Tech Night – VHF+ Weak Signal Stations Part 1 – Overview and 6 Meters
We recently did a Tech Night on building and operating VHF+ stations as part of the Nashua Area Radio Society’s educational program. I wanted to share the presentation and video from this Tech Night so that our readers might learn a little more about how to get started and build their own VHF+ Weak Signal Station.
There is a lot to this topic so we’re going to cover it with two Tech Night presentations. The first one in the series is included here and it provides an Introduction to the VHF+ topic along with details on building and operating a station for the 6 Meter Band.
July 2020 Tech Night Video – VHF+ Weak Signal Stations Part 1 – Introduction and 6 Meters
6m Yagi and 2m/70cm/23cm Satellite Antennas On A Tower
We will be hosting a Tech Night about Building and Operating a VHF+ Weak-Signal Station tonight, July 14th at 7 pm Eastern Time. The live, interactive video of our tech Night will be shared via a Zoom conference and all of our readers are welcome to join. I plan to cover the following topics during our session this evening:
Why do weak-signal work on 6 meters and above?
What can you work and what modes are used on these bands
How does propagation work at 50 Mhz and above and how can you measure it?
How does one operate using SSB, CW, and digital modes on these bands?
What equipment is needed and what are some possible ways that you can put together a VHF+ station?
Some demonstration of actual contacts
In addition to an overview of how to get on all of the bands above 50 MHz, we will focus on the 6 Meter (Magic) band. The session will include demonstrations of FT8 and Meteor Scatter contacts on 6 m. I will also briefly describe the 6 m station here at AB1OC-AB1QB and show how we use it to make contacts. A second Tech Night will cover stations and weak-signal operating on 2 m and above.
The Zoom information for our Tech Night Session follows. We suggest that you join early so that you have a chance to make sure that your computer, speakers, microphone, and camera are working.
A Recent 6m Band Opening Between Japan and the United States (PSK Reporter)
We’ve been having a good 6m Es Season in the Eastern United States this year. One thing that all of us here in New England look for is a chance to work DX contacts on the 6m Band. We’ve been fortunate to have almost daily openings from our region to Europe, Central, and South America. One 6m DX activity that is very rare is the ability to work stations in Japan via the 6m band from stations here in New England.
Recently, we saw one of the best openings between the United States and Japan that we have encountered here in New England. The image above shows contacts being made on the 6m Band via the FT8 Digital Mode between Japan and the United States on June 18th, 2020 in the evening eastern time.
So Close – Japan Opening to New England on 6m (PSK Reporter)
The pattern of 6m Es openings between Japan and the United States, not surprisingly, typically begins with West Coast and Midwest Stations and works eastward. We’ve been seeing these openings progress to include stations in the Southeastern United States recently on a regular basis. We monitor PSK Reporter and we use our station in receive-only mode to monitor the progress of 6m openings to Japan when they occur.
As you can see from the image above, the 6m Japan opening on June 18th progressed tantalizingly close to our QTH here in New Hampshire. This is one of the best openings to Japan into the Northeast region that we have seen to date.
Unfortunately, this particular 6m opening did not quite make it to our location here in New Hampshire. Perhaps we will see another, better opening before the end of this Es Season.
Fred’s New Hampshire First Place Finish in the ARRL June VHF Contest
I haven’t had the chance to work the ARRL June VHF Contest from our home station for several years. A combination of Nashua Area Radio Society activities and preparations for ARRL Field Day have taken a higher priority. ARRL June VHF is a great contest and I was looking forward to working it this year. A few days before the contest Anita and I were talking about the contest and she suggested that I do a 6m Digital Entry. E-skip has been pretty good on 6m this year and we wanted to sort out how we’d do digital and 6m for our upcoming 2020 Field Day Operation from our home so I decided to take Anita’s advice and focus on 6m Digital for June VHF. I entered the contest in the Low-Power Category.
June VHF Operating Setup
AB1OC Operating in 2020 June VHF
We built a Remote Operating Gateway that allows our station to be operated both over the Internet and from any room in our home via our Home Network. I decided to set up a 6m Digital Station upstairs in our dining room so I could be with Anita more during the contest. The setup consisted of a laptop PC with an outboard monitor and a Flex Maestro as the client for the Flex 6700 SDR in our shack.
The three antennas can be pointed in different directions and selected instantly via the computer. This provided to be an advantage during the contest. I kept one on Europe, one point due West, and the third pointed at the Tip of Florida and the Caribean during the contest.
