I have joined the ARISS Program as a Mentor to help schools make contacts with astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). School contacts as part of the ARISS program can take two forms – Direct Contacts and Telebridge Contacts.
ARISS Direct Contacts
Direct contacts involve setting up a space communications ground station at the school making the contact.
ARISS Direct Contact Ground Station Antennas at Council Rock HS
Direct Contacts involve a great deal of preparation and a local Ham Club which has considerable VHF weak-signal experience and equipment to partner with on a school’s contact. There can also be considerable expense involved in assembling the necessary ground station for a Direct Contact. In addition, some locations are much better than others in terms of access to good, high-angle ISS passes and an environment that is relatively free of nearby obstructions like buildings, hills, etc.
Students at Maani Ulujuk High School in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada
Telebridge contacts involve using an existing ground station in a different location with an audio link to the school making the contact via telephone. This type of contact provides a high-quality experience with an astronaut on the ISS without the need to construct a ground station at the school. It enables the teachers involved in the contact process to focus on the educational aspects of their contact with the ISS.
All of the ARISS Telebridge Ground stations are built and operated to very high standards.
Also, schools in difficult locations or those who don’t have the needed support of a local Ham Radio club with the necessary space ground station equipment can still enjoy making a contact with an astronaut on the ISS. In addition, a Telebridge contact also enables the supporting Amateur Radio Club to focus on providing great Amateur Radio activities and educational support to their partner school.
Adding Telebridge Capability to Our Station
Space Communications Ground Station at AB1OC-AB1QB
We’ve used the station here to make many satellite contacts and to listen to ARISS contacts from the ISS. We’ve also used our station to receive images from the ISS during ISS SSTV events. We’ve decided to add a Phone Patch to our station here to enable it to be used as a testbed for schools preparing for Telebridge contacts.
Adding A Telephone Patch
Phone Patch To Enable Testing and Hosting Telebridge Contacts
A Telephone Patch enables a third party to communicate over an Amateur Radio link using a telephone. A Phone Patch provides a connection between a Transceiver and a telephone line. It also handles creating a proper balance at the 2-wire Hybrid Interface that connects to the telephone line to the radio. A typical Phone Patch device also provides for Transmit and Receive level adjustments.
Setting up the MFJ Phone Patch was pretty straightforward. All that was required to work with our IC-9700 Transceiver was to set the internal jumpers in the MFJ Phone Patch to configure its microphone connection properly. The MFJ Phone Patch came with a cable to connect to the round microphone jack on the IC-9700 Transceiver. A connection between our audio amplifier to bring audio into the Phone Patch was made to complete the installation.
Testing On The Air
The MFJ Phone Patch was adjusted to achieve a good balance on the 2-wire Hybrid Interface to the telephone line and the Transmit and Receive levels were properly adjusted prior to on-the-air use. These procedures are clearly explained in the manual for the MFJ-624E and are easy to complete.
With these steps complete, we set up a telephone call and made several contacts using FM stateless on the air. We received good audio reports and could easily understand the downlink audio using a standard telephone receiver.
Becoming an ARISS Telebridge Ground Station
My initial purpose for adding Telebridge capability to our ground station was to enable it to be used to perform testing of the audio systems in schools that will be hosting Telebridge contacts. I am also going to apply to become one of the ARISS Telebridge Ground Stations in North America. We have an emergency backup power system here and our station’s location in our home makes it a good choice for situations where contacts need to be made at any time of the day or night. More to come on this in the future.
More About Our Ground Station
Here are links to some additional posts about our Satellite Ground Stations:
Winter Field Day 2020 is almost here! A few weekends ago, several of us got our QTH to complete the final station test for our planned 5O operation in Winter Field Day (WFD). Activities including setup and testing of a new, Portable Networking Pod and three of our five planned Winter Field Day stations. We are planning to use the N1MM+ Logger in a networked configuration this year…
This article covers equipment and networking aspects of the Nashua Area Radio Society’s planned 5O setup for Winter Field Day 2020. All of our stations will use the N1MM+ Logger to support SSB Voice, CW, and Digital modes.
