Every now and then we get a really good opening 6m DX opening to Europe on from here in New England, USA. This past Friday, June 4 2021 presented us with just such an opening. This particular one may well be the best one that I have ever seen. The opening began early in the day on Friday and was still going strong late into the afternoon. As you can see from the PSKReporter snapshot above, the band was solidly open to most of Western Europe and evening into the Middle East.
WSJT-X Snapshot During 6m Opening
There were so many strong signals from DX stations in Europe, it was difficult to decide which station to call next! I was able to work the opening for most of the day on Friday and was rewarded with over 130 DX contacts into Europe. In addition, I was able to Work 3 new DXCCs and over 40 new Grids (over 30 of these Grids have confirmed on LoTW already)!
JTAlert Snapshot Helps To Work New Grids
We use the JTAlert application along with WSJT-X and DXLab Suite. JTAlert helped to identify stations in new Grids that we had not Worked before in the flood of activity on the 6m Band during this opening. At times, there were 4 or 5 different stations in new Grids being decode at once!
AB1OC 6m Grids as of June 2021
The 6m Es season has been very good so far this year with great propagation and lots of activity. Let hope that this continues well into the end of the summer here in New England. We are especially hoping for good 6m openings during Field Day later this month.
Is 20 meters open to the location of the latest DXPedition on the bands? When is 6 meters open for Sporadic E? Looking for a weak signal 2 meter contact with a specific grid square? There are websites you can visit that give you a prediction of whether the band you are on is open to a given destination.
N0NBH Propagation Widget
The simplest HF propagation prediction is the widget that is seen on many Amateur Radio Websites – QRZ.com,DXSummit.fi, and more. This gives you a rough idea of what bands are open day and night. Data is based on the Sunspot Number, A and K indices and other indices. But this doesn’t take into account many factors like your location, the DX location, the characteristics of your station and the DX station. Just because 15m says Poordoesn’t mean you won’t hear anything on the band.
VOACAP – HF Propagation Prediction
VOACAP Point to Point Prediction
VOACAP, is the Voice of America Coverage Analysis Program, and provides detailed information about the HF propagation. You can choose transmitter and receiver locations from many cities around the world. It also provides choices of Antennas, Power, Mode, and more for each end of the contact. You can look at several different views of propagation. If you spend some time delving into the details of propagation visit this site.
VOACAP Prediction from DXSummit.fi
For a faster view of whether you will be able to contact a specific DX Station that is currently on the air, the DXSummit.fi spotting website has incorporated propagation predictions on their website. If you find a DX station spotted there that you contact, just right click on the DX callsign and select VOACAP from the drop-down. You just need to choose whether you are a Basic (100 watts and a Wire) or a Super station (Amplifier and Directional Antenna). You can also look at views of Short Path or Long Path. It will give you a good view of when you need to be on which band to contact the DX station.
6 Meters – The Magic Band
DXMaps – 6 meter openings
The best website that I have found for 6 meters is DXMaps.com . It provides a map view of the world or you can select a continent. Based on spotting network data, it shows 6 meter contacts and color codes them by Sporadic-E, Multihop ES, Meteor Scatter, etc… even Aurora. You can also get a view of 10 meters, 2 meters or 70 cm. If you sign up for a free account, you can subscribe to real time notifications when there is an opening near you.
2 Meter Propagation
VHF Propagation Map
Looking for a tropo opening for a weak signal 2 meter contact? Visit the website http://aprs.mountainlake.k12.mn.us/ to see a VHF Propagation map. This shows tropo openings as color coded clouds – with brighter colors for the longer openings. This is based on APRS data.
These are the websites that I like to visit to understand the propagation forecast for the day. If your favorite site is not on the list, add a comment so that we and the rest of our readers can check it out.
I recently wrote a blog article about the DX Alarm Clock software – here is Part 2 of the Series on the how I built the hardware for the DX Alarm Clock.
DX Alarm Clock Hardware Components
The DX Alarm Clock is based on a Raspberry Pi 3 computer and an Adafruit Pi-TFT Touch Screen Display. The list of components, along with links is below. Since I built the Raspberry Pi almost a year ago and technology is always advancing, some of the parts are no longer available or have better replacements available. I’ll provide information on what I used and a recommended replacement. Approximate prices are included.
