ISS Crew Contact Part 1 – Ground Station Design and Construction

Satellite 3.0 Station Control Details
Ground Station for Satellites and the ISS

Our planned ISS Crew Contact is almost here! It will take place sometime during the first week of December (December 3rd – 8th) at the Hudson Memorial School (HMS) here in Hudson, NH. I am planning a series of articles here on our blog to explain the process for preparing our ground station(s) and making our contact.

The Beginning

Dan Pooler, AC1EN who is a teacher at HMS began this process almost a year ago by reaching out to the Nashua Area Radio Society. Dan wanted to do an ISS Crew Contact at his school and asked if we would help him with the Amateur Radio elements.

We decided early on that we wanted a Direct contact (one which uses an on-site Amateur Radio Ground Station).

ARRIS Ground Station Recommendations

The first thing we did was to look at the ARISS Ground Station requirements document. We learned that we needed to build two Ground Stations – a Primary Station and a Backup Station. These requirements and our interest in Satellite Communications led to the construction of a series of Portable Space Ground Stations.

The Primary Station

The primary station requirements are as follows:

  • Transceiver with 50–100 W output, 1 kHz tuning steps, and 21 memories capable of storing split frequencies
  • Low-loss coax (such as 9913 or LMR-400)
  • Mast mounted receive pre-amplifier
  • 14 element yagi antenna with switchable circular polarity
  • Antenna rotators for azimuth (0–360°) and elevation (0–180°), with an interface for computer control
  • Computer running tracking software for antenna control (including flip mode operation)

The ARISS approach is to used a series of “secret” uplink frequencies which are determined and provided only to the contact operators before each contact. Doppler correction is not required on the 2m band where the crew contacts take place.

Our Portable 2.0 Satellite Station already existed, and it met many of these requirements with a notable exception:

14 element yagi antenna with switchable circular polarity

Satellite Antenna Details
Satellite Station 2.0 Antenna Details

Our 2.0 Station has an 8 element yagi with fixed polarity. This requirement turned out to have a much more significant impact on the design of the Primary Ground Station than just changing the antenna and ultimately led to the construction of our Portable Satellite Station 3.0. More on this in a minute…

The Backup Station

The backup station requirements are as follows:

  • Transceiver with 50–100 W output, 1 kHz tuning steps, and 21 memories capable of storing split frequencies
  • Power amplifier with 100–200W output (optional)
  • Low-loss coax
  • Mast mounted receive pre-amplifier
  • Omnidirectional antenna, either vertical (preferred) or eggbeater style
  • Uninterruptible power source (UPS or battery)

Our Approach

After consulting with the ARISS folks and some thought, we decided to use the then current Satellite Station 2.0 as the Backup Station and build a new Satellite Station 3.0 for use as the Primary Station. This approach also involved installing a larger rotator to accommodate the larger antenna and a heavier fiberglass cross-boom. The 3.0 station would also receive a more capable antenna for the 70 cm band and add a 23 cm antenna for a third band.

The plan included upgrading the 2.0 Station Antennas to include switchable polarity and the addition of a 200W power amplifier for 2 m to compensate for the reduced gain of the smaller 8 element yagi in the 2.0 station.

Building The Primary Station

Satellite Station 3.0 Antenna System
Satellite Station 3.0 Antenna System

The construction and testing of the 3.0 Station are well covered in articles on our Blog so I’ll just share a little information about the final result. The new antenna system used the same ground-based roof tower arrangement that worked so well for the 2.0 station. The larger 3.0 antennas are center mounted on a fiberglass cross boom to prevent the boom from affecting the antenna patterns. We’ve also added a 23 cm loop yagi for a third band. The 3.0 antenna system also uses a more powerful Azimuth-Elevation Rotator from Alfa-Spid.

2m Yagi Switchable Polarity Feedpoint
2m Yagi Switchable Polarity Feedpoint

The new 2 m and 70 cm antennas use relays at their feed point to enable remote switching of the antenna’s polarity between Left-Hand and Right-Hand circular polarity.

