A Portable Satellite Station Part 5 – Plans for Our 3.0 Station

Satellite Grids Worked

Satellite Grids Worked

We’ve made about 250 contacts with our Portable Satellite Station 2.0 and we have worked 106 grids which should be enough to earn a Satellite VUCC. The picture above shows the grids that we’ve worked via Satellites. We’ve learned a lot about satellite operation and had a great deal of fun in the process!

Portable Satellite Station 2.0 Goals

Portable Satellite Station 2.0 Goals

We’ve met all of our original goals for our 2.0 Station and we’ve used it portable at License Classes, Field Day, and other Amateur Radio Demonstrations. We’ve also shared presentations about our 2.0 Station with Amateur Radio Groups here in the New England area. The question that we get most often about the 2.0 Station is “What are your plans for the Portable Satellite Station 3.0”?

Portable Satellite Station 3.0 Goals

Portable Satellite Station 3.0 Goals

Well, here is the plan. We are working with a local group to secure and host an ISS Crew contact. The ARISS folks have published ground station requirements for these contacts. Here are the primary station requirements:

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

Fortunately, our 2.0 Station meets or exceeds almost all of the primary station requirements with the exception of the antennas. The required antenna upgrades will shape the plans for our Portable Satellite Station 3.0.

M2 Antenna Systems 2MCP14

M2 Antenna Systems 2MCP14

ISS Crew Contacts are conducted using 2m Simplex radios on the ISS. We choose the 14-element circularly polarized 2MCP14 yagi from M2 Antenna Systems to meet the ARISS requirements for 2m. Here are the specifications for this antenna:

2MCP14 Antenna Specifications

2MCP14 Antenna Specifications

The 2MCP14 antenna offers a good balance between gain (12.34 dBi) and boom length (10′-6″) and is near the size limit that is practical for use in our Portable Station. This antenna provides an additional 3.14 dBi of gain compared to the M2 Antenna Systems 2MCP8A yagi which we are currently using in the 2.0 Station.

M2 Antenna Systems 436CP30

M2 Antenna Systems 436CP30

While not required for an ARISS Crew Contact, we are also going to upgrade the 70cm yagi to a 30-element circularly polarized M2 Antenna Systems 436CP30 yagi. Here are the specifications for this antenna:

436CP30 Antenna Specifications

436CP30 Antenna Specifications

This antenna is a good match for the upgraded 2m yagi. The 436CP30 has a boom length of 9′-9″ and a gain of 15.50 dBi. This antenna will provide an additional 2.2 dBi of gain compared to the M2 Antenna Systems 436CP16 yagi which we are currently using in the 2.0 Station.

Satellite Antennas Setup Portable

Satellite Antennas Setup Portable

The new antennas will require some modifications to our portable antenna system arrangement. They will need to be mounted on a cross-boom near their centers. As a result, a non-conductive fiberglass cross boom will be required to avoid problems with pattern distortion.

FGCB60 Non-Conductive Cross Boom

FGCB60 Non-Conductive Cross Boom

We will be using an M2 Antenna Systems FGCB60 Cross Boom which has removable, non-conductive end sections made from fiberglass material. The removable ends will make it easier to transport the antenna system. We will also need to make a new mast which is 24″ longer than our current one in the 2.0 Station to create the needed ground clearance for the longer antennas.

PS-2M and PS-70CM Polarity Switches

PS-2M and PS-70CM Polarity Switches

The last piece of the 3.0 Station Antenna upgrade is to add switchable left-hand and right-hand circular polarity. This will be accomplished via M2 Antenna Systems PS-2M and PS-70CM switchable polarity feed point upgrades for the 3.0 yagis.

DXEngineering EC-4 Control Box

DXEngineering EC-4 Control Box

We have a DXEngineering EC-4 Control Box from a previous project and we can use it to control the relays in the Polarity Switches which will be part of the 3.0 Station antennas. The box will allow us to select any combination of left and right-hand circular polarization on the 3.0 Station uplink and downlink antennas.

We should have all of the parts here for the 3.0 upgrade by the end of the year. We’ll post more as the project proceeds. Other articles in the Portable Satellite Station series include:

You may also be interested in the satellite station at our home QTH. You can read more about that here.