Operating Setup – N1MM+ and WSJT-X
Having two monitors (the Laptop and an outboard one) allow me to arrange all of the N1MM+ Logger and WSJT-X windows for efficient operating. The image above shows a snapshot of the screen layout during the contest. N1MM+ has some nice features that integrated with WSJT-X to make it easy to spot new grids (Multipliers) and stations that have not yet been worked. The windows on the very right side allowed me to control antenna switching and monitor power and SWR while operating. I use the PSTRotator application (lower-left center to turn my antennas.
Band conditions on 6m were amazing from here in New England almost the entire contest period! The band was open right at the start of the contest on Saturday and remained open to 11 pm local time on Saturday evening. I was up early on Sunday and was working folks in the Northeastern Region right from the start. After being open all day on Sunday, the band shut down around 5 pm local time and I was afraid that the fun on 6m might be over. I ate some dinner and took a 45-minute nap and got back to my station at around 6:30 pm. About 15 minutes after I resumed, 6m opened again to most of the United States and I was able to work DM and DN grid squares in the Western States! The band stayed open right until the end of the contest at 11 pm local time.
What About the VUCC…
100 Grids Worked on 6m
Conditions on 6m were so good on Saturday that I almost worked a 6m VUCC by 11 pm on Saturday evening when the band closed. I had 93 grids worked on 6m in just 8 hours! The band opened again early on Sunday morning and I worked my 100th grid square before 10 am – working a 6m VUCC in less than 18 hours!
Final 6m Grids Worked
By the end of the contest, I had worked a total of 162 Grids! They ranged from the West Coast of the US to Western Europe and from Southern Canada to Northern South America.
6m Grids Worked During 2020 June VHF
The image above shows most of the 6m grids that I worked plotted on a world map (the EU grids are not shown).
Final Claimed Score
I was able to make a total of 402 unique contacts on 6m by the end of the contest with a final Claimed Score that was a bit over 65K. All of my 6m contacts during the contest were made using a combination of FT8 and FT4 modes on 6m.
New Ones on 6m for AB1OC
AB1OC Worldwide 6m Grid Map
I was hoping to work some all-time new Grids and June VHF did not disappoint. I worked a total of 11 new Grids and one new DXCC (Dominica) on 6m during the contest. The image above shows my worldwide grid coverage including the new ones worked during June VHF (my grids in Argentina and Uruguay are not shown above). I now have worked 432 grids on 6m and have confirmed 408 of them with 63 DXCC’s worked and 62 confirmed on the Magic Band.
Summing It All Up…
I must say that I had as much fun working 6m during June VHF this year as I have ever had in any contest! The band openings on 6m were really good and I was busy making new contacts for the entire time that I operated. The combination of the 6m Band and the contest certainly made some Magic for me!
I’ve had a chance to operate on the 6m Band this past week. We are approaching the prime time for the summer Es (E-Skip) season here in the Northeastern United States. As a result, I wanted to see how propagation on the 6m band might be unfolding during this spring Es season. I was fortunate to catch a typical limited DX opening on the 6m band between our location here in New England and Europe. I thought that it might be helpful for those who are relatively new to the 6m band to see what this was like.
A 6m DX Band Opening Begins – JTDX Software View
I spent some time on and off yesterday calling CQ and monitoring the 6m band using the JTDX software and FT8 mode. FT8 now dominates most of the activity on the 6m band. This is a result of a combination of FT8’s weak-signal performance and available reverse beacon tools such as PSKReporter. As you can see from the JTDX screenshot above, the 6m band was basically only open to the United States here until about 16:58z. At that point, I weakly decoded CT1ILT. This station faded almost immediately and I was unable to make a contact.
Approximately 4 minutes later, the 6m band opened solidly to Spain and France and quite a few stations in this area of Europe appeared with relatively strong signals.
6m DX Opening to Europe – Spotlight Area Propagation (PSKReporter)
As you can see from the PSKReporter screenshot above (taken near the end of the band opening), the probation on 6m was quite strong but limited to a very specific area and heading in Europe. This is typical of limited double-hop Es propagation. We most likely had two Es clouds aligning in such a way that a narrow path of propagation had been created on the 6m band.
A 6m DX Band Opening In Full Swing – JTDX Software View
The view above shows the 6m band opening in full-swing. I was hearing 5-6 strong stations from France, Spain, and Italy almost immediately. These stations are all on a relatively narrow range of headings center at about 65 degrees from my QTH. I am scrambling to work the stations that represented new grid squares for me. I am using JTAlert as a bridge to my logger (DXLab Suite) and it is telling me that 2-3 of the station in the mix are in grid square that I have not yet worked on the 6m band.
A 6m DX Band Opening Comes to an End – JTDX Software View
Like all good things, the 6m DX opening had to come to an end. As you can see above, the 6m band closed as rapidly as it opened, leaving me calling CQ with no takers to work in Europe.
Contacts Made During the 6m DX Opening
The total duration of this opening was about 20 minutes. The contacts that I made during this period are shown above. During the brief opening, I was able to make a total of 11 contacts with a limited set of grid squares in Europe. Most of the signals were quite strong (see the Sent and Rcvd columns in my log above). During the opening, I worked 5 new grid squares that were centered around the border between France and Spain.
AB1OC 6m Grids Worked and Confirmed
By this morning, three of the five new grids that I worked had already confirmed on LoTW. Just for fun, I plotted my 6m grid progress on the Gridmapper website. I keep a copy of the Gridmapper view of my log by my operating area as a reference that I use in conjunction with PSK Reporter to help me identify 6m band openings that might provide opportunities to work new grids.
I hope that this article gives you some idea of the nature of 6m DX openings. The opening described here is pretty typical in that:
The band open (and closed) suddenly without much warning
The propagation was very good with many strong signals being decoded and worked at once
The opening was of short duration lasting only about 20 minutes
The band closed as rapidly as it opened
Monitoring the 6m Band at AB1OC
In order to work 6m DX, this experience emphasizes the need to monitor the 6m band for DX openings on a regular basis. This is most easily done using PSKReporter. The pattern of DX openings on 6m to Europe from here in New England is such that EU DX openings typically begin south of us and progress northward. I use our Remote Operating Gateway, a Flex-6700 SDR based setup, to monitor the 6m band for DX openings while I work here in my office. You can see the 6m FT8 setup here in my office running in the monitor-mode above.
FlexRadio Maestro Console
I use the Maestro here in my office as my SDR client.
I hope that this information has been useful to our readers. As you can see from this example, the 6m Band is called the Magic Bandfor good reason. It is very exciting to be able to catch and work a good DX opening on 6m. The FT8 mode has both increased the level of activity on the 6m band and made 6m available to many stations with simple antennas and 100W transceivers. You can learn more about how to get started with FT8 on 6m here.
As I sit here writing this, the 6m band just opened to Austria and Hungry! Have to go work some DX on the 6m band…
The Nashua Area Radio Society always brings something new to each Field Day that we do. In addition to our Computer Controlled Satellite Station, we will be adding a state of the art Weak Signal Antenna System and Station to our Field Day 2019 lineup. Our VHF Station will use a dedicated 40 ft Tower with Tower Mounted Preamps and low-loss feedlines. You can see what is going on at Field Day 2019 on 6m and above via the preceding link.
We recently completed the finishing touches on our new VHF/Satellite Tower. The first step was to install a second set of entry conduits into our shack and a new ground block for our satellite antennas. This involved installing 4″ PVC conduits into our shack. The new entries are very close to the base of our tower and this will allow us to keep our feedlines as short as possible.
Hardline Coax Cables Up The Tower
We also replaced the section of our feedlines which run down the tower with 7/8″ hardline coax. We installed a total of four runs for 6m, 2m, 70cm, and 23cm. The use of hardline coax will help reduce our feedline losses – especially on 70cm and 23cm.
Hardlines at Base of Tower
The new hardlines are connected one of the two entries into our shack. The 6m hardline enters on the side closes to our antenna switching matrix and the 2m, 70cm, and 23 cm hardlines will enter the shack via the newly created entry which will be close to our satellite transceiver.
The next step in our project will be to upgrade our Flex-6700 SDR based Remote Gateway for operation on the satellite bands. You can find other articles about our Satellite Station 4.0 project here:
The Nashua Area Radio Society participated in Winter Field Day for the first time this past weekend. We put up a 40 ft tower and we were QRV on all allowed bands from 160m through 2m and 70cm. Our station was a four transmitter one and we produced a great score during the 24-hour operating period. Winter Field Day presents some unique challenges that we did not encounter during Summer Field Day.
We put together a station for 160m for the first time as well as some other new things. You can read all about our approach to a station and operating for Winter Field Day via the link above.
Sometimes we learn from problems and mistakes. We all go through this from time to time. It is part of the learning aspect of Amateur Radio. My most recent experience came while integrating our new tower-based satellite antenna system. After the antennas were up, initial testing revealed the following problems:
After an initial attempt to correct these problems with the antennas on the tower, we decided to take them down again to resolve the problems. The removal was enabled, in part, via rental of a 50 ft boom lift.
The lift made it relatively easy to remove the Satellite Antenna Assembly from the tower. We placed it on the Glen Martin Roof Tower stand that was built for the Portable Satellite Station 3.0. Once down, the Satellite Antenna System was completely disassembled and a replacement Alfa-Spid Az/El rotator was installed.
Cross Boom Truss System
The photo above shows the reassembled cross boom and associated truss supports. Note the tilt in the truss tube on the left side. This allows the antennas to be flipped over 180 degrees without the truss contacting the mast.
As mentioned in the previous article, polycarbonate reinforcement bushings are installed in the fiberglass parts to prevent the clamps from crushing the tubes. The photo above shows one of the bushings installed at the end of one of the truss tubes.
The bushings are held in place with small machine screws. This ensures that they remain in the correct locations inside the fiberglass tubes.
Thorough Ground Test
With the Satellite Antenna Array back together and aligned, we took a few days to operate the system on the ground. This allowed me to adequately test everything to ensure that the system was working correctly.
Tower Integration Using A 50 ft Boom Lift
With the testing complete, the antennas went back up on the tower, and the integration and testing work resumed. Having the boom lift available made the remaining integration work much easier.
Control Cable Interconnect Boxes On The Tower
There are quite a few control cables associated with the equipment on our new tower including:
The M2 Orion Rotator which turns the mast that holds the 6 m Yagi and the Satellite Antenna Array
A combination of junction boxes near the top of the tower and at the base make connecting and testing of the control circuits easier and more reliable. Tower mounted junction boxes were used to terminate the control cables near the rotators and antennas.
The Preamp System was mounted near the top of the new tower and the feedlines from the 2m and 70 cm Satellite Antennas were connected to it. LMR-400uF coax is run from the Preamp System as well as from the Directive Systems DSE2324LYRM 23 cm Satellite Yagi and the M2 6M7JHVHD 6 m Yagi on our new tower to the station in our house to complete the feedlines. These LMR-400uF feedlines will be replaced with 7/8″ hardline coax to our shack in the spring when warmer weather makes working with the hardlines easier.
Temporary Station Setup
With all of the tower integration work done, we set up the station in our house for testing. This is the same station that is our Portable Satellite Station 3.0 with two additions:
An iMac Computer which replaces the MacBook laptop used in the portable configuration
Both of these additions will become part of the final Satellite Station 4.0 when it is moved to a permanent home in our shack.
The rotator set up on the new tower provides two separate azimuth rotators. The lower one above turns both the 6 m Yagi and the Satellite Antenna Array together. The upper box controls the Alfa-Spid Az/El rotator for the satellite antennas. Using two separate rotators and controllers will allow us to integrate the 6m Yagi into the microHam system in our station and will allow the MacDoopler Satellite Tracking Software running on the iMac to control the Satellite Antennas separately. When we are using the 6 m Yagi, the Satellite Antennas will be parked pointing up to minimize any coupling with the 6 m Yagi. When we are using the Satellite Antennas, the rotator that turns the mast will be set to 0 degrees to ensure accurate azimuth pointing of the Satellite Antennas by the Alfa-Spid Az/El rotator.
PSK Reporter View using the M2 6M7JHVHD 6 m Yagi
So how does it all perform? With WSJT-X setup on our iMac, I was able to do some testing with the new 6 m Yagi using FT8. The IC-9100 Transceiver that we are using can produce 100W with WSJT-X. The 6m band is usually not very open here in New England in January so I was quite pleased with the results. As you can see from the PSKReporter snapshot above, the new antenna got out quite well on 6 m using 100W. I made several contacts during this opening including one with W5LDA in Oklahoma – a 1,400 mi contact. The 6M7JHVHD is a much quieter antenna on the receive side which helps to make more difficult contacts on 6 m.
MacDoppler Tracking AO-91
We’ve made a little over 100 satellite contacts using the new system so far. With the satellite antennas at 45 feet, it’s much easier to make low-angle contacts and we can often continue QSOs down to elevation angles of 5 degrees or less. I have not had much of a chance to test 23 cm operation with AO-92 but I have heard my signal solidly in AO-92’s downlink using the L-band uplink on the new tower. This is a good sign as our IC-9100 has only 10W out on 23 cm and we are using almost 100 ft of LMR-400uF coax to feed our 23 cm antenna.
Satellite Grids Worked and Confirmed
I’ve managed to work 10 new grid squares via satellites using the new antenna system including DX contacts with satellite operators in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and Northern Ireland using AO-07 and FO-29. These were all low-angle passes.
