18 August 2017

HAARP and Arecibo ionospheric HF heating research facilities

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I've always been highly fascinated by the HAARP facility in Gakona, Alaska. I already was back in the 1990s when the research station was still operated by the US military and I was still an SWL.
HAARP stands for High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. At the facility ionospheric research is done. The most prominent instrument at HAARP is the so called "ionospheric heater", a high power HF radio transmitter and antenna array which is used to temporarily excite a limited area of the ionosphere. Wikipedia states that the HAARP facility is capable of transmitting up to a power of 4 GW ERP.
In 2014, the US Air Force announced that, starting that same year, the HAARP facility would be completely shut down and dismantled. In 2015 however, the control of the facility and all its equipment was taken over by University of Alaska Fairbanks and continues to operate. In February 2017, the first UAF-led research campaign was done. The UAF is not new at HAARP, as they already participated in the program when it was still operated by the military.

Assistant Research Professor Chris Fallen KL3WX of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, nowadays is one of the researchers doing ionospheric experiments at the facility, and keeps us posted on the ones that might be of interest to radio amateurs and shortwave listeners. The last research campaign of interest done at the facilty was in february 2017, and the next one will be in September 2017. During the February campaign, the signals of HAARP were picked up by radio amateurs all over the world. For more information, follow @ctfallen on Twitter, or visit his blog at https://sites.google.com/alaska.edu/gakonahaarpoon/.

The HAARP site from the beginning has always been subject to conspiracy theories. Read some more about it at www.haarp.net.

Another ionospheric HF heater recently was constructed at the famous Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. The heater at Arecibo has a nominal power of 600 kW, 100 to 200 MW ERP.
The first research campaign was done this summer, and the signals were received by radio amateurs worldwide, including at PA7MDJ in the Netherlands. A short video compilation of the Arecibo listening sessions done at PA7MDJ, including audio recordings of the signals received, can be found here:

Some more technical info about the Arecibo ionospheric heater can be found here.

Here are some more pictures of the HAARP facility:

HAARP QSL cards!


15 August 2017

Solar Eclipse 2017

Last edited: 17.08.2017

On August 21 between roughly 16:00 - 20:00 UTC there will be a total solar eclipse over the United States and part of the Atlantic Ocean north of the South American continent. The solar eclipse will affect the ionosphere, and it will be interesting to study the effects it will have on VLF, MF, and HF radio propagation. The ARRL and HamSCI have set up various projects for hams and shortwave listeners to partake in.

A project of the ARRL, called Solar Eclipse QSO Party (SEQP), has its objective described as:

"to flood the airwaves with contacts, all measured by the automated receiver networks of the Reverse Beacon Network, PSKReporter, and WSPRNet. When those observations are combined with the logs from individual stations, the result will be one of the largest ionospheric experiments ever performed"

The solar eclipse will probably have little to no affect on radio propagation in Europe, but I'm planning during the eclipse on transmitting 200 mW WSPR beacons on 30 or 20m, to catch any unusual effects, might there be any. Maybe towards the end of the solar eclipse, paths to the US or South America will be enhanced?

The shadow path of the eclipse and local and UTC times of the beginning and end of the eclipse can be found on: https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/solar/2017-august-21.

More information and interesting articles on amateur radio during the eclipse can be found on the following webpages:


Shadow path of the solar eclipse. Watch the animation here. Source: timeanddate.com.

Addendum 17.08.2017
Here's an interesting article on the Sky & Telescope site:
“Observe” August’s Eclipse with Your AM Radio

13 August 2017

Beacon HB4FV/B

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Yesterday, while tuning around the 30m band, I ran across the transmissions of this interesting beacon from Switzerland. It's operated by the Swiss Army amateur radio group HB4FV of the Vaud section of the Federal Association of the Swiss Signal Troops (FASST).

The beacon transmitter, a solar powered QRP Labs Ultimate3S, is located in the Swiss mountains at 1200 m a.s.l. inside a former Cold War shelter. The shelter was designed to withstand a nuclear explosion and to protect communications equipment from being damaged by strong nuclear electromagnetic pulses. Today, the shelter is used by HB4FV for experimental amateur radio activity.

According to official info from the HB4FV group, the beacon is transmitting on 10.1335 MHz. I caught the beacon 100 Hz higher, on 10.1336 MHz.

Below you can listen to a recording I made of the transmissions. The transmitted text reads:

PWR 500 MW

All photos from qrz.com.
Entrance to the shelter, pole with VHF antenna and solar panels.

Inside the shelter.

Ultimate3S transmitter.