Fred, AB1OC

Amazing DX Opening On The 12M Band

12m DX - XT2AW Burkina Faso

12m DX – XT2AW Burkina Faso

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

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

Fred, AB1OC

Portable Satellite Station Design and Operation

Building and Operating a Portable Satellite Station Presentation

Portable Satellite Station Design and Operation Presentation

Anita and I attended the New England Regional Hamvention this past weekend. We gave a presentation on Portable Satellite Station Design & Operation there. You can view a copy of our presentation here.

Satellite Station Portable - Radio and Supporting Equipment

Portable Satellite Station 2.0 at a Recent License Training Class

The Videos from our presentation follow below –



We did two additional talks about the Nashua Area Radio Club’s activities including one on our High-Altitude Balloon Project. You can view those presentations here.

Also, we are planning to have our 2.0 Portable Satellite Station setup at the Nashua Area Radio Club’s upcoming Technician License Class on Sept. 30 – Oct. 1. If you are in the area and would like to see the station in operation, please contact us at activities@n1fd.org to arrange for a visit. If you’d like to register for one of our license classes, you can do that here.

Fred, AB1OC

LEO Satellite Contacts via Easy Sat and Linear Transponder Satellites

Satellite Antenna Details

Satellite Station 2.0 Antennas

We recently did a Tech Night at our club on Building and Operating a Satellite Ground Station. As part of my portion of our Tech Night presentation, I recorded several LEO satellite contacts and made videos showing the operation of the computer controlling our Satellite Station 2.0 during these contacts. These videos give an idea of what its like to operate through LEO satellites.

The video above is a recording of a several contacts through SO-50 – an FM “Easy Sat”.

The next video several contacts made through FO-29, a linear transponder satellite.

The distortion that you hear in my voice is a result of my own voice coming back delayed through the satellites.

We will have our Satellite Station 2.0 setup at Field Day this year. If you are local to Nashua, NH; you are welcome to visit us during Field Day and see our Satellite Station in operation.

You can read more about the station used to make these contacts here on our Blog.

Fred, AB1OC

A Portable Satellite Station Part 4 – 2.0 Station First Contacts!

Station Packed and Ready for Transport

Station Packed and Ready for Transport

With our new 2.0 Satellite station built, tested, and packed; we were ready to try it in a portable environment. Fortunately, the Nashua Area Radio Club had a Technician License class coming up and we thought that the new station test would be a great way for our students to learn about Amateur Radio Satellites.

Satellite Status from AMSAT Website

Satellite Status from AMSAT Website

Final preparations included checking the operational status of potential satellites on the AMSAT website. The page shown above is like a spotting cluster for LEO Satellites – it shows satellite activity as reported by HAM satellite operators. Using this information, we configured MacDoppler to track the active satellites.

Satellite Pass Predictions

Satellite Pass Predictions

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.

Sateliite Antennas Setup Portable

Satellite Antennas Setup Portable

The first step at the class site was to unload all of our gear and move the portable tower to a suitable location. We used a compass to orient the tower to true north and leveled it. We used the weight bags that we made up to anchor the tower securely and then installed the antennas, rotator loops, and control cables. The antenna system worked out very well in the portable environment and was easy to set up.

Satellite Antenna Details

Satellite Antenna Details

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

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 (AO-85)

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.

Explaining Satellite System to License Class

Explaining Satellite System to License Class

Our Technician License Class students were very interested in the station. We spent some time explaining the setup and demonstrating how it worked. We made more contacts between our class sessions using AO-85 and FO-29 (a V/U Mode Linear Transponder Satellite). Our most interesting contact was with Burt, FG8OJ in Guadeloupe through FO-29. It was great to work DX using the new station during the first time we used it.

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, our 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.

You may also be interested in the satellite station at our home QTH. You can read more about that here.

Fred, AB1OC

Fall Antenna Projects – A New Low-Band Receive Antenna System

NCC-1 Receive Antenna System Control Unit and Filters

NCC-1 Receive Antenna System Control Unit and Filters

Anita and I like to take advantage of the mild fall weather to do antenna projects at our QTH. We have completed two such projects this fall – the installation of a Two-Element Phased Receive System and a rebuild of the control cable interconnect system at the base of our tower.

