26 February 2017

Antarctica (IOTA AN-016)

Last edited: 04.03.2017

Map of Antarctica (source)
As most of you probably know, or otherwise will have noticed while tuning around on the HF bands, we're currently getting close to the minimum of Solar Cycle 24. This means HF propagation isn't optimal, and especially the higher bands are in bad shape and will remain so for the coming years until solar activity picks up again to start the climb towards the peak of the new solar cycle. You may have noticed that the 10m band is dead most of the time, and that even the 20m band does not deliver DX anymore as easily as it did a couple of years ago. For the ham operator with just a wire antenna and low power, the challenge has been raised to an even higher level. It's in times like these that one starts to appreciate CW even more; I'm rarely able to work DX in phone these days.

But life's too short to mourn the lack of sunspots! Forget the higher bands! Just tune into the 40m band, do your thing, and you might be in for a pleasant surprise! Even with a simple wire antenna and low power. I know many hams underestimate the possibilities of 40. Don't!

I've always been surprised by the DX I'm able to work on the 40m band (in CW, digimodes, and even SSB) with my HyEndFed multiband (10/20/40m) wire antenna and 100 Watts or less. This antenna basically works as a so called Zepp antenna or end fed dipole. Electrically on 40 metres the HyEndFed 10/20/40 is a half wave length. Physically it's much shorter though (about 12 metres). The trick is in a trap / loading coil at a distance of 10 metres in the antenna wire which on the 40m band lengthens the antenna electrically. Since 12 metres of wire is pretty much the maximum I can fit in my small garden, for me the HyEndFed 10/20/40 is the ideal 40m antenna. An inverted V dipole would be great, but the limited space available would mean the apex angle will be too small.
I used to have the HyEndFed in vertical position, dangling from a 12 metre telescopic fibreglass pole. But this was only a semi-permanent setup, as, even though the pole was guyed, as soon as the winds picked up, the pole had to be taken down. I now have the HyEndFed in a permanent sloper position from about 9 metres height at one end to about 1.5 metres height at the other, partly close to my house, and partly close to the ground. Not an ideal situation, but at least now I can get on HF anytime and independent of weather conditions. And, as far as I can tell, and much to my surprise, it's working just as well as the vertical configuration. At least it seems to be; I'm not able to do side by side comparison, so there might be difference in performance after all. Whatever may be the case, with the sloper configuration I still work plenty of DX.

From my QTH in the Netherlands with the HyEndFed on 40m especially the Caribbean region is a relatively easy target. But also eastern North America and parts of South America are worked quite regularly, and recently I've also been quite succesful in getting my signals on the African continent, making CW QSOs with DXpeditions in countries like Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic. With JT65 I once managed to make a 40m QSO with VK-land. Despite all these succeses, I never could have dreamed of one day working Antarctica on 40 though. But recently I did!

On January 27th, 2017 around 21:47 UTC on 7.018 MHz I heard the CW signal of RI1ANR. He was working simplex. As soon as possible I started keying the familiar Morse rhythm of my callsign, and much to my surprise quite quickly I heard my call coming back; signal reports were exchanged, a TU and a 73 and the QSO was in the log! And I'm still in shock! I worked Antarctica on 40m!

Contact with RI1ANR confirmed in LotW
RI1ANR is located at Novo Airbase, or Novo Runway, close to the Russian Novolazarevskaya Research Station in Queen Maud Land, East Antarctica. Novo Runway is a so called Blue Ice Runway where aircraft can land using wheels, i.e. their normal landing gear, instead of skis. During the austral summer there are regular flights from Cape Town to Novo Runway with the Ilyushin IL76 TD heavy-cargo aircraft. Novo Runway acts as a major Antarctic transport and logistics hub, and from there cargo and passengers are flown in to other parts of Antarctica and further inland.