Rapberry Pi 3
Motherboard: Raspberry Pi 3 ($35) – includes a 1.2 GHz 64-bit quad-core ARM CPU, Build in WiFi, Ethernet, 4 USB Ports, an HDMI port and audio port (3.5″) and Bluetooth.
Portable Speaker: Any small portable/rechargeable speaker will do. Mine is a Kinivo, but it is no longer available. Any small speaker will do as long as it is Bluetooth or has a 3.5″ stereo connector.
Raspberry Pi Development Environment
Raspberry Pi Development Environment
After constructing the Raspberry Pi, case and TFT Display, the next step was to connect it to a monitor via the HDMI port, a mouse via one of the USB ports and to a Bluetooth keyboard. Then I loaded the Raspbian Operating System onto the Raspberry Pi via the micro SD card. I first copied the OS to the Micro SD card using a PC or Mac and then inserted the card into the Raspberry Pi and booted from it. You can find a good tutorial on how to do this at https://www.raspberrypi.org/learning/software-guide/quickstart/
Once Raspbian is installed, you will have a windows like GUI (Graphical User Interface) environment with a web browser, and a number of additional applications included.
This gave me a development environment that I could use to build and test the DX Alarm Clock software. I used the Python language to develop the software. I used the Python IDLE development environment, which is included in the Raspbian OS.
Today proved out some simple, tried and true advice for me – it pays to take some time and tune through the bands. I just got a Maestro Remote Control Device for our FlexRadio SDR and I took a break around lunchtime to tune through the higher HF bands to see what I could hear. We use a Flex SDR as a Remote Operating Gateway into our station and the Maestro allows me to run our station over our home network with going down to the shack.
I am not sure why but I decided to give the 12m band a look today. When I did, I was stunned! It is about noon time and the 12m band is wide open between Africa and the US!
I worked two DX stations on 12m SSB. The first was XT2AW, Harald in Burkina Faso. Harald was working split and was not real loud but I had no trouble completing the contact with him. Excited, I tuned across 12m some more and found an old friend – Theo, ZS6TVB in South Africa. I had a very nice QSO with him. We both marveled over the propagation on the 12m band that we were experiencing. He was 57-58 here in New Hampshire!
12m DX – ZS6TVB South Africa
The sunspot conditions are pretty weak (SFI 85, SN 26) to create such a good opening on 12m. I believe that we may be experiencing Transequatorial Propagation (TEP) which can provide a significant propagation enhancement on paths with traverse the equator. Anita and I experienced similar TEP propagation on 10m when we were on Bora Bora Island early in 2012 with similar solar conditions.
It just goes to show that it pays to tune the upper HF bands. Especially on days when “they are not open”. Also, 10m also appears to be open to Africa right now – I am hearing a station in Mauritania…
WSJT-X developer Joe Taylor, K1JT, weighed in to express his appreciation to all who shared their ideas and experiences using JT9 and JT65 modes during recent multi-hop E-skip openings on 6 meters.
“We are very much aware that a mode with most of the excellent characteristics of JT65, but with faster turnaround time, would be a big winner in such situations,” Taylor commented on behalf of the WSJT-X development team. “We are experimenting with several such possibilities. Tentative goals include 15-second T/R sequences, sensitivity around S/N = –20 dB, occupied bandwidth less than that of JT65, and capability to decode as many as 10 or 20 signals in a 2-kHz bandwidth.”…
This is something to follow if you are interested in the JT modes for HF and VHF communications. Our experience is that a new JT variant that would trade S/N margin for a faster QSO segment speed would be just the ticket on many of the HF bands as well as 6m.
Next, we used MacDoppler to generate pass predicts for the weekend of our Technical Class. We assembled this data for all of the potential satellites and color-coded the available passes to identify those which had the best chance of producing contacts.
With this done, we loaded our portable tower, antennas, and all of the rest of the gear into our pickup truck and transported it to the class site.
Here’s a closer to look at the LMR-400 UF coax cables which connect the antennas to the rest of the system. The loops just behind the antennas are necessary to keep the coax from affecting the pattern of the antennas. The coax cables shown were made long enough to allow the antennas to be rotated through their full travel in the azimuth and elevation directions without binding.