NCC-1 Receive Antenna System Components

NCC-1 Receive Antenna System Components

Our first project was the installation of a DXEngineering NCC-1 Receive Antenna System. This system uses two receive-only active vertical antennas to create a steerable receive antenna system. The combination can work on any band from 160m up to 10m. We set ours up for operation on the 80m and 160m bands.

NCC-1 Receive System Antenna Pattern

NCC-1 Receive System Antenna Pattern

The NCC-1 System can be used to peak or null a specific incoming signal. It can also be applied to a noise source to null it out. The direction that it peaks or nulls in is determined by changing the phase relationship between the two Active Antenna Elements via the NCC-1 Controller.

NCC-1 Filter Installation

NCC-1 Filter Installation

The first step in the project was to open the NCC-1 Control Unit to install a set of 80m and 160m bandpass filter boards. These filters prevent strong out-of-band signals (such as local AM radio stations) from overloading the NCC-1. The internal switches were also set to configure the NCC-1 to provide power from an external source to the receive antenna elements through the connecting coax cables.

Installed Active Receive Antenna Element

Installed Active Receive Antenna Element

The next step in the project was to select a suitable location for installing the Receive Antenna Elements. We choose a spot on a ridge which allowed the two Antenna Elements to be separated by 135 ft (for operation on 160m/80m) and which provided a favorable orientation toward both Europe and Japan. The antenna elements use active circuitry to provide uniform phase performance between each element’s 8 1/2 foot whip antenna and the rest of the system. The antenna elements should be separated by a 1/2 wavelength or more on the lowest band of operation from any towers or transmit antennas to enable the best possible noise rejection performance.

Received Antenna Element Closeup

Received Antenna Element Closeup

The two Antenna Elements were assembled and installed on 5 ft rods which were driven into the ground. To ensure a good ground for the elements and to improve their sensitivity, we opted to install 4 radials on each antenna (the black wires coming from the bottom of the unit in the picture above). The Antenna Elements are powered through 75-ohm flooded coax cables which connect them to the NCC-1 Control Unit in our shack. The coax cable connections in our setup are quite long –  the longer coax of the pair being approximately 500 ft. The use of flooded coax cable allows the cables to be run underground or buried. Should the outer jacket become nicked, the flooding glue inside the cable will seal the damage and keep water out of the cable.

Receive RF Choke

Receive RF Choke

It is also important to isolate the connecting coax cables from picking up strong signals from nearby AM Radio stations, etc. To help with this, we installed Receive RF Chokes in each of the two coax cables which connect the Antenna Elements to the NCC-1. These chokes need to be installed on ground rods near the Antenna Elements for best performance.

Underground Cable Conduit In Our Yard

Underground Cable Conduit In Our Yard

We ran the coax cables underground inside cable conduits for a good portion of the run between the antenna elements and our shack. The conduits were installed in our yard when we built our tower a few years back so getting the coax cables to our shack was relatively easy.

Receive Antenna Coax Ground System

Receive Antenna Coax Ground System

The last step in the outdoor part of this project was to install a pair of 75-ohm coax surge protectors near the entry to our shack. An additional ground rod was driven for this purpose and was bonded to the rest of our station’s ground system. We routed both of the 75-ohm coax cables from the two Antenna Elements through surge protectors and into our shack. Alpha-Delta makes the copper ground rod bracket shown in the picture for mounting the surge protectors on the ground rod.

Antenna Equipment Shelf In Our Shack (The NCC-1 Control Unit Is At The Bottom)

Antenna Equipment Shelf In Our Shack (The NCC-1 Control Unit Is At The Bottom)

The installation work in our shack began with the construction of a larger shelf to hold all of our antenna control equipment and to make space for the NCC-1. The two incoming coax cables from the Antenna Elements were connected to the NCC-1.

microHAM Station Master Deluxe Antenna Controller

microHAM Station Master Deluxe Antenna Controller

Antenna switching and control in our station is handled by a microHAM System. Each radio has a dedicated microHAM Station Master Deluxe Antenna Controller which can be used to select separate transmit and receive antenna for the associated radio. The microHAM system allows our new Receive Antenna System to be shared between the 5 radios in our station.

Antenna Switching Matrix

Antenna Switching Matrix

The first step in integrating the Receive Antenna System was to connect the output of the NCC-1 to the Antenna Switching Matrix outside our shack. We added a low-noise pre-amp (shown in the upper left of the picture above) to increase the sensitivity of the Antenna System. The blue device in the picture is a 75-ohm to 50-ohm matching transformer which matches the NCC-1’s 75-ohm output to our 50-ohm radios. The other two pre-amps and transformers in the picture are part of our previously installed 8-Circle Receive Antenna System.

Multi-Radio Sequencer

Multi-Radio Sequencer

The Antenna Elements must be protected from overload and damage from strong nearly RF fields from our transmit antennas. In a single radio station, this can be handled via a simple sequencer unit associated with one’s radio. In a multi-op station such as ours, it is possible for a different radio than the one which is using the Receive Antenna System to be transmitting on a band which would damage the Receive Antenna System. To solve this problem, we built a multi-radio sequencer using one of the microHAM control boxes in our station. The 062 Relay Unit shown above has one relay associated with each of the five radios in our station. The power to the Receive Antenna System is routed through all 5 of these relays. When any radio transmits on a band that could damage the Antenna Elements, the associated relay is automatically opened 25 mS before the radio is allowed to key up which ensures that the system’s Antenna Elements are safely powered down and grounded.

microHam Antenna System Diagram

Updated microHam Antenna System Diagram

With all of the coax and control connections complete, I was able to update the microHam system design information for our station and add the new receive antenna system to our setup. You can find more about the programming of our microHam system here.

NCC-1 Controls

NCC-1 Controls

So how well does the system work? To test it, we adjusted the NCC-1 to peak and then null a weak CW signal on 80m. This is done by first adjusting the Balance and Attenuator controls on the NCC-1 so that the incoming signal is heard at the same level by both Antenna Elements. Next, the B Phase switch is set to Rev to cause the system to operate in a signal null’ing configuration and the Phase control is adjusted to maximize the nulling effect on the target signal. One can go back and forth a few times between the Balance and Phase controls to get the best possible null. Finally, the incoming signal is peaked by setting the B Phase switch to Norm.

Peaked And Null'ed CW Signal

Peaked And Null’ed CW Signal

The picture above shows the display of the target CW signal on the radio using the NCC-1 Antenna System. If you look closely at the lower display in the figure (null’ed signal) you can still see the faint CW trace on the pan adapter. The difference between the peak and the null is about 3 S-units or 18 dB.

NCC-1 Used For Noise Cancellation

NCC-1 Used For Noise Cancellation

The NCC-1 can also be used to reduce (null out) background noise. The picture above shows the result of doing this for an incoming SSB signal on 75m. The system display at the top shows an S5 SSB signal in the presence of S4 – S5 noise (the lower display in the picture). Note how clean the noise floor for the received SSB signal becomes when the unit is set to null the noise source which comes from a different direction than the received SSB signal.

We are very pleased with the performance of our new Receive Antenna System. It should make a great tool for DX’ing on the low-bands. It is a good complement to our 8-circle steerable receive system which we use for contesting on 160m and 80m.

Tower Control Cable Interconnects (Bottom Two Gray Boxes)

Tower Control Cable Interconnects (Bottom Two Gray Boxes)

Our other antenna project was a maintenance one. We have quite a number of control leads going to our tower. When we built our station, we placed surge protectors at the base of our tower and routed all of our control leads through exposed connections on these units. Over time, we found that surge protection was not necessary and we also became concerned about the effects that sunlight and weather were having on the exposed connections. To clean all of this up, we installed two DXEngineering Interconnect Enclosures on our tower and moved all the control cable connections inside them.

Inside View Of Interconnect Enclosures

Inside View Of Interconnect Enclosures

We began with a pair of enclosures from DXEngineering and we mounted screw terminal barrier strips on the aluminum mounting plates in each enclosure. The aluminum plates are grounded via copper strap material to our tower.

Closer Look At One Of The Interconnect Enclosures

Closer Look At One Of The Interconnect Enclosures

The picture above shows one of the interconnection boxes. This one is used to connect our two SteppIR DB36 Yagi Antennas and some of the supporting equipment. The barrier strips form a convenient set of test points for troubleshooting any problems with our equipment on the tower. There are almost 100 control leads passing through the two enclosures and this arrangement keeps everything organized and protected from the weather.

With all of our antenna projects complete, we are looking forward to a fun winter of contesting and low-band DX’ing.

73,

Fred, AB1OC

 

Software Defined Radios – The Future of Amateur Radio?

Modern SDR Example - FlexRadio 6000 Series

Modern SDR Example – FlexRadio 6000 Series

Computers and Digital Signal Processing already play a big role in recent Amateur Radio transceivers. Many HAMs have a good understanding of these features and regularly use them for all manner of filtering, noise reduction and signal processing tasks while on the air. We’ve also seen more and more radios with Spectrum Scopes which make it easier to visualize what is on a given band in real time. Thanks to increasing volumes in color displays, Digital Signal Processor (DSP) applications and low-cost processors, these capabilities are now common – even on entry-level HF transceivers.

Software Defined Radios (SDRs) are the next logical step in this evolution. SDRs are not new, they have been around for some time now. SDR technology has continued to improve as the cost and performance of Analog to Digital Converters, Programmable Logic Devices and other processors that make up the hardware side of SDRs have improved. We are now to the point where it is possible to build an SDR for Amateur Radio applications which can directly sample RF at frequencies as high as 150 MHz.

Direct Sampling SDR receiver designs have some important advantages over more conventional single conversion and super-heterodyne receiver (i.e. multiple conversion) designs. These include:

  • Higher dynamic range
  • Low phase noise
  • Ability to cover multiple bands simultaneously with multiple receivers
  • Very high-quality spectrum displays
  • Flexible, high-performance filters
  • The ability to add new modulation schemes and other features via software updates

The first two items above (dynamic range and phase noise) are particularly important as they result in receiver performance which is significantly better than that which can be achieved with the best direct and superhet designs. Take for example a busy contest environment when a band is very crowded (ex. 40m at night in a worldwide DX phone contest). There are many strong signals crowded closely together on the band. Even the best conventional design receivers will have trouble hearing moderate and weak signals in this environment. The problem is that the strong signals tend to overload the analog circuitry in the conversion stages of conventional radios which produces a great deal of Intermodulation Distortion Design products. Phase noise also compounds this problem.

A direct sampling SDR converts the incoming RF signals with high dynamic range Analog to Digital conversion and then performs all of the filtering and demodulation of the incoming signals in software. This approach limits the potential for Intermodulation Distortion with an end result that all of the signals on the band (including the weaker ones) are much clearer. This approach also allows very high order filtering to be applied in the RF domain which results in greatly improved selectivity and rejection of closely spaced adjacent signals with minimal distortion.

By now some may be think that this all sounds great but I don’t want to have to use my computer to make QSOs. There is good news on this front as well. We are beginning to see the major transceiver manufacturers introduce direct sampling SDR technology in radios with conventional “buttons and knobs” interfaces.

Icom IC-7300

Icom IC-7300 (Pending US Release)

New designs like the Icom IC-7300 can provide a way to gain the performance and feature advantages of an SDR in a radio which has a more conventional interface. The entry of the major manufacturers into the direct sampling space and the resulting competition should help to lower prices for all types of SDRs.

RTL-SDR Dongle

RTL-SDR Dongle

Want to give SDR technology a try without spending a lot of $? There are several very good SDR Dongles available along with SDR software at a minimal cost. Dongles are typically receive-only but some can also transmit as very lower power. The use of this technology in digital TV receivers and set-top boxes has made the cost of SDR Dongles very low and there is some very good SDR software available for free on the web. Dongles are generally broad coverage receivers and they can also be used to listen to signal outside the Amateur Bands.

It is interesting to follow the rapid evolution of SDR technology. We recently integrated a FlexRadio-6700 SDR into our station to enable us to operate remotely via the internet. You can read more about this project on our blog.

– Fred (AB1OC)