Snow is coming to New England this weekend so we wanted to get the control cables run to our new EME Tower before the ground is covered with snow. The project involved installing a Utility Enclosure on our tower and running three control cables to our shack for the following devices:
Az-El Rotator and Preamp Switching Control Connections
We began by install some barrier strips and a copper ground strap in the Utility Enclosure. The copper strap provides a good ground connection to the tower and associated grounding system. The enclosure is clamped to the tower using two stainless steel clamps.
The final step was to hook up our rotator cables to a Green Heron RT-21 Az/El Rotator Controller in our shack. We do not yet have our elevation rotator so we tested the M2 Orion 2800 Azimuth Rotator that is installed in our tower. The azimuth rotator is configured so that the rotator’s dead spot faces north. This is a good configuration of our planned EME operation.
We are continuing to make progress on our preparation for VHF+ Operations at Winter Field Day (WFD) 2020. We had a lot of fun on the VHF+ bands at WFD 2019 and we are planning to add some more bands for our operation this year. We’ve assembled a portable mast system to put us on 3 new bands…
We’ve been busy with preparation for Winter Field Day 2020. My part of this project is to increase our participation in operations on the VHF+ bands (6m and above). We are accomplishing this with a 30 ft push-up mast, some new antennas, and using Transverters for the 1.25m and 33cm bands. You can read more about our preparations and the equipment that we will be using on the VHF+ bands via the link above.
Our goal for this phase of our EME Station Project is to get our new tower up, install the Azimuth Rotator and Mast, and run the hardline and coax cables for our antennas from the shack to our new tower. Our EME tower is constructed using Rohn 55G tower sections. It will be 26 ft tall and will have approximately 18″ of our 3″ mast protruding above the tower. The tower is a free-standing/guyed hybrid design with the first section being cemented into the ground.
Matt, KC1XX, and Andrew of XX Towers began by installing a winch and a gin pole on the base section of the tower. They used the Gin Pole to hoist the second tower section into place and secure it. They also attached the top plate to the third tower section in preparation for installing it along with our mast.
Mast and Top Tower Section Going Up
It is always a challenge to install a mast inside a new tower. The mast we are using is a heavy, 22 ft 4130 chrome molly steel mast that weighs over 250 lbs. Getting the mast inside the tower was quite a feat! Matt and Andrew rigged the top tower section and the mast together and pulled both up together on the Gin Pole. Next, one leg of the top tower section was attached and a second pully was used to pull the mast up through the top tower section until it could be placed inside the tower. The last step was to raise the top tower section a second time using the Gin Pole to seat it on top of the rest of the tower. Finally, the mast was lowered inside the tower to the base and the top tower section was bolted on to complete the tower.
Upper Guy Anchor Bracket on Tower
The next step involved attaching the upper guy anchor bracket to the top section of the tower and rigging the guy anchor cables. We decided to use Phillystran Guy Cable to avoid interactions with our antennas.
Guy Anchor Cable
The completed cables are tensioned using turnbuckles. We adjusted the cables to plumb the tower and then safety-wired the turnbuckles so they will not come loose.
Azimuth Rotator in Tower
The next step was to install an M2 Antenna Systems Orion 2800G2 Azimuth Rotator in our tower. The use of the 22 ft mast allowed us to place the rotator about 5 ft above the ground where we can easily service it in the future. The long mast also acts as a torque shock absorber when the rotator starts or stops moving suddenly. With the rotator in place, we attached the mast and clamped it at the rotator and thrust bearing at the top of the tower.
Pushing Coax Cables and Hardline Through the Conduit
We used a cutoff plastic bottle to protect the ends of the coax cables and hardline as we pushed them through approximately 50 ft of buried 4″ conduit. The conduits were constructed to create a gradual turn into and out of the ground and the cables went into the conduit smoothly.
Coax Cables Exiting the Conduit Near Our Shack
With the cables in place, we installed N-female connectors on each end of the 7/8″ hardline. We used rubber reducers to make it easier to deter water from entering the conduits where the cables exit.
EME or Earth-Moon-Earth contacts involve bouncing signals off the moon to make contacts. EME provides a means to make DX contacts using the VHF and higher bands. There are also some EME Contests including the ARRL EME Contest that provides opportunities to make EME contacts.