9 August 2017

RRS James Clark Ross / British Antarctic Survey

Last edited: 15.08.2017

The Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross at Vernadsky Base, Antarctica. (source)
This is the RRS James Clark Ross, a research and supply vessel operated by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The Radio Officer of the JCR is amateur radio operator Mike Gloistein GM0HCQ. The ship mostly can be found in Antarctic waters, doing research cruises and supplying the bases of the British Antarctic Survey. But during the Austral winter (i.e. summer in the northern hemisphere), the ship turns its bow to the North, and also does research cruises in the Arctic.

Mike regularly is active from the ship as GM0HCQ/MM, mainly in CW but sometimes also in digital modes. In the autumn of 2014, then still with my novice callsign, I managed to work Mike aboard the JCR on 20m in PSK31 when it was close to the Azores and heading south for the Antarctic. It resulted in the wonderful QSL card shown below.

QSL card for PD7MDJ from the RRS James Clark Ross.
During the Arctic cruise this year, Mike also had a WSPR receiver running, 24/7 and with spots being uploaded real-time to wsprnet.org with the reporter callsign GM0HCQ/MM. But only on 30m, which made reception of my WSPR beacons sent with the QRP Labs Ultimate3S (see also my blog about the U3S kit here) impossible. With the U3S I'm only active on 20 and 40m with a HyEndFed 10/20/40 wire antenna. I am active on 30m with the HyEndFed in other modes and with other transceivers, but then I'll let the transceiver's internal antenna tuner make a match (with my transceiver's internal tuner I actually get the HyEndFed 10/20/40 tuned on all HF bands except 80 and 160m). But for the U3S I don't have any kind of tuner. And besides, I also didn't have a 30m Low Pass Filter for the U3S.

Then a couple of weeks ago at the QRP Labs booth at HAM RADIO 2017 in Friedrichshafen I bought the U3S 30m LPF kit. I also recently got my hands on a HF-P1 portable vertical antenna (which I'm planning on using during SOTA or WWFF activations). The HF-P1 can be used on all HF bands from 80 to 10m by adjusting the antenna's sliding loading coil. So I recently started experimenting with the U3S sending WSPR beacons on 30m through the HF-P1. It worked nicely, I was being heard all over Europe and crossed the Atlantic to North America a couple of times, but there were still no spots from GM0HCQ/MM. The HF-P1 being light-weight, self-supporting, and quickly assembled, and therefore very suitable for a portable setup, with its short length, loading coil, and minimalistic radials however never will be more than a very compromised antenna.
I therefore picked up the plan to make a 30m Inverted-V dipole. I took apart my homebrew 15m dipole, to use its centre and end isolators, and cut new lengths of wire for the 30m band. Minus 5%, as that's what they say the length should be for an Inverted-V with a 90º apex angle. I thought the antenna would fit in my garden, but I was wrong. The restricted space forced the Inverted-V to take a funny, and not so perfect V shape (see the illustration below).

Crude sketch of the "Funny V" antenna as I like to call the newly installed Inverted-V for 30m. Would love to see its radiation pattern in for instance the EZNEC antenna software. If somebody could help me with that, please contact me.
After a few minor cuts at both the Inverted-V leg's ends I managed to get a perfect VSWR for it! I quickly connected the U3S and started beaconing on 30m. And lo and behold, the antenna works like a charm! Spots from all over Europe, many more and with much better SNR reports than with the HF-P1. At night I crossed the Atlantic many times to North America and also into Puerto Rico. And most importantly, this time my 200mW beacons were finally also spotted aboard the James Clark Ross! The JCR had just finished this year's Arctic research cruise and was lying "all fast alongside Pier 22" in Tromsø in Arctic Norway before commencing its voyage back to England. I wanted to be spotted by the JCR before it would depart from the Arctic, and I'm glad I succeeded. I wish though that I had the U3S running on 30m sooner, to see if it would have reached the ship when it was still much further north at Svalbard. I could have used one of my other transceivers and a PC (the U3S is a stand-alone WSPR transmitter), but there's no fun in WSPRing at 5 Watts, and I like the challenge of the U3S putting out only about 200mW.

GM0HCQ/MM hearing PA7MDJ
Me and my radio history with Mike Gloistein and the RRS James Clark Ross actually goes back a long time. Before I obtained my radio amateur licence in 2012, in the 1980s and 1990s I was already a passionate shortwave listener, specializing in monitoring utility radio stations, and in those years one of my favorite frequencies to tune in to was 9.106 MHz. On this frequency around 2330 UTC I could regularly receive the SSB signals of the bases and ships of the British Antarctic Survey. The ships were the RRS John Biscoe and the RRS Bransfield, and later also the James Clark Ross which in 1991 replaced the John Biscoe). The ships every night would send SYNOP coded weather observations to one of the bases. I also managed to receive the JCR, and the reception report letter I sent to the Radio Officer of the JCR in 1995 resulted in a nice big and thick envelope arriving in my mailbox from the Falkland Islands! It contained amongst other things various brochures and information leaflets about the British Antarctic Survey and the JCR, my returned and filled-out PFC (prepared form card) QSL, and a personal letter from the JCR Radio Officer, being Mike Gloistein GM0HCQ!