Novo Blue Ice Runway (source)
Ilyushin 76 at Novo Runway (source)
Then on February 10th on 7.004 MHz around 01:15 UTC I again managed to work Antarctica. This time I worked RI1AND (op. Mikhail Fokin, RW1AI) at Novolazarevskaya Research Station itself. Again a simplex CW contact.

eQSL from RI1AND
Mikhail Fokin in the radio shack at Novolazarevskaya Station, Season 2016-2017 (source)
Mikhail Fokin at Novolazarevskaya Station, Season 2016-2017 (source)
Novolazarevskaya is a Russian base located at the Schirmacher Oasis in Queen Maud Land. It was opened in 1961 as part of the 6th Russian Antarctic Expedition. The population during summer is about 70. About 30 people winter over at the station. The inland ice sheet south of the station at a distance of 50 km already reaches a height of 1500 m.

Novolazarevskaya Station (source)
In the mean time recently on many nights I've also been hearing the 40m CW signals of LU4CJM/Z and LU1ZI from the Argentine Carlini Base on the South Shetland Islands, but unfortunately I have not been able to QSO them yet.

Then on February 17th I again put Antarctica in the log, again on 40m CW. I made a contact with KC4/N2TA which after some research I learned also is Mikhail Fokin at Novolazarevskaya using the callsign of the Brooklyn based Russian Speaking Radio Club International N2TA, with KC4 added for Antarctica. Fokin has been using this callsign before from Antarctica, for instance from Vostok Station in 2002, as shown by the QSL card below.

2002 QSL card from KC4/N2TA (source)
To me, Antarctica is the ultimate in DX. Historically, the isolated explorers, researchers, and base personell of The Great White Continent relied solely on radio communications and ham radio to stay in touch with eachother and with the outside world. I recommend reading this article in the Antarctic Sun about the "Madey Boys", two teenage brothers who with ham radio in the 1950s helped the US Navy men of "Operation Deep Freeze" in Antarctica stay in touch with their loved ones at home.
To me, working Antarctica is pure emotion! Already as an SWL in the 1980s and 1990s I especially enjoyed tuning in to signals coming from the Antarctic. I have particularly fond memories of listening to the ships and bases of the British Antarctic Survey on 9.106 MHz. I might get into that further in another blog entry.

The contacts on 40m weren't my first Antarctic QSOs. My first one was back in 2014 in JT65 on 10m with DP0GVN (op. Holger Bauer, DH1HB) at the German Neumayer Station III.
I had noticed this odd looking German callsign in my JT65 decodes, but hadn't payed much attention to it. At the time I was quite addicted to JT65, and while making contacts I kept track in near real time via Hamspots.net of where my signals were heard. At one point I noticed my signals had been picked up in Antarctica. And the station there that had spotted me was the one with the odd looking German callsign! A quick look on qrz.com taught me that the callsign belonged to the German Neumayer III Station. I quickly started attempts to make a QSO with DP0GVN, and I succeeded!

Screenshot of my JT65 contact with Neumayer Station
Neumayer Station III is located on the 200 m thick Ekström Ice Shelf, Queen Maud Land. The building is resting on hydraulic feet which during an annual lifting procedure lifts the building by about 80 to 100 cm to prevent it from sinking and eventually being buried in new snow.

QSL card from DP0GVN, Neumayer III Station
My second Antarctic contact was back in 2015 on 20m CW, also with Mikhail Fokin, the same operator whom I recently made a contact with on 40m. At the time Fokin was working out of the Russian Mirny Base with the callsign RI1ANT.

QSL card from RI1ANT, Mirny Base
Mirny Base is located in Queen Mary Land, East Antarctica. It was opened in 1956 by the 1st Russian Antarctic Expedition. The station hosts about 170 people in summer and 60 in winter. The average temperature is -11º C and on more than 200 days per year the wind is stronger than 15 m/sec.

Mirny Base (source)
Mikhail Fokin in the radio shack at Mirny Base, Season 2014-2015 (source)
Check out Mikhail Fokin's website at http://www.qsl.net/ua1ake/logs/.

Last but not least I'd like to mention the site of the Worldwide Antarctic Program at www.waponline.it. It's packed with information on 60 years of ham radio in Antarctica.

I will end this blog entry with the subject I started with: solar cycles. I can happily report that on December 20th, 2016 the first sunspot of Solar Cycle 25 was observed. This doesn't mean that cycle 24 and the minimum is over though. Usually solar cycles overlap up to 4 years. Read all about it here on the site of the Solar-Terrestrial Center of Excellence.

First sign of solar cycle 25 (source)