Understanding EME Propagation is a project in of itself. The following is a brief overview of some of the (mostly negative) effects involved.
The path loss for EME contacts varies by Band and is in excess of 250 dB on the 2m band. There are some significant “propagation” effects that further impair our ability to make EME contacts. These include:
Faraday Rotation – an effect which results in the polarity of signals being rotated by differing amounts as they pass through the ionosphere on their way to the moon and back
Libration Fading – fading caused by the adding of the multiple wave-fronts that are reflected by the uneven surface of the moon
Path loss variations as the earth to moon distance varies – the moon’s orbit around the earth is somewhat elliptical in shape resulting in a distance variation of approximately 50,000 km during the moon’s monthly orbital cycle. This equates to about a 2 dB variation in total path loss. An average figure for the path loss for 2m EME might be in the range of 252 dB.
Transit Delays – at the speed of light, it takes between 2.4 and 2.7 seconds for our signals to travel from earth to the moon and back.
Noise – the signals returning from the moon are extremely weak and must compete with natural (and man-made) noise sources. The sun and the noise from other stars in our galaxy are significant factors for EME communications on the 2m band.
Doppler shifts – as the earth rotates, the total length of the path to the moon and back is constantly changing and this results in some frequency shift due to doppler effects. Doppler shift changes fairly slowly compared to the time it takes to complete a 2m EME QSO so it is not a major factor for the 2m band.
Moon’s size vs. Antenna Aperture – the moon is a small target (about 0.5 degrees) compared to the radiation pattern of most 2m antenna systems. This means that most of our transmitted power passes by the moon and continues into space.
Taking the moon’s size, an average orbital distance, and an average Libration Fading level into account, one can expect only about 6.5 % of the power that is directed towards the moon to be reflected back towards earth.
EME “Good Guys”
One might look at the challenges associated with making EME contacts and say “why bother”? EME contacts present one of the most challenging and technical forms of Amateur Radio communications. It is this challenge the fascinates most EME’ers including this one. Fortunately, there are some “good-guy” effects that help to put EME communications within reach of most Amateur Radio stations. These include:
WSJT-X and the JT65 Digital Protocol – In the early days of EME communications, one had to rely on CW mode to make contacts. All of the impairments outlined above made these contacts very challenging and the antennas and power levels required put EME communications out of the reach of most Amateurs. Along came Joe Taylor’s digital JT65 protocol which changed all of this. It is now possible to make 2m EME contacts with a single (albeit large) 2m yagi and 200W or so of input power. As a result of these innovations, many more Amateurs have built EME stations and are active on the 2m (and other) bands. Many DXpeditions are now also including EME communications in their operations.
Ground Gain Effects – a horizontally polarized antenna system will experience approximately 6 dB of additional gain when the antenna(s) are pointed approximately parallel to the ground. Ground gain effects made it possible for us to use our single 2m antenna to make our first 2m EME contacts.
MAP65 Adaptive Polarization – Fading resulting from polarity changes due to Faraday Rotation can cause a received signal to fade to nothing over the period of time needed to complete a 2m EME contact. These polarity “lock-out” effects can make contacts take a significant amount of time to complete. Fortunately, a version of the software which implements the JT65 protocol called MAP65 has been created that will automatically detect and adapt to the actual polarity of signals returning from the moon. More on how this is achieved follows below. MAP65 is most useful for making “random” EME contacts during contests. In these situations, a variety of signals will be present in a given band with different polarities and the MAP65 software can adapt to each one’s polarity and decode as many simultaneous signals as possible.
Commercially Available Amplifiers for the VHF+ Bands – Modern, solid-state amplifiers have become much for available for the 2m band (and other VHF and higher bands). This has made single-antenna EME on 2m and above much more practical for smaller stations with a single antenna or a small antenna array.