PFC QSL from the RRS James Clark Ross for SWL reception of the ship with official radio traffic on 9.106 MHz in 1995.
PFC QSL from the British Antarctic Survey base Faraday for SWL reception of the base with official radio traffic on 9.106 MHz in 1992. The QSL was mailed to me directly from Faraday (see postmark). In 1996 Faraday Base was sold for a symbolic one pound to Ukraine and was renamed Vernadsky Base. This is one of my most prized SWL QSLs.

The following BAS bases and ships were active on 9.106 MHz:

  • Bird Island (callsign ZBH22)
  • Signy Island (callsign ZHF33)
  • Faraday (callsign ZHF44)
  • Rothera (callsign ZHF45)
  • Halley (callsign VSD)
  • RRS Johny Biscoe (callsign ZDLB)
  • RRS Bransfield (callsign ZDLG)
  • RRS James Clark Ross (callsign ZDLP)

For more information and photos of the JCR, check out Mike Gloistein's excellent website at www.gm0hcq.com!

Addendum 11.08.2017
Mike Gloistein informed me by e-mail that during this year's Arctic cruise whilst the RRS James Clark Ross was north of about 77º latitude, the WSPR spots weren't uploaded to the WSPR database real-time due to lack of communications satellite. All reception details of this period were stored and were uploaded manually once communication was restored.
Mike tells me that the WSPR setup aboard the JCR is using one of the commercial receivers which isn't really designed for such weak signals, but nevertheless seems to work fairly well.
The WSPR receiver will be switched off soon when the JCR is back in England and Mike leaves the ship around August 15th.
Mike also informs me that all being well the WSPR receiver will be up and running again from late October for six weeks whilst Mike is back on board the JCR for the first section of the Antarctic season.

I'm looking forward to see if I can get my WSPR signals aboard the JCR coming autumn while it's cruising the seas of the southern hemisphere. In the mean time, whilst the JCR is getting more south on the way back from its Arctic voyage, the reception of my WSPR beacons aboard the ship is getting more common (see screenshot below).

Addendum 15.08.2017
Gavin Taylor GM0GAV informed me that it was him who replied with the QSL from Faraday. Gavin was at Faraday as a comms man from 1990 to 1993. Gavin nowadays is also very active in SOTA, and upon checking my log, I found out that I've worked him on 40m CW on the summit of SOTA GM/ES-044.


2 August 2017

FT8 / Bouvet Island DXpedition

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I recently made my first contact using the new digital mode FT8 (see screenshot above). FT8 was developed by Joe Taylor K1JT and Steve Franke K9AN, and is included in a recent beta version of Joe Taylor's popular WSJT-X weak signal communications software package. FT8 stands for Franke-Taylor design, 8-FSK modulation. In a short time FT8 has become really popular, and the new mode already sees extensive use on HF and 6m.
With a decoding SNR treshhold of -20dB, FT8 is less sensitive than JT9 and JT65. Therefore, for normal use on the HF bands, at this point I don't see many advantages in using FT8 in favour of JT65 or JT9.
Since FT8 is much quicker than JT65 and JT9, I do see real potential and advantages though during for instance 6m or 4m Sporadic E openings, when propagation conditions can change really quickly and completing a QSO quicker than is possible with JT65 or JT9 is desired.
I do also see potential for FT8 to find its way to DXpedition operations. Since it's relatively quick and therefore more suitable for use in DXpedition pile-ups than JT9 or JT65, who knows, DXpeditions might start considering using FT8 beside the traditional DXpedition modes CW, SSB, and RTTY. This means that maybe for the first time in weak signal history, also the serious and big DXpeditions will start thinking of using a weak signal mode on HF (weak signal modes are already used by DXpeditions on VHF/UHF EME), and might give us little-pistol stations a bigger chance to work them!

On the FT8 Digital Mode Experimental Group on Facebook recently the following was announced, confirming that indeed the new mode has caught the attention of big DXpeditions:
The Bouvet DXpedition early next year will be using FT8! According to Ralph K0IR, one of the DXpedition leaders:
"We will 'work down from RTTY.' RTTY will be our primary digital mode when we can use it. But, we will be prepared to use FT8 on "dead bands" and when RTTY does not get through."
Bouvet is number two in the world on the most wanted list. It will also be the most expensive DXpedition in history.
Despite at the moment not being my favorite weak signal mode, this is another good reason for me to stick to FT8 for a while, and get some more experience with it. Can FT8 persuade big DXpeditions to finally take the step into 21st century HF communications technology? The future will tell.

More information on the 3Y0Z Bouvet Island DXpedition can be found on www.bouvetdx.org.