Satellite 3.0 Station Radio and Controls
Satellite 3.0 Station Radio and Controls

The upgraded 3.0 ground station adds a control console for switch the polarity of the antennas and a custom built PPT Router Device to manage PTT sequencing of the radio and the pre-amplifiers at the antennas.

Computer Control via MacDoppler
Computer Control via MacDoppler

We continue to use the excellent MacDoppler software to control tracking and Doppler correction in the 3.0 Station.

Building The Backup Station

Upgraded 2.0 Antennas
Upgraded 2.0 Antennas

The upgrades to the 2.0 Antenna System involved the installation of Polarity Switching relays in the feedpoints of the 2.0 antennas. This upgrade was a fairly straightford one.

Backup Station Radio and Controls Test
Backup Station Radio and Controls Test

The ground station side was more involved as we needed to build a complete, second station. I was able to purchase an Icom IC-910H radio used in good condition for this purpose. The rest of the station components were similar to the Primary Station.

Backup Station Test at the Fall Tech Class
Backup Station Test at the Fall Tech Class

We tested the Backup Station at our Fall Technician License Class and it worked great! several of our class students used the station to make their first satellite contacts.

I am currently working on adding the 2 m amplifier and improving the PTT sequencing system on the Backup Station and I plan to post more about these upgrades in here in the near future.

Audio System for Our Contact

Mixing Board at HMS
Mixing Board at HMS

Our contact will take place in the auditorium at HMS. The room has a high-quality sound system and mixing board for audio.

Audio System for ISS Contact
Audio System for ISS Contact

Dave, K1DLM is part of our ISS Crew Contact Team, and he has quite a bit of pro-level audio experience. He has put together the following plan for our Audio System. His design allows us to smoothly transfer audio to and from either the Primary or the Back Stations. We are also planning to record video and Livestream video to the N1FD Facebook page during our contact, and his design supports these elements as well.

Data System for ISS Contact
Data System for ISS Contact

The final element in our plan is the Data System. The network at HMS is very tightly controlled from a security point of view and this makes it difficult to use for contact critical functions like access to up to date Keplerian Elements for our straightforward. Dave has an LTE-based Internet Access System that we have used in the past and we’ve elected to use this to support our stations. We are planning to use the HMS network to transport the Livestream video from our contact. We’ll be using a Mevo Internet Camera for this purpose.

A Million Details…

As you can probably imagine, there a many details that go into making a project like this possible. Here’s a rough timeline of some of the major remaining steps from a Ground Station point of view:

  • Assemble both stations at our QTH with the 2m amplifier and the final 215′ control cables and feed lines – In progress, should be complete in a few days.
  • Full Station Test – add the Audio and Data System components and test the full station at our QTH – Within a week.
  • Configure and Test Data Network Access – for Live Streaming Video and computers and HMS.
  • Setup Ground Station at HMS and perform Dry Run Test – Complete by December 1st.

Dan and the HMS faculty team are also very busy finalizing the student’s questions and handle press related activities.

We hope our readers will join us via the Livestream video for our contact. We’ll post more on this as we get closer to our contact!

Fred, AB1OC

WSJT-X and FT8 – A Video Introduction

WSJT-X 2.0

WSJT-X 2.0

The Nashua Area Radio Society recently held a Tech Night on WSJT-X: FT8, WSPR, MSK144, and More. This Tech Night was recorded and provides a good starting point for folks who want to understand what the WSJT-X software can do, how to use it, and how to integrate it into their station.

August 2018 Tech Night – WSJT-X: FT8, WSPR, MSK144, and More

The video from our Tech Night includes lots of information about how to get started as well as some recorded demonstrations of FT8 and Meteor Scatter contacts.

Topics Cover During WSJT-X Tech Night

Topics Cover During WSJT-X Tech Night

Our Tech Night also covered tools like PSKreporter and JTAlert that can be used with WSJT-X. Finally, we spent some time on using WSPR to evaluate your station’s performance and how you can use the software to do more “exotic” QSOs such as Meteor Scatter on 6m.