So what did we learn from all of this? Due to concern over possible snow here in New England, I did not take the time to fully ground test the satellite antennas and new rotator before it went up on the tower the first time. My thinking was that the setup was the same as that used on Portable Satellite Station 3.0 for over a year. The problem was the replacement parts and new control cables were not tested previously and both of these created problems that were not discovered until the antennas were at 45 feet. While it would have made increased the risk that the antennas would not have gotten up before the first winter snowstorm here, it would have been much better to run the antennas on the ground for a few days as I did the second time. Had I done this, both problems would have appeared and have been easily corrected.
The remaining problem to be solved was to reinforce the fiberglass tubes in the Cross Boom and Truss System to prevent the clamps which hold the antennas and other parts in place from crushing the fiberglass tubes. Spencer did an amazing job of making a new center section and polycarbonate reinforcing plugs to provide the needed reinforcements.
Fiberglass Tube Reinforcement Parts
Polycarbonate material was used to avoid adding metal inside the Cross Booms and Truss Tubes near the antennas. Using metal for these parts runs the risk of distorting the antenna’s patterns and causing SWR problems. It was also necessary to keep Truss System parts like eye bolts, turnbuckles, and clamps away from the tips of the antennas for the same reason. As you can see from the photo above, Spencer did an amazing job making the needed parts!
Checking Cross Boom Center Section Run-out
The first step in rebuilding the Satellite Array was to install the new center section in our Alfa-Spid Az/El Rotator. I used a dial indicator to properly center the center section in the rotator. While this level of precision is probably not necessary, I had the tools available and it was easy to do.
Assembled Cross Boom Truss Support
The photo above shows one of the two completed Truss Supports. The trusses support the Cross Boom when it’s either pointing straight up or is flat at 0 degrees on the horizon. It’s important to adjust the horizon truss tube orientation to be slightly tilted to allow the antennas to operate in a “flipped over” configuration where the elevation points 180 instead of 0 degrees. This mode occurs in one of about every 5 to 10 satellite passes to avoid tracking problems with an otherwise south-facing dead spot in the azimuth rotator. Also, note the safety wire on the turnbuckles to keep them from turning after the final adjustment.
Fiberglass Tube Reinforcing Bushings
You can see one of the polycarbonate reinforcing bushings at the end of the horizontal truss tube in the photo above. These are held in place with a small stainless steel set screw at the proper location in the fiberglass tubes. It’s also important to drill small drainage holes in all of the fiberglass pieces so that condensation and water seepage can drain out of the tubes. Without the drainage, water will accumulate, freeze, and break the tubes. I arranged these holes so that the tubes will drain when the antennas are parked in the vertical position.
Satellite Antenna Array Ready to Tram
With everything secured with a combination of tape and large cable ties, Matt of XX Towers rigged a suspension system and tram line to hoist the Satellite Array onto our tower. You can see how well-balanced the antenna system was prior to tramming.
Tramming The Satellite Antennas
The photo above shows the Satellite Array headed up the tram line. The tram line is anchored to a Gin Pole at the top of our tower and to a vehicle on the ground.
Satellite Antennas On The Mast
We removed the rotator and dropped the mast down into the tower to make it easier to get the satellite antennas in place on the top of the mast. Also, note the orientation of the Satellite Antennas – the elements are at 45 degrees to the Cross Boom. This arrangement helps to keep the metal in the ends of the Truss System from getting close to the antenna element tips.
Satellite Antennas Installed On Top Of Mast
Here’s a final photo of the Satellite Antennas with the mast pushed up and the lower rotator back in the tower. You can also see the rigging of the rotator loops for the Satellite Antennas and both the vertical and horizontal Cross Boom Truss supports in place.
M2 6M7JHV HD 6 Meter Yagi
The last step in this part of our project was to place the assembled M2 6M7JHV HD 6 Meter Yagi onto the mast. The 6M7JHV features 7 elements on a 36′ – 8″ boom. The antenna has about 13 dBi of gain and is optimized with a clean pattern to suppress noise from unwanted directions. The antenna was trammed up the tower with a light rope.
Completed Antenna Stack
The picture above shows the completed antenna installation including a second rotator loop around the 6m antenna. The system has two azimuth rotators – one the turns just the Satellite Antennas at the top and a second that turns all of the antennas on the mast together. Our plan is to set the lower rotator to 0 degrees when operating with satellites and use the upper Alfa-Spid Rotator for Azimuth and Elevation positioning. The lower rotator will be used to turn the 6m yagi with the Satellite Antennas parked.
The next step of our project will be to install all of the control cables, satellite receive preamplifiers, and feed lines on the tower and test our new antenna system with the rest of our Satellite Station. You can read about other parts of our project via the links below.