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.
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
Tech Night – Getting Started in EME (Click to View The Presentation)
We recently did a Tech Night Program 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 in EME or Moonbounce Communications.
April 2020 Tech Night Video – Getting Started in EME Communications
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.
EME or Earth-Moon-Earth contacts involve bouncing signals off the moon to make contacts. EME provides a means to make DX contacts using the VHF and higher bands. There are also some EME Contests including the ARRL EME Contest that provides opportunities to make EME contacts.
Understanding EME Propagation is a project in of itself. The following is a brief overview of some of the (mostly negative) effects involved.
The path loss for EME contacts varies by Band and is in excess of 250 dB on the 2m band. There are some significant “propagation” effects that further impair our ability to make EME contacts. These include:
Faraday Rotation – an effect which results in the polarity of signals being rotated by differing amounts as they pass through the ionosphere on their way to the moon and back
Libration Fading – fading caused by the adding of the multiple wave-fronts that are reflected by the uneven surface of the moon
Path loss variations as the earth to moon distance varies – the moon’s orbit around the earth is somewhat elliptical in shape resulting in a distance variation of approximately 50,000 km during the moon’s monthly orbital cycle. This equates to about a 2 dB variation in total path loss. An average figure for the path loss for 2m EME might be in the range of 252 dB.
Transit Delays – at the speed of light, it takes between 2.4 and 2.7 seconds for our signals to travel from earth to the moon and back.
Noise – the signals returning from the moon are extremely weak and must compete with natural (and man-made) noise sources. The sun and the noise from other stars in our galaxy are significant factors for EME communications on the 2m band.
Doppler shifts – as the earth rotates, the total length of the path to the moon and back is constantly changing and this results in some frequency shift due to doppler effects. Doppler shift changes fairly slowly compared to the time it takes to complete a 2m EME QSO so it is not a major factor for the 2m band.
Moon’s size vs. Antenna Aperture – the moon is a small target (about 0.5 degrees) compared to the radiation pattern of most 2m antenna systems. This means that most of our transmitted power passes by the moon and continues into space.
Taking the moon’s size, an average orbital distance, and an average Libration Fading level into account, one can expect only about 6.5 % of the power that is directed towards the moon to be reflected back towards earth.
EME “Good Guys”
One might look at the challenges associated with making EME contacts and say “why bother”? EME contacts present one of the most challenging and technical forms of Amateur Radio communications. It is this challenge the fascinates most EME’ers including this one. Fortunately, there are some “good-guy” effects that help to put EME communications within reach of most Amateur Radio stations. These include:
WSJT-X and the JT65 Digital Protocol – In the early days of EME communications, one had to rely on CW mode to make contacts. All of the impairments outlined above made these contacts very challenging and the antennas and power levels required put EME communications out of the reach of most Amateurs. Along came Joe Taylor’s digital JT65 protocol which changed all of this. It is now possible to make 2m EME contacts with a single (albeit large) 2m yagi and 200W or so of input power. As a result of these innovations, many more Amateurs have built EME stations and are active on the 2m (and other) bands. Many DXpeditions are now also including EME communications in their operations.
Ground Gain Effects – a horizontally polarized antenna system will experience approximately 6 dB of additional gain when the antenna(s) are pointed approximately parallel to the ground. Ground gain effects made it possible for us to use our single 2m antenna to make our first 2m EME contacts.
MAP65 Adaptive Polarization – Fading resulting from polarity changes due to Faraday Rotation can cause a received signal to fade to nothing over the period of time needed to complete a 2m EME contact. These polarity “lock-out” effects can make contacts take a significant amount of time to complete. Fortunately, a version of the software which implements the JT65 protocol called MAP65 has been created that will automatically detect and adapt to the actual polarity of signals returning from the moon. More on how this is achieved follows below. MAP65 is most useful for making “random” EME contacts during contests. In these situations, a variety of signals will be present in a given band with different polarities, and the MAP65 software can adapt to each one’s polarity and decode as many simultaneous signals as possible.
Commercially Available Amplifiers for the VHF+ Bands – Modern, solid-state amplifiers have become much for available for the 2m band (and other VHF and higher bands). This has made single-antenna EME on 2m and above much more practical for smaller stations with a single antenna or a small antenna array.