Nashua Area Radio Society members have access to our full library of over 30 Tech Night Video on a wide range of topics for both beginning and advanced Hams. You can see the list of what is available on the Nashua Area Radio Society Tech Night page.

I hope you enjoy the video!

Fred, AB1OC

HAB-4 Launch Preparations

We have established launch windows and begun final launch preparations for our High-Altitude Balloon 4 (HAB-4) launch. We’ve made some modifications to our HAB platform to improve its cold temperature performance and we’ve determined the Balloon and flight path parameters for the upcoming flight. HAB-4 will carry an APRS transmitter and can be tracked using aprs.fi. You can read more about HAB-4 flight preparations via the link that follows.

Source: HAB-4 Launch Preparations – Nashua Area Radio Society

A Portable Satellite Station Part 6 – Plans for a 4.0 Station

Portable Satellite Station 3.0 Antenna System

Satellite Station 3.0 Antenna System

We have begun looking ahead to Satellite Station 4.0 and where we want to go next after our ARISS crew contact is complete. Our goals for the Satellite Station 4.0 include:

  • A permanently installed version of our 3.1 Station which can be operated remotely over the Internet
  • Upgraded Transceivers which add Pan Adapter/Waterfall display capabilities
  • Enhancements to our Transportable 2.1 Station for improved performance
  • A more portable version of our 1.1 Station for Grid Square Activations

New 4.0 Station at our Home QTH

The performance of the 3.1 Station’s antennas is very good but the antenna system is a handful to transport. We are planning to install these antennas on a new tower at our QTH and use our Flex-6700 SDR-based Remote Operating Gateway with some upgrades to create a remotely controlled satellite station which can be operated via the Internet. The main components of the 4.0 Station will include:

The new tower will also provide a new antenna system for the 6 m band.

Updated Remote Operating Setup

Flex-6700 SDR-Based Remote Operating Setup

The Flex-6700 SDR and the associated Maestro Remote Unit will enable the 4.0 Station to be remotely operated through the Internet via a Laptop running MacDoppler.

Upgraded Transportable 2.2 Station

Upgrade plans for our Transportable station include the addition of remote switchable polarity relays and a new Icom IC-9700 Transceiver when it becomes available.

Polarity Switch Installed in LEO Pack Antennas

Polarity Switch Installed in LEO Pack Antennas

The polarity switches have been installed on the M2 Antennas 436CP16 and 2MCP8A antennas in our M2 Antennas LEO Pack. We are using a DX Engineering EC-4 console to control LHCP or RHCP polarity selection on the antennas. We have been doing some testing with the upgraded LEO pack which includes the polarity switching capabilities and we are seeing a significant improvement in performance.

Alfa Spid Az-El Rotator

AlfaSpid Az-El Rotator

We are also planning to move the upgraded LEO pack antennas to the current 3.1 Tower to take advantage of the AlfaSpid Rotator which is installed there.

Icom IC-7900 Transceiver

The other major upgrade planned for the 2.2 Station is the new Icom IC-9700 Transceiver when it becomes available. This radio will utilize Icom’s SDR platform and includes a Pan Adapter/Waterfall display which will be a very useful addition for operation with Linear Transponder Satellites.

Upgraded Portable 1.2 Station

We really enjoy mountain topping and activating grid squares so we are planning upgrades to our 1.2 Station for this purpose.

Our 1.2 Portable Satellite Station on Mt. Kearsarge

Our 1.2 Portable Satellite Station on Mt. Kearsarge

The 1.2 Station utilizes computer control to enable operation with linear transponder satellites and will use solar/battery power along with a 100w/70w Icom IC-910H Satellite Transceiver.

Solar Panels

Solar Panels

A pair of 90W foldable solar panels, an MPPT solar charger, and a pair of LiPo 4S4P A123 batteries provide plenty of power to run the IC-910H Transceiver and the associated computer. The portable station also includes a pair of ARR preamps.