Our 2m EME Goals and Station Design
We began this project by making a list of goals for our 2m EME Station 2.0. Here is that list:
Operation using JT65 and QRA64 digital protocols and possibly CW on the 2m EME band
80th percentile or better station (i.e. we want to be able to work 80% of the JT65 capable 2m EME stations out there)
Operation in EME contests and EME DX’ing; earn a 2m EME DXCC
We have come up with the following station design parameters to meet these goals:
An array of four cross-polarized antennas with an aggregate gain of approximately 23 dBi
The combined gain of the system will be approximately 23 dBi with a 3 dB beamwidth of 12.5°. The XP28 antennas are designed for stacking and have good Gain/Temperature (G/T) characteristics. G/T is a measure of the gain and noise performance of an antenna system. See VE7BQH’s tables for some interesting data on G/T for many commercially available EME and VHF+ antennas.
The antenna system will have separate feeds for the antenna array’s Horizontal (H) and Vertical (V) planes. The Horizontal elements will be oriented parallel to the ground to maximize ground gain when the H plane is used for transmitting (and receive). A pair of 4-port power combiners will be used to combine the H and V polarities of the four antennas into a pair of H and V feedline connections.
M2 Antenna Systems will be supplying a MAP65 Switching and Preamp System that will mount on the tower near the antennas. The MAP65 Housing provides switching and separate receive preamplifiers and feedlines for the H and V polarities of the antennas. Separate H and V receive coax connections bring the Horizontal and Vertical elements of the antennas back to the shack. A third coax connection is provided for Transmit. The transmit feedline can be routed to either the H or the V antenna polarity to help minimize Faraday Rotation related fading at the other end of the contact.
An M2 Antennas S2 Sequencer will provide Tx/Rx sequencing and H/V transmit polarity selection via the MAP65 Switching and Preamp System on the tower. The sequencer is essential to provide safe changeovers between receive and transmit and to protect the preamplifiers and the power amplifier during high power operation.
The signals returning from the moon in an EME system are very, very weak. Because of this, Noise and Dynamic Range performance are critical factors in an EME receive system. In addition, we will need a pair of high-performance, phase-coherent receivers to enable Adaptive Polarization via MAP65.
LinkRF IQ+ Dual Polarity Receive System
We are planning to use a LinkRF IQ+ Dual Channel Receive Converter in our EME system. The Link RF IQ+ features excellent noise and dynamic range performance and its phase-coherent design will support adaptive polarity via MAP65. The IQ+ separately converts both the H and V polarities of the antennas into two separate pairs of I/Q streams.
UADC4 High-Performance 4-Channel A/D Converter
The four channels (two I/Q streams) from the LinkRF IQ+ must be digitized and fed to a Windows PC for decoding. The conventional way to do this is with a 4-channel, 24-bit soundcard. The available computer soundcards add a good bit of noise and therefore limit the overall dynamic range of an EME system. Alex, HB9DRI at LinkRF has come up with the UADC4 – a high-performance 4-channel ADC that is specially designed for software-defined radio. The UADC4 design is based on CERO- IF conversion and is optimized for EME use. The UADC4 should add about 10 – 15 dB of dynamic range improvement over a typical 24-bit PC Soundcard. Alex is currently taking pre-orders for the next run for UADC4 devices. You can contact him at email@example.com for more information.
JT65B Software Block Diagram
Our plans for JT65 software and related components for our EME station are shown above. We are planning on running a combination of Linrad and WSJT software on the same Windows PC to handle JT65B QSOs. There are two configurations that are applicable to our plans:
We are also planning to develop a simple windows application that will read the Moon Tracking data that is generated by WSJT MAP65 and WSJT-X and use it to control the rotator system associated with our EME antennas. More on this to come in a future article.
Well, that about covers it as far as our 2m EME goals and station design go. The plan is to break ground for the new EME tower later this week. We’ll continue to post more articles in this series as our project proceeds.
Here are some links to other articles in our series about our EME Station 2.0 project:
The first step in the project was to assemble the antenna and check its SWR on the ground. The elements on an antenna like this typically vary by small amounts and are usually not arranged from shortest to longest. It is important to carefully measure each element during installation to confirm that each element is installed at the correct location on the boom.
The folks at M2 Antenna Systems made up a custom boom support truss for us. This is important given the potential for ice and snow accumulation that we face here in New England. We also made up a section of LMR-600uF coax to connect the antenna to the feedline and preamp system on our tower.
Driven Element Details
The new antenna uses a Folded Dipole style feed point. This system is essentially a T-matching arrangement where the two sides of the driven element are fed 180 degrees out of phase. It is important to set the locations of the shorting blocks carefully to ensure proper operation of the driven element and a resulting low SWR.
Yagi Going Up The Tower
Matt, KC1XX, and Andrew from XXTowers handled the installation of the new Yagi on our tower. The installation involved climbing our 100 ft tower and the 25 ft mast at the top to remove the old yagi and install the new one. Note the careful rigging of the new antenna and associated feedline. This allows the new antenna to be pulled up the tower without damaging it.
Climbing a mast is not for the faint at heart! An installation like this one is clearly a job for experienced professionals. Andrew makes this task look easy. Our tower camera captured some video (click on the image above to play) of Andrew’s handy work.
The new yagi (top antenna in the picture above) is installed on a 5 ft fiberglass mast extension. The extension is used to ensure that the antenna does not “see” a metal mast which would disrupt the antenna’s pattern. The final installed height of our new yagi is a little over 125 ft. Note Andrew’s good work in attaching the feedline to the mast.
432-9WLA Installed SDR – Shack End
With the new yagi installed and hooked up, we made a final check of the end-to-end SWR from the shack. The antenna’s SWR is very good and the 2:1 SWR bandwidth extends from the bottom of the 70cm band to almost 450 Mhz. The new antenna is optimized for weak signal work up through the ATV sub-band and its SWR is below 1.2:1 in this range.
We’ve recently received our L24TX Transmit Converter from Down East Microwave. The unit is compact, simple, and produces up to 25W output in the satellite section of the 23 cm band (1260 MHz – 1270 MHz, actually 24 cm). The L24TX is a transmit-only device that is intended to enable L-band uplinks for Satellite use. This article is about our most recent project which involved integrating the L24TX into our Flex SDR Satellite System.
24 cm Tx Converter Rear Panel
Connecting the unit is straightforward. The unit requires an IF input, a 10 MHz reference oscillator, DC power, and a transmit keyline. The later two inputs are provided via a 7-pin connector and a DEM supplied cable. We ordered our unit with the following configuration options:
IF 28 Mhz = 1260 MHz output
Max IF Drive Level – +10 dBm
Fan and Case configured for mounting in the shack
Fortunately, our feedlines for the 23/24 cm band are hardline-based and relatively short. The unit is also available in a configuration that would enable it to be remotely mounted in an enclosure on a tower.
24 cm Tx Converter Installation in our Remote Gateway SDR Rack
The unit fits nicely into our Remote Gateway SDR Rack. The L24TX does not include a power output display so we used a 23/24 cm sensor and our WaveNode WN-2 Wattmeter to monitor output power from the unit. The unit does have leads that output a voltage that is proportional to output power. This could be used to build a power output bar display or meter. the front panel indicates display a power-on indication, lock to the 10 MHz clock input, and Tx when the unit is transmitting.
Overall Satellite SDR System Design
Integration into our Satellite SDR System was straightforward. Our system already included splitters for the 10 MHz GPSDO and the 28 MHz Transverter outputs from our Flex 6700 SDR. I had hoped to use one of the leads from the SmartSDR BITS cable we are using to key our 70 cm Transverter but the BITS cable did not have an adequate drive level to key the L24TX.
Remote SDR Gateway Tx Band Settings
Fortunately, the Flex 6700 has configurable TX1-TX3 outputs for keying devices like Transverters. The use of the TX2 output to key the L24TX was easily configured in the SmartSDR’s TX Band Settings.
23 cm Tx Converter Setup in SmartSDR
It is necessary to configure SmartSDR for the L24TX. The required settings are in the XVTR options tab. In addition to configuring the mapping between the Flex 6700’s XVTR IF frequency and the unit’s output Frequency, one needs to set the IF drive levels. We used the default drive level of 6.0 dBm and adjusted the IF Gain Control on the L24TX until the full output of 25W was reached while transmitting a tone. The correct adjustment is apparent when further gain increases do not provide a proportional increase in output power. The proper setting of the RF drive and gain will keep the L24TX’s output in its linear range of operation.
SDR Satellite System Remote Power Control via a RigRunner 4005i
The RigRunner is remotely accessible over the Internet and our network via a password-protected web interface. This enables us to easily power down or power cycle individual components in the Satellite SDR System remotely.
MacDoppler Tracking AO-91
With all of the hardware installation and calibration steps complete, we are turning our attention to the software side of the setup. We will be using MacDoppler for satellite tracking and VFO control of our Satellite SDR System. This creates a need to connect the MacDoppler program which runs on a Mac to SmartSDR and the Flex 6700 which is a Windows-based system. Fortunately, MacDoppler provides a UDP broadcast mode that transmits az/el antenna position information as well as data to control radio VFOs to adjust for Doppler shift.
FlexBridge Software Beta
We are working on a custom windows application called FlexBridge to enable MacDoppler to run our Flex SDR-based Satellite System. FlexBridge runs on a Windows PC. It receives and parses the UDP broadcast messages from MacDoppler and uses the FlexLib API to properly configure and control the Flex SDR’s VFOs.
SmartSDR Operating With AO-92 in L-V Mode
At present, FlexBridge can configure and control SmartSDR (or a Maestro Client) that is operating our SDR Satellite System. The screenshot above shows the MacDoppler, FlexBridge, SmartSDR combination operating with AO-92 in L/V mode. This software is still an in-progress development and we plan to add the ability for FlexBridge to connect to the radio via SmartLink as well as support for the Green Heron RT-21 Az/El Rotator Controller that we are using. We’ll be sharing more about FlexBridge here as the software development progresses.
The next step in our Satellite Station 4.0 Remote Gateway project will be to move our satellite antenna controls and feedlines into the shack and begin testing the complete setup using local control. Once this step is complete, we’ll focus on the final steps to enable remote operation of our satellite station via the Internet.
Here are links to some additional posts about our Satellite Station 4.0 Projects:
There are many reasons to have an accurate time source in your station. Getting the best performance from WSJT-X modes like FT8 requires your computer clock to be synchronized to within a second for example. You can set your clocks accurately using NTP servers on the Internet. This is the most common way that most stations set their clocks.
What if you are portable and don’t have Internet access or what do you do if your Internet connection goes down? One way to solve these problems is to use a GPS controlled NTP time server in your station. We recently installed one from Leo Bodnar in our station.
This device is simple to install. It just requires an Ethernet connection to your network and a GPS antenna. The antenna is included with the unit. The antenna will need to be outdoors with a reasonably clear view of the sky.
GPS Satellite Lock Screen
After a minute or so after it is installed and powered up, the unit will synchronize to the visible GPS satellites in your location and report its coordinates. This indicates that you have a good GPS system lock and that the clock in the unit is accurate to within a microsecond.
NTP Summary Screen
The unit gets its IP either from DHCP or via a fixed IP address that you can program. Once the unit is set, you use its IP address as the NTP server in your software to set your clocks. You would set you NTP server in a program like Dimension 4 to accurately set your computer’s clock for example. You will want to disable your computer’s normal Internet clock setting function to avoid conflicts with Dimension 4. Once this is set up, your computer clock will be synchronized to the GPS system and will be very accurate and you will get the best performance from WSJT-X.
The Nashua Area Radio Society produces similar how-to training materials on almost a monthly basis and we make these materials available to our Members an Internet Subscribers (folks that live too far from our location to be regular members) for a small cost which supports our new Ham development programs and covers the production and storage costs associated with the video material. Here’s a list of the training topics that we’ve produced to date:
2019 Tech Nights
Fox Hunting: Radio Direction Finding for Beginners including a Tape Measure Yagi Build by Jamey Finchum, AC1DC
Surface Mount Technology by Hamilton Stewart, K1HMS
RF Design with Smith Charts, Building a First HF Station, and Begining with CW – Hamilton Stewart, K1HMS; Anthony Rizzolo, KC1DXL; and Jerry Doty, K1OKD
All About Field Day 2019 by our Field Day Planning Team