Our 2m EME Goals and Station Design
We began this project by making a list of goals for our 2m EME Station 2.0. Here is that list:
Operation using JT65 and QRA64 digital protocols and possibly CW on the 2m EME band
80th percentile or better station (i.e. we want to be able to work 80% of the JT65 capable 2m EME stations out there)
Operation in EME contests and EME DX’ing; earn a 2m EME DXCC
We have come up with the following station design parameters to meet these goals:
An array of four cross-polarized antennas with an aggregate gain of approximately 23 dBi
The combined gain of the system will be approximately 23 dBi with a 3 dB beamwidth of 12.5°. The XP28 antennas are designed for stacking and have good Gain/Temperature (G/T) characteristics. G/T is a measure of the gain and noise performance of an antenna system. See VE7BQH’s tables for some interesting data on G/T for many commercially available EME and VHF+ antennas.
The antenna system will have separate feeds for the antenna array’s Horizontal (H) and Vertical (V) planes. The Horizontal elements will be oriented parallel to the ground to maximize ground gain when the H plane is used for transmitting (and receive). A pair of 4-port power combiners will be used to combine the H and V polarities of the four antennas into a pair of H and V feedline connections.
M2 Antenna Systems will be supplying a MAP65 Switching and Preamp System that will mount on the tower near the antennas. The MAP65 Housing provides switching and separate receive preamplifiers and feedlines for the H and V polarities of the antennas. Separate H and V receive coax connections bring the Horizontal and Vertical elements of the antennas back to the shack. A third coax connection is provided for Transmit. The transmit feedline can be routed to either the H or the V antenna polarity to help minimize Faraday Rotation related fading at the other end of the contact.
An M2 Antennas S2 Sequencer will provide Tx/Rx sequencing and H/V transmit polarity selection via the MAP65 Switching and Preamp System on the tower. The sequencer is essential to provide safe changeovers between receive and transmit and to protect the preamplifiers and the power amplifier during high power operation.
The signals returning from the moon in an EME system are very, very weak. Because of this, Noise and Dynamic Range performance are critical factors in an EME receive system. In addition, we will need a pair of high-performance, phase-coherent receivers to enable Adaptive Polarization via MAP65.
LinkRF IQ+ Dual Polarity Receive System
We are planning to use a LinkRF IQ+ Dual Channel Receive Converter in our EME system. The Link RF IQ+ features excellent noise and dynamic range performance and its phase-coherent design will support adaptive polarity via MAP65. The IQ+ separately converts both the H and V polarities of the antennas into two separate pairs of I/Q streams.
UADC4 High-Performance 4-Channel A/D Converter
The four channels (two I/Q streams) from the LinkRF IQ+ must be digitized and fed to a Windows PC for decoding. The conventional way to do this is with a 4-channel, 24-bit soundcard. The available computer soundcards add a good bit of noise and therefore limit the overall dynamic range of an EME system. Alex, HB9DRI at LinkRF has come up with the UADC4 – a high-performance 4-channel ADC that is specially designed for software-defined radio. The UADC4 design is based on CERO- IF conversion and is optimized for EME use. The UADC4 should add about 10 – 15 dB of dynamic range improvement over a typical 24-bit PC Soundcard. Alex is currently taking pre-orders for the next run for UADC4 devices. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
JT65B Software Block Diagram
Our plans for JT65 software and related components for our EME station are shown above. We are planning on running a combination of Linrad and WSJT software on the same Windows PC to handle JT65B QSOs. There are two configurations that are applicable to our plans:
We are also planning to develop a simple windows application that will read the Moon Tracking data that is generated by WSJT MAP65 and WSJT-X and use it to control the rotator system associated with our EME antennas. More on this to come in a future article.
Well, that about covers it as far as our 2m EME goals and station design go. The plan is to break ground for the new EME tower later this week. We’ll continue to post more articles in this series as our project proceeds.
Here are some links to other articles in our series about our EME Station 2.0 project:
We’ve recently received our L24TX Transmit Converter from Down East Microwave. The unit is compact, simple, and produces up to 25W output in the satellite section of the 23 cm band (1260 MHz – 1270 MHz, actually 24 cm). The L24TX is a transmit-only device that is intended to enable L-band uplinks for Satellite use. This article is about our most recent project which involved integrating the L24TX into our Flex SDR Satellite System.
