We get quite a few requests from folks to explain how to get started with Amateur Radio Satellites. Requests for information on how to build a computer-controlled ground station for Linear Satellites are also pretty common. I recently got such a request from our CWA class so I decided to put together a session on this topic.
We covered a number of topics and demonstrations during the session including:
How to put together a simple station and work FM EasySats with HTs and a handheld antenna
A recorded demonstration of some contacts using FM EasySats
How-to build a computer-controlled station and work Linear Transponder Satellites
Fixed and Portable Satellite Station Antenna options
A recorded demonstration of some contacts using Linear Satellites
Now that spring is here, we’ve continued work on our EME station project. The most recent project was to build complete the ground system for our new EME tower. The proper way to ground a tower is shown above. Each leg of the tower is connected to an 8′ ground rod via a heavy-gauge ground cable. The cable is attached to the tower leg using stainless steel clamps meant for this purpose. The three ground rods associated with the tower legs are then bonded together using a heavy copper ground cable ring.
The final step was to connect the bonding run from the tower to the perimeter grounding system around our house. This completed the tower grounding system and enabled us to complete our final permit inspection courtesy of our local building inspector.
Finished Tower Base
With all of this work done and the inspection complete, we added a mulch bed around our new tower to make this area of our lawn easy to maintain.
The next step in our project is to begin building the antennas that will go on our EME tower. You can read more about our EME station project via the links that follow:
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.
We decided to use a pair of LMR-600 coax cables for the receive side of our feedlines. We made these cables from an unterminated length of LMR-600 coax measured to cover the distance from the top of our planned 26 ft EME tower to the ground block at the entry to our shack. The cables are approximately 82 ft long and they must be cut to be equal in length to with 1/16″!
The easiest way to measure the length of an unterminated coax cable is to determine the minimum frequency of resonance of the cable when the opposite end is an open circuit. One can then use the speed of light and the velocity factor of the cable to compute its exact length:
Length = (Speed of Light X Velocity Factor) / (Resonant Freq. X 4)
Doing these measurements with an open circuit at the far end of the cables enables trimming the length of the two cables to be matched in small increments until our two cables are exactly the same length.
Vector Network Analyzer (VNA) Measurement of Open Coax Cable Resonance
We used an Array Solutions VNA 2180 connected to a Windows PC to precisely measure the minimum Resonant Frequency of our LMR-600 coax cables as we trimmed them. Once they were equal in length to within 1/16″, we installed an N-Female connector on the unterminated end and re-verified each cable’s length. A frequency accurate antenna analyzer can also be used to make these measurements.
We will need to repeat these steps of the receiver-end and antenna preamp box jumper cables which will make up the rest of the receive side feedlines for our EME antenna system once these components are installed. We also plan to make a final end-to-end measurement of the receive-side feedline assemblies to fine-tune the phasing of the completed feedline runs.
With this step complete, we are ready to put up our new tower and attach the feedlines.
Here are some links to other articles in our series about our EME Station 2.0 project:
The first part of our EME project is to put up a new tower to support our antennas. Our plans call for a 26′ tower built using three Rohn 55G tower sections. Four feet of the first section of the tower is cemented in a concrete footing to anchor the tower’s base. The tower is also going to be guyed to ensure that it is very stable.
Digging Footings for our New Tower
We are working with Matt Strelow, KC1XX, and Andrew Toth of XX Towers to put up our new tower. Matt brought out his tractor and dug the footings for our tower and for the associated conduits that will carry coax and control cables to our shack. The photo above shows the completed hole and form for the main tower base. Matt is working on the footings for one of the three guy anchors.
First Tower Section and Rebar Cage
Here’s a closer look at the tower base. The footing includes a rebar cage to reinforce the concrete footing. There is also 6″ of crushed stone in the bottom of the hole that the tower legs sit it. It is very important that the bottoms of the tower legs remain open and do not become plugged with cement so that water in the legs can drain. If the legs cannot drain properly, water will accumulate and freeze. This can split open the tower legs and ruin the tower.
Cable Conduits with Drains
We also installed two conduits (a 4″ and a 2″ run of schedule 80 conduits) from the base of our tower to our shack. These conduits will carry coax feed lines and control cables to our new tower. We used a pair of 22° elbows to create a smooth transition to bring the conduits out of the ground. This will ensure that our hardline and other coax cables can be placed in the conduits without creating excessive bends.
Conduits will fill with water even if they are sealed. This happens as a result of the condensation of water in the air. To prevent our conduits from filling with water, we created two drain pits at the bottom of the trench at the two lowest spots in the conduit runs and filled them with stone. We drilled a few holes in the bottom of the conduits above the drain pits to allow the water to drain so our cables will remain dry.
Cadweld’ed Ground Cable Bonded to a Ground Rod
We also created a bonding ground cable run from our new tower to the ground system at our shack entry. The bonding system was created by driving an 8′ ground rod every 10′ in the trench between our new tower and the perimeter ground around our house.
#2 stranded copper ground cable was Cadweld’ed to each ground rod to create a ground path to bond the tower to the perimeter grounding system around our house. Using a Cadweld system is simple and produces strong connections that will not deteriorate.
Here’s a video that shows our a Cadweld is made. We’ll cover completing the ground connections to the tower and the perimeter grounding system in a future article.
Completed Footings – Ready to Pour Cement
Finally, we used some sections of rebar to firmly support the guy anchor rods prior to pouring the cement. If you look closely, you can see a portion of the rebar material in one of the guy anchor footings in the photo above.
The next step in this part of our project was to pour the cement. A large cement mixer brought the proper cement mix to our QTH and Matt used his tractor to transport the cement from the mixer to the forms. We did a bit of finishing work on the cement base for our tower and let the cement dry for a few days.
FInished Tower Base and Cable Conduits
The last step was to remove the forms and backfill the footings. A little work with a cement finishing block was done on the cement base to round off the rough edges left by the forms. The cable conduits emerge from the ground next to the tower base. You can also see one end of the copper bonding cable next to the conduits as well.
Completed Guy Anchor
Here’s one of the completed guy anchor rods after backfilling. We are going to let the cement harden for a couple of weeks and then we’ll complete the construction of our new tower.
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.
Portable Satellite and Grid Square Activation Station
We were up on Mt. Washington here in New Hampshire this past weekend and we decided to use the SOTA activation as a test for our updated Portable Satellite Station 4.0. It turned out that the station was also a great SOTA and Grid Square Activation station for terrestrial contacts.
A Solar-Battery Power system capable of operating the station continuously for a full day
A laptop computer for Satellite Tracking and Doppler correction
Portable Antenna System
Elk Antenna on Tripod
We decided to keep our antenna system simple and quick to deploy. We choose a portable 2m/70cm antenna from Elk and mounted it on a camera tripod. A carpenter’s slope gauge is used as an elevation indicator and our iPhone serves as a compass to point the antenna in the azimuth direction. A weighted bag, Bungie cord, and a tent stake anchor the tripod in the windy conditions on the mountain. A 15 ft length of LMR-240uF coax with N-connectors makes the connection between the antenna and the rest of the station.
Station Transceiver and Supporting Gear
Portable Station Transceiver and Preamps
We decided to mount the station Transceiver and supporting gear on a piece of plywood to make it easy to transport and setup. The components from lower-right moving counter-clockwise include:
The preamps are powered and sequenced by the IC-910H through its coax outputs. The 70cm side of the second diplexer is used as a filter to prevent transmissions on 2m uplinks from de-sensitizing 70cm downlink signals.
Portable Station Electronics
The use of the mounting board for all of the components allows the station to deployed quickly and helps to ensure reliable operation.
We used a MacBook Air Laptop running MacDoppler to control the transceiver’s VFOs (via a USB CI-V cable). MacDoppler also provided azimuth and elevation data used to point the antenna during satellite passes.
Portable Solar-Battery Power System
Powering a 100w radio in a way that allows continuous use for a day can be a challenge. It’s important to do this in a way that does not generate noise so we do not disturb others trying to enjoy the outdoors. We met all of these needs using a combination of solar power and batteries.
Portable Solar Power
The primary source of power comes from a pair of 90w foldable solar panels from PowerFilm. The panels are wired in series and connected to an MPPT Charger which charges a pair of batteries. This approach allows the system to provide usable power when it is cloudy and the voltage output of the solar panels drops.
We use a pair of A123 10 Ah LiPo battery packs to supply high-current capacity when transmitting. The solar-battery combination is capable of maintaining full battery voltage while supporting the continuous operation of our station for a full day.
The MacBook Air Laptop batteries are adequate to operate the station during the available satellite passes. We have a 12V DC to 120 VAC inverter which can power the computer from our solar battery setup if needed.
View from Mt. Washington Summit
Our portable station did very well during its initial test! I had to move the antennas and operate the station by myself on this activation which limited my ability to make a large number of contacts during the limited number of satellite passes that were available. Still, I was able to make 6 solid contacts through AO-91 and AO-85 while on Mt. Washington. I did not have a suitable linear satellite pass to make contacts but I was able to hear the EO-88 beacon with no problems and confirm that the doppler correction system was working well.
The station also put in a great performance visa-vie 2m terrestrial contacts. We made a total of 70 contacts using 2m FM and USB! We received many good signal reports with our longest contacts being some 275 mi from our location. We also worked stations on four other SOTAs this way.
Learnings and Next Steps
Our station exceeded my expectations during our initial test on Mt. Washington – especially in terms of the number of Terrestial Contacts that I was able to make with it. I did notice that the transmit side of the system was quite a bit stronger than the receive side. This is an indication that a better antenna would help.
We changed the antenna polarization to vertical for 2m FM contacts and to horizontal for 2m USB contacts. This helped the receive side performance quite a bit.
I found that a headset was essential for satellite and terrestrial weak-signal operation in USB mode. I was able to use the hand microphone and the radio’s speaker for most of the 2m FM contacts that I made. This gave interested onlookers a chance to experience Amateur Radio.
Satellite operation would have been much easier and more productive with a helper to handle pointing the antenna while we operated. This improvement will need to be coupled with a headset/speaker combination that allows the person that is pointing the antenna to hear the quality of the downlink while moving the antenna and finding the best polarization.
I am looking forward to doing some grid-square activations using our upgraded portable station. It was a pleasant surprise to find as much interest in Terrestial contacts on the 2m band as we did. The Nashua Area Radio Society does several SOTA activations each year and I am looking forward to using that station for these as well.
Here are links to some additional posts about our Satellite Station 4.0 Projects:
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