Satellite Station Portable – Radio and Supporting Equipment
The final step in the portable setup was to put the IC-9100 Transceiver and Supporting Equipment together in the building and check everything out. As soon as we got everything hooked up and working, we heard an ON4 station through FO-29 which was near the end of a low angle pass. A very good sign!
We took some time to fine-tune the calibration of our rotators and to check the operation of the computer controls – everything checked out fine. The video above shows MacDoppler controlling the Azimuth/Elevation rotator and the IC-9100 Transceiver during the testing.
First Contact using New 2.0 Station (via AO-85)
With all the setup done, it was time to try to make our first contact. Fortunately, we did not have long to wait. We caught a medium angle pass of AO-85, a U/V Mode FM Easy Sat. With MacDoppler setup and tacking, we immediately heard contacts being made through AO-85. I gave a whistle and adjusted my uplink VFO until I heard my signal coming back through AO-85. I gave a quick CQ call and immediately got a response from Jonathan, NS4L in Virginia, USA! It took on a few seconds to exchange call signs and grid squares and our first contract with our new station was in the log.
We learned several things during our first use of the new station. First, while the 35 ft. maximum separation allowed between the antenna system and the rest of the station is adequate in many applications, the antenna system’s close proximity to the building we were in blocked passes to the west of us with this separation. We have subsequently made up an additional set of feed lines using a pair of 100 ft. long 7/8″ hardline coax cables to allow for a greater separation in portable deployments such as this one.
We were glad that we had the Heil Pro 7 Headset with us and we used it for most of our contacts. The separate speaker allowed our students to hear the contacts well and the boom microphone on the Pro 7 Headset eliminated feedback due to our own voice coming back through the satellites. We improvised a mono to stereo converter cable to connect the Heil Pro 7 Headset to one of the two speaker outputs on the IC-9100 Transceiver. This allowed the radio to drive the separate speaker and the headphones at the same time.
We were glad to have the low-noise preamps available. These were especially useful during low-angle satellite passes and the sequencing setup that we built worked well.
All in all, the first test of our new 2.0 Portable Satellite station was a success. Our license classes students enjoyed learning about Amateur Satellites and had fun along with us making contacts through a few of them. Our next goal will be to get packet modes and APRS working with our setup. We plan to do another article in this series when this part of our project is completed. Other articles in this series include:
We are planning to add larger antennas and switchable polarity to our portable satellite station in the near future. This will enable us to make contacts with Satellites and the ISS in more difficult conditions.
Every so often, I drive Fred’s truck into work and people ask me what that big antenna on the back of the truck is for. I explain to them that it is for Ham Radio. But the reply is usually, why ham radio – isn’t that outdated technology? We have cell phones and IM, etc…what do we need Ham Radio for? So I thought I would put down my thoughts as a relatively new Ham about why I enjoy spending so much of my time with Ham Radio.
Amateur Radio for Public Service
The number one reason we still need Ham Radio along with all the other technology we now have is for public service. When there is a disaster and cell phones, television, etc are all not working, Ham Radio operators provide the critical communication.
Ham Radio operators help locally to keep hospitals and first responders in contact with each other to help those affected by the disaster.
Hams also use our ability to communicate around the world on HF bands to help family members around the world to get in touch with loved ones affected by a disaster.
Ham Radio operators have been on the scene helping in every disaster from the earthquakes in Nepal to the recent flooding in California.
Amateur Radio Cube Satellites
Technology and the Maker Movement
I only became a Ham 5 years ago but many of my fellow Ham Radio operators got their license when they were in their early teens and used what they learned to launch their careers. Many have had very successful careers in STEM fields, all launched by their interest in Ham Radio at a young age. As technology advances, so does the technology used in our hobby. We even have a nobel laureate, Joe Taylor K1JT who is a ham. Joe has developed weak signal digital communication modes that let us communicate by bouncing signals off the moon!
As technology has advanced, so has the use of it in Ham Radio. Most Ham Radio operators have one or more computers in their shack. Many also have a software designed radio (SDR), where much of the radio functionality is implemented using Software, we use sound cards to run digital modes, which are a lot like texting over the radio, and we use the internet extensively as part of operating. We can also make contacts through satellites orbiting the earth and even the International Space Station.
Most hams love do-it-yourself technical projects, including building a station, home brewing an antenna, building a radio or other station component. In my day job, I am a program manager for software development projects, but its been a while since I have built anything. As a Ham I taught myself how to code in Python and about the Raspberry Pi and I built the DX Alarm Clock.
QSL Card from VK6LC in Western Australia
One of the coolest things about being an amateur radio operator is that you can communicate with other hams all over the world. Ham Radio is an international community where we all have something in common to talk about – our stations and why we enjoy ham radio. The QSL card above is from a memorable QSO with Mal, VK6LC, from Western Australia, who was the last contact that I needed for a Worked All Zones award. I must have talked to him for 1/2 hour about his town in Australia and his pet kangaroos!
Amateur Radio Map of the World
I have learned much about geography from being on the air and trying to contact as many countries as I can. There are 339 DX Entities, which are countries or other geographical entities and I have learned where each one is in order to understand where propagation will allow me make a contact. I have learned a great deal about world geography. Through exchanging QSL cards often get to see photos from so many areas of the world.
DXCC Challenge Award Plaque
Achievement – DXing and Contesting
DXing and Contesting provide a sense of achievement and exciting opportunity for competition. Many Hams work toward operating awards. You can get an operating award for contacting all 50 states, contacting 100 or more countries, contacting Islands, cities in Japan, countries in Asia, or anything else you can imagine. Each of these operating awards provides a sense of accomplishment and helps to build skills. Contesting builds skills through competition among Hams to see who can make the most contacts with the most places in 24 or 48 hours. Contesting also improves our operating skills and teaches us to copy callsigns and additional data accurately.
Teaching a License Class
Teaching Licensing Classes – Passing it On
Recently I have joined a team of club members who teach license classes to others who want to get licensed or upgrade their existing Amateur Radio licenses. Teaching provides a way to improve my presentation skills and also helps me to really understand the material that we teach about Amateur Radio. It is always a thrill at the end of the class to see so many people earn their licenses or upgrades.
Presentation On Building And Operating A Mobile HF Station
We recently had the chance to do a presentation on building and operating a mobile HF station for the Nashua Area Radio Club here in New Hampshire, USA. I thought it would be interesting for our readers to see this presentation as it contains some new information that we have not previously covered on our Blog.
Mobile HF Antennas
Safety in mounting mobile antennas and anything else on the exterior of you vehicle is a primary concern. This was discussed in some detail during the presentation. The best source to understand safety considerations and proper installation and mounting of Mobile HF antennas is Alan Applegate’s excellent website, K0BG.com.
The most important part of any Amateur Radio Station is the antenna system. This is especially true in a Mobile HF Station because antennas in these applications are almost always short loaded verticals. To create an effective antenna system for a Mobile HF application, one must pay extra attention to the “3 R’s” – Radiation Resistance, Loading Coil Loss, and Ground Loss. Radiation Resistance (a measure of the antenna’s ability to transfer transmitter power to radiated waves) is the “good R” and the other two R’s dissipate power from our transmitter in the form of heat.
Mobile Antenna System Typical Parameters
There is some good information on the typical efficiency in the ARRL Antenna Book. As you can see from the table above, the Radiation Resistance of a mobile antenna becomes quite small on the lower bands (40m, 80m and 160m). Also note that as the antenna becomes increasingly shorter to RF on these bands, more loading coil inductance is needed to make up for the short radiator length on these bands. On these bands, Coil Loss and Ground Loss can easily dissipate most of our transmit power in a very inefficient antenna system. The net of all this is that one must pay careful attention to controlling the Ground and Coil losses while trying to make the Radiation Resistance of the antenna as high as possible. One good way to improve the Radiation Resistance of a mobile antenna is to make the whip longer. For more on mobile HF antenna efficiency, please consult K0BG.com.
Scorpion SA-680 Screwdriver Antenna With Rod And Cap Hat
Here in New England, we have many low tree branches which limit the practical length of a mobile whip. A good technique, if the installation permits it, is to use top loading in the form of a Capacitance Hat. The Cap Hat makes the antenna appear longer and thus increases the Radiation Resistance of the Rod below it. The increase in apparent electric length at Radio Frequencies also means that less loading coil inductance will be required which in turn also means that the Coil Loss is lowered. This is a win-win. The only problem is that this sort of setup significantly increases the wind load on the antenna when driving so a mechanically strong antenna and mounting system is required for a safe installation. Ground Losses can be minimized by making the vehicle on which the antenna is installed a good RF surface to couple to the ground. This is best accomplished by proper Bonding of the metal surfaces on the vehicle to each other and the vehicle’s frame is there is one.