24 cm Tx Converter Rear Panel
Connecting the unit is straightforward. The unit requires an IF input, a 10 MHz reference oscillator, DC power, and a transmit keyline. The later two inputs are provided via a 7-pin connector and a DEM supplied cable. We ordered our unit with the following configuration options:
IF 28 Mhz = 1260 MHz output
Max IF Drive Level – +10 dBm
Fan and Case configured for mounting in the shack
Fortunately, our feedlines for the 23/24 cm band are hardline-based and relatively short. The unit is also available in a configuration that would enable it to be remotely mounted in an enclosure on a tower.
24 cm Tx Converter Installation in our Remote Gateway SDR Rack
The unit fits nicely into our Remote Gateway SDR Rack. The L24TX does not include a power output display so we used a 23/24 cm sensor and our WaveNode WN-2 Wattmeter to monitor output power from the unit. The unit does have leads that output a voltage that is proportional to output power. This could be used to build a power output bar display or meter. the front panel indicates display a power-on indication, lock to the 10 MHz clock input, and Tx when the unit is transmitting.
Overall Satellite SDR System Design
Integration into our Satellite SDR System was straightforward. Our system already included splitters for the 10 MHz GPSDO and the 28 MHz Transverter outputs from our Flex 6700 SDR. I had hoped to use one of the leads from the SmartSDR BITS cable we are using to key our 70 cm Transverter but the BITS cable did not have an adequate drive level to key the L24TX.
Remote SDR Gateway Tx Band Settings
Fortunately, the Flex 6700 has configurable TX1-TX3 outputs for keying devices like Transverters. The use of the TX2 output to key the L24TX was easily configured in the SmartSDR’s TX Band Settings.
23 cm Tx Converter Setup in SmartSDR
It is necessary to configure SmartSDR for the L24TX. The required settings are in the XVTR options tab. In addition to configuring the mapping between the Flex 6700’s XVTR IF frequency and the unit’s output Frequency, one needs to set the IF drive levels. We used the default drive level of 6.0 dBm and adjusted the IF Gain Control on the L24TX until the full output of 25W was reached while transmitting a tone. The correct adjustment is apparent when further gain increases do not provide a proportional increase in output power. The proper setting of the RF drive and gain will keep the L24TX’s output in its linear range of operation.
SDR Satellite System Remote Power Control via a RigRunner 4005i
The RigRunner is remotely accessible over the Internet and our network via a password-protected web interface. This enables us to easily power down or power cycle individual components in the Satellite SDR System remotely.
MacDoppler Tracking AO-91
With all of the hardware installation and calibration steps complete, we are turning our attention to the software side of the setup. We will be using MacDoppler for satellite tracking and VFO control of our Satellite SDR System. This creates a need to connect the MacDoppler program which runs on a Mac to SmartSDR and the Flex 6700 which is a Windows-based system. Fortunately, MacDoppler provides a UDP broadcast mode that transmits az/el antenna position information as well as data to control radio VFOs to adjust for Doppler shift.
FlexBridge Software Beta
We are working on a custom windows application called FlexBridge to enable MacDoppler to run our Flex SDR-based Satellite System. FlexBridge runs on a Windows PC. It receives and parses the UDP broadcast messages from MacDoppler and uses the FlexLib API to properly configure and control the Flex SDR’s VFOs.
SmartSDR Operating With AO-92 in L-V Mode
At present, FlexBridge can configure and control SmartSDR (or a Maestro Client) that is operating our SDR Satellite System. The screenshot above shows the MacDoppler, FlexBridge, SmartSDR combination operating with AO-92 in L/V mode. This software is still an in-progress development and we plan to add the ability for FlexBridge to connect to the radio via SmartLink as well as support for the Green Heron RT-21 Az/El Rotator Controller that we are using. We’ll be sharing more about FlexBridge here as the software development progresses.
The next step in our Satellite Station 4.0 Remote Gateway project will be to move our satellite antenna controls and feedlines into the shack and begin testing the complete setup using local control. Once this step is complete, we’ll focus on the final steps to enable remote operation of our satellite station via the Internet.
Here are links to some additional posts about our Satellite Station 4.0 Projects: