!

Some have questioned the validity of contacts that involve the PingJockey chat server, but I think this isn't a valid concern. Using the chat server allows you to make a schedule. Same has having a schedule to try and work someone on SSB or CW. You know you're you're trying to work (callsign), where to point your antenna (grid square), and what frequency.

But at the end of the day, you still have to work them! Is it possible to cheat using the chat room? Sure...but it's easier to cheat using a telephone or private e-mail. In the case of the chat room, the postings are all on record and could be used to question the validity of a contact.

If you watch the postings, you'll notice a lot of busted QSO's, where folks just give up because the rocks aren't cooperating at that time. In my case, I actually made two previous "learning" QSO's just prior to the June Contest, but neither one counted as a valid QSO, because we exchanged other data on the chat server. These were still very helpful in getting me comfortable with the mode. But not good for VUCC credit.

For me it's simple math. 2 new grid squares, in 2 new states in about an hour on 2 meters! This mode may become my not-so-secret weapon! Thanks to Ted and Tip for my first QSO's on WSJT.

From now on, I plan to order my DX "On the Rocks!"

73 DE N1LF