Mobile HF Equipment
The next part of the presentation covered the selection of equipment for a Mobile HF Station. Safety and good usability are the paramount concerns here. I believe that a Transceiver should have the following attributes to be a good choice in Mobile HF applications:
It should have at least 100W output on the HF bands
It must have an effective Noise Blank and a good Noise Reduction system
It should have a removable control head to facilitate mounting of the radio’s controls and display where they can be easily seen without taking one’s eyes of the road
It is extremely important to consider safety in all things mobile HF. Safe, non-distracting mounting of controls is a top concern. One also needs to consider what could happen in a crash. Loosely mounted parts or anything that can get between a deploying air bag and the vehicle’s passengers are among some of the important safety concerns. One should also consider accessories that facilitate safe mobile operation. Automated antenna controllers and a voice recorder to capture contact details for later transcription in logs are some good items to consider.
Bonding And Choking
I believe the bonding and the associated effect on noise levels and ground losses is perhaps the most important factor in determining the performance of a mobile HF station. “If you can’t hear them, you can’t work them.” Proper bonding of the exhaust system, body parts and the engine’s ground are some of the key items in this area. You can read more about how we did this here. To give some idea of how important this area is, I was able to take the initial S9+ noise levels (with the radio’s preamp off) of my F-150 pickup truck prior to proper binding to an S3-4 level with the radio’s preamp on. This is a huge improvement and is a primary reason for the DX performance of our mobile HF station. Bonding also lowers the Ground Losses of the installation which improves the efficiency of the antenna system when transmitting as well – again a win-win. Proper bonding is not expensive but it does take some work. One must also be careful when drilling holes for the installation of ground straps that you do not accidentally drill into wiring harnesses, gas tanks, electronic boxes and other vehicle systems. Again, consult K0BG.com for more information on how to properly Bond your vehicle. If you use a screwdriver antenna, you must also properly choke your control leads to keep RF out of your vehicle and its electronics. Here’s some good information explaining how to do this.
Stage 1 Mobile HF Station
I am a proponent of building a Mobile HF Station in stages from a simple one using to perhaps a more involved project later on. This allows the operator to have a lot of fun on the air with a reasonable initial amount of work and expense. The approach also provides the opportunity to see how the various steps outlined in the presentation contribute to improved performance. Our stage one installation consisted of a 100W transceiver and Hamstick antennas. You can read more about our Stage 1 installation here. The focus at this step includes proper bonding/noise control, safe installation of a suitable transceiver and simple Hamstick antennas. This stage gives you an inexpensive and effective, one band at a time, station on the 20m and higher HF bands. This type of installation is not difficult to do as is possible on most vehicles.
Stage 2 Mobile HF Station
A Stage 2 installation would probably involve a multi-band remotely controlled antenna – typically a screwdriver antenna. You can read more about our Stage 2 installation here. It’s important to choose and efficient screwdriver antenna. You can read more about the choices and what to look for here. We used a Scorpion SA-680 Screwdriver Antenna and are very happy with it. This is a big antenna and you must carefully focus on a strong and secure mounting system to use it safely. Our Stage 2 station was QRV on all HF bands from 80m – 10m and utilized a screwdriver controller to automate the adjustment of the antenna when changing frequencies and bands. We use a 4′ rod and a Cap Hat to improve the efficiency of the antenna system as well. This is an important safety feature and should be strongly considered in any screwdriver antenna installation.
Stage 3 Mobile HF Station
A Stage 3 Station is probably not for most folks due to the added complexity and cost but it does create a “work the world” Mobile HF Station and can open the door to effective operation on 160m from a Mobile Station. This step involves the installation of an Amplifier and may also include extension of the antenna system to operate on 160m. I would have to say that the upgrade to Stage 3 was as much work in our station as Stages 1 and 2 combined. It also brings a new set of important safety considerations due to the high current DC powering required by a mobile amplifier. You can read more about this Stage of our installation here.