Portable Satellite Antenna System

Portable Satellite Antenna System

The antenna system we’ll be using is an Elk Portable Log Periodic 2m/70cm yagi on a camera tripod. A combination of a compass and an angle finder gauge help us to correctly point the antenna.

As you can probably tell, all of these upgrades are in progress and are at various stages of completion. We will post updates here on our Blog as we continue to make progress.

Fred, AB1OC

Working IC-9700 Shown In Tokyo

Working IC-9700 On Display In Tokyo

Working IC-9700 On Display In Tokyo

Icom displayed three working demonstration units of the forthcoming IC-9700 VHF/UHF/1.2GHz transceiver, Icom Inc. at the Tokyo Hamfair, which took place in Ariake, Tokyo on August 25th – 26th.

Source: New Icom Amateur Products Shown at Tokyo Hamfair 2018

The IC-9700 is a new VHF/UHF radio that is based upon the Software Defined Radio (SDR) platform that Icom uses in the IC-7300 and IC-7610.

It looks like this is going to be an excellent radio for Satellite, EME, and other weak-signal work on the 2 m, 70 cm, and 23 cm bands. The IC-9700 features a pan adapter display which will be very useful for working contacts through linear satellites.

Based upon previous new Transceivers release by Icom, I would guess we are at least 8 months to a year away from the time when this radio will be offered for sale in the USA.

Here’s some video of the forthcoming  IC-9700 as well as other gear from Icom. The video also features other new products and updated Firmware capabilities from Icom. Enjoy!

Fred, AB1OC

Operating FT8 Remote on the 6m Band

FT8 Digital Remote Setup

FT8 Digital Remote Setup

I have been operating using the FT8 digital mode on the 6m band using our remote operating gateway quite a bit this summer. The SDR-based remote operating gateway in our station allows us to operate our station from other rooms in our home as well as from outside our QTH via the Internet. When I’m at home, I have computers set up with outboard monitors to create an operating setup for FT8 digital contacts on the 6m and other bands. The photo above shows this setup. Having the extra screen space and multiple laptops enables control of our station, making and logging QSOs, and checking propagation via Reverse Beacon Networks as we operate.

Radio and Logging System

Radio and Logging System

The main system is a windows laptop. It runs the SmartSDR software which operates the Flex-6700 Radio in our shack (upper right window below).

Flex-6700 SmartSDR and WSJT-X Weak Signal Digital Software

Flex-6700 SmartSDR and WSJT-X Weak Signal Digital Software

This laptop runs the WSJT-X software (left windows above) which conducts QSOs in FT8 and other weak signal modes and the JTAlert Software (lower right windows above) which interfaces WSJT-X to the DXLab logging suite. JTAlert displays all callsigns decoded by WSJT-X and compares them to my log to determine which potential contacts are new DXCC’s, Grids, States, etc. JTAlert adds contacts to my logs in DXLab when a QSO is completed using WSJT-X.

DXLab Suite Logging and Rotator Control Software

DXLab Suite Logging and Rotator Control Software

The windows laptop also runs the DXLab logging suite. DXLab handles logging of QSOs, one-click pointing of our antennas based upon the callsign being worked, and uploading contacts to LoTW, eQSL, and ClubLog for confirming contacts.

Reverse Beacon Network and Station Monitoring Computer

Reverse Beacon Network and Station Monitoring Computer

I like to use the second computer to monitor propagation and strength of my FT8 signal while operating.

PSKReporter RBN Monitoring on 6m

PSKReporter RBN Monitoring on 6m

I use two tools to assess propagation conditions while I am operating. The first is PSKReporter which is a Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) tool that is enabled by WSJT-X and most other digital mode software programs. Each time WSJT-X decodes a stations transmission, it reports the decoded callsign along with location and signal strength information to the PSKReporter website. This website then uses this information to display all of the stations that hear my and other’s transmissions in real-time. The RBN information is used to determine where a given band is open and as a tool to determine how much transmit power is needed to provide acceptable signal strength at stations that I am trying to work.

DXMaps Propagation Report on 6m

DXMaps Propagation Report on 6m

The DXMaps website shows a real-time map view of contacts being made on the 10m and higher bands. This second tool provides a real-time view of band conditions and opening on bands like 6m which have somewhat unpredictable propagation characteristics.

Together, these tools help to determine where to point antennas and what stations we can work on the 6m band.

The second laptop also runs Teamviewer remote control software. This provides access to the antenna switching controls, SWR and power monitoring equipment, station electrical power, and amplifier controls in our shack. These tools are important elements in safely operating and controlling our station when we are not in the same room as the radios and other equipment we are using.

I’ve been using the remote operating setup described here on the 6m band quite a bit over the last few weeks. I hope this post provides some ideas that other can use.

73,

Fred, AB1OC

A 6m Es Season to Remember

AB1OC Worldwide 6m Grids

AB1OC Worldwide 6m Grids

2018 has been a summer 6m E-Skip (Es) season to remember. The Es openings have been strong this year and they are continuing into the second half of July. We are enjoying almost daily openings to Europe and the western USA from here in New England. For fun, I’ve plotted my 6m Grids worked and confirmed to date using WG7J’s GridMapper site.

We got started a little late with 6m Es operations this year but the conditions have really helped our Grids, DXCC’s, and States totals worked on 6m. My totals are currently standing at:

  • 6m DXCC’s – 55 worked
  • 6m US States – 48 of 50 (only AK and HI still needed)
  • 6m Grids – 357 worked

A great deal of this progress has been made in 2018. Here are my 6m worked totals since the beginning of the year:

  • 6m DXCC’s – 48 worked
  • 6m US States – 46 worked (All but AK and HI)
  • 6m Grids – 312 worked
AB1OC Europe 6m Grids

AB1OC Europe 6m Grids

The new FT8 and MSK144 modes has made more difficult 6m contacts much easier. This is especially true for DX contacts into Europe and Africa.

AB1OC Americas 6m Grids

AB1OC Americas 6m Grids

At this point, we have worked most of the grids in the eastern half of the US. There are still some “rare” ones that are needed and a contact with Delaware is still needed for my last state on 6m in the continental USA. Alaska and Hawaii will be a challenge on 6m and I may need to use JT65 and EME propagation to work these states on 6m.

With some work on QSL’ing, the recent 6m activity will add significant progress to several of my operating awards. The new 6m DXCC’s worked recently should enable breaking the 2,000 band point level on my DXCC Challenge Award.

If you are interested in trying 6m operations or perhaps you are a new Technician Licensee or are looking for something new to try, don’t forget about the Magic Band (6m). The availability of FT8 mode has really enhanced the activity on 6m. Give it a try!

Fred, AB1OC

HAB-3 To Launch On Sunday – How To Track Our High-Altitude Balloon

We are planning the third launch of our High-Altitude Balloon (HAB-3) this Sunday, June 3rd between 10 am and 11 am ET. We will be launching locally from the Hollis-Brookline HS here in Hollis, NH. Checkout the link below to learn more about our HAB projects and how to track our HAB from anywhere in the world while it is in flight. You can also see live stream video froun our launch and recovery via the N1FD Facebook Page.

Source: HAB-3 To Launch On Sunday – How To Track Our High-Altitude Balloon

Sights from the New England Tech Trek (NETT) at NEAR-Fest

We have been working on project to scale our open house activities to provide an opportunity to learn about Amatuer Radio and to showcase some of the modern, “hi-tech” aspects of the Amatuer Radio Service. This project was debuted at the NETT event at NEAR-Fest. We used our Portable Satellite Station, Remote Operating Gateway, and our Mobile HF Stations as part of this activity. There might be some ideas here that you can use to create an exciting operating activity at you local club or Ham Fest.

Source: Sights from the New England Tech Trek (NETT) at NEAR-Fest