Mobile HF In A Car
It is also quite feasible to install a Mobile HF station in a car. The slide above shows Dave, N1RF’s installation of a Stage 2 setup in his Honda Accord. The mount is a custom-made unit done by a local fabricator. Also note the equipment mounting on the fold down rear seat of the vehicle. This installation uses and Icom IC-7100 and has produced some great DX contacts including on to the Philippines from New England on 20m using 100w.
Operating Mobile HF
Our presentation included some tips for operating a Mobile HF station. See the graphic above for details. I believe that even a well executed Stage 1 station coupled with good operating technique and some patience can yield a DXCC in many parts of the US and Europe. I was able to make many contacts to Europe and some to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Alaska using our Stage one setup. If you progress through Stages 2 and 3, this gets easier. We have worked over 110 DXCCs from our Mobile HF Station and confirmed 100 in about 9 months with our Stage 3 setup. The Stage 3 setup has produced some of our most memorable QSO’s to date including my very first 75m phone contact ever to Japan and a contact with Ulleung Island, South Korea on the 40m band using SSB phone (these contacts were made from the East Coast of the USA).
VOCAP Propagation Prediction Between 9N Nepal and NH USA
I have been listening diligently each day during the periods of best propagation (see the excellent VOCAP propagation prediction website to create custom propagation predictions). This morning the K and A indices were down and the most up to date VOCAP prediction between Nepal and my QTH suggested that today would be better. I went down to the shack early before the start of my work day and found Janusz, 9N7WE coming in strong on 15m SSB. I took just two tries to get him in the log.
Anita, AB1QB has worked 13 all-time new DXCC’s and I’ve worked 5 all time new DXCC’s since the beginning of 2015. Anita has broken the 250 DXCC barrier and I’m just 2 away from breaking 300. There have also been quite a few new IOTA’s for us. Anita has added 11 IOTA’s this year and I’ve added 14. We also added more than 85 DXCC Band-Points each towards our DXCC Challenge Award totals. I have set a goal to work at least one new DXCC Challenge Band-Point each day in 2015 in hopes of getting to the 2,000 DXCC Band-Point level before the end of the year (I am currently at 1,785 worked).
Shack Board – Upcoming Operations and Contests
We use a number of different sources to find out about these operations. Our favorite ones are The Weekly DX, the DX-World.net (the source of the graphic above) and DX Publishing’s QRZ DX. These are all excellent sources for finding out about upcoming DXpeditions, small DX operations and IOTA activations. Working DX contests such as CQ WW DX, the ARRL DX Contests and CQ WW WPX are also excellent ways to work new DXCC’s and new Band-Points. We have a whiteboard in our shack where we record upcoming operations that we need as well as contests that we want to participate in. This helps us keep track of what is coming up that we need.
We also use the SpotCollector component of the DXLab Suite to help us identify new DXCC’s, Band-Points, IOTA’s and WAZ Band-Zones that we need in real-time when they come on. We have also used SpotCollector to alert us when stations that we need for the Yearly CQ DX Marathon are on the air.
Spot Sources Configuration In SpotCollector
We have configured SpotCollector (the spotting component of DXLab) to aggregate spots from a variety of sources. Our logs are kept in DXLab and we program the SpotCollector to filter all of the incoming cluster spots and CW/RTTY Skimmer data to tell us about high-priority stations that we want to work when they are on the air. The key to this approach is careful filtering of incoming cluster and skimmer spots to only display and forward the most important opportunities.
We then use the powerful SQL script capability of SpotCollector to only tell us about stations that we are willing to “head for the shack to work”. SpotCollector is configured to send the appropriate spots as text messages via email to our mobile phones so that we know immediately when something that we need comes on. The filter above selects all-time new DXCCs, new DXCC Band-Points, new IOTA’s and new WAZ Band-Zones which are spotted in the Eastern or Central United States. The filter also picks up new Band-States for the ARRL Worked All States Award.
We hope our readers who are interested in working DX and IOTA’s will be able to find some time to work so of the operations that are on the air right now. This time period is certainly one that has a lot of potential to put “new ones” in the log. If you use the DXLab Suite, you might try some to use some of the more advanced features of SpotCollector to help you to better find stations that you want to work when they are on.