Sunday, 21 January 2018

The tyranny of default settings

The tyranny of default settings.

Sounds menacing, eh?

Not too much to report, apart from a perfectly predictable 10m Es opening on 19 January following an increase in solar activity. The K number rose to more than 4, as predicted four days earlier by NOAA and also two days earlier by Solarham. This duly produced this result:-
10m Es spots on WSPR at GM4FVM on 19 January 2018
10m Es opening in January at the bottom of the solar cycle - nothing unusual to report there then. I had hope for 20 January too, but the enhanced solar activity faded away.

I have confirmed what was limiting my PC performance when using multiple instances of MSK144 mode. It does seem to be a bandwidth thing as mentioned previously as a theory. I now need just one computer. So the back up computer has gone to the further reaches of the shack, despite all the fettling I did to it.

But what has been intriguing me recently has been strange behaviour amongst some amateurs who use the "wrong" settings for MSK. I have distinctly heard four stations using 30 second T/R intervals, one fairly local, but the others in the 750 to 1000km region. If I can hear these stations in both receiving segments then something pretty serious is wrong.

Always providing that my timing is correct, and I use Meinberg software for timing, then is just not be possible to hear the same station in successive receive segments, unless of course they were transmitting in both. Maybe their timing is wrong. Or maybe they are actually deliberately transmitting in both.

I checked my timing by running two sets of Meinberg on two computers, and verified with the Meinberg NTP monitor that both were functioning correctly. They both showed the same time even though they were synching with different hosts.

At least one of these stations is using 30 second intervals because I can see that they also have "Auto Seq" ticked. I can tell because they transmit for 30 seconds, and then if they get a reply, Auto Seq switches them to the other 30 second segment.

This is bizarre behaviour. They are losing 50% of their receive time, making QSOs on average twice as long. They are also occupying both segments, meaning that any station close to them might as well give up. And half of their transmissions will be lost for a DX station using the standard 15 second interval, causing another 50% loss and making any QSO next to impossible.

I have been pondering all this. Why do such a thing when it will only (at best) lengthen your QSOs, or (at worst) lead to many QSOs failing to complete? And it will annoy every other amateur in your area who will be unable to operate while you are on the air.

Then the penny dropped. The last time I downloaded WSJT-X it came with the default setting as "T/R 30 seconds" and "FTol 20". Of course I reset those to 15 seconds and 100, as the User Guide suggests. Perhaps these people are just using the default settings. Perhaps they never looked at the User Guide.

At this point I could don the cloak of the "Old Timer". I could point out that my enforced period as a Short Wave Listener taught me the benefit of listening first. If I had listened first it would immediately be clear to me that other stations were using 15 second intervals.

However, I think it goes deeper than that. My instinct when downloading WSJT-X is to explore it and find out more about it. Maybe other stations just accept the defaults and think no more about it.

OK, every so often every station gets it wrong and transmits on the wrong segment. The "Tx even/1st" button is small and it is easy to forget to change when you turn the antenna. But to use the 30 second T/R constantly is shooting yourself in the foot - you miss, on average, 50% of the replies. And the other station misses 50% of yours, leaving the statistics of randomness to condemn you to fail most of the time.

In between the times when these stations have been wiping both rx opportunities for me I have worked a few stations during the supposed "dead period" (early January to April) for meteor scatter.
VHF meteor scatter contacts at GM4FVM 9 to 21 January 2018
Meanwhile, the stations using 30 second periods seem to be calling CQ a lot, and not getting many replies.

I wonder why.
On a different tack, the issue about strength reports as opposed to meteor ping duration and number of pings has been mentioned elsewhere. Here is a nice clip from OZ1JXY Henning's 4m QSO of today today . Somehow my report of +03dB, although good, hardly goes far enough to describe this ...
That counts as quite a blast in this quiet period.
Enough from me, but for what it is worth I will post the relevant section from the WSJT-X User Guide which I doubt if anyone involved will read. Ah well.


To configure WSJT-X for MSK144 operation:
  • Select MSK144 from the Mode menu.
  • Select Fast from the Decode menu.
  • Set the audio receiving frequency to Rx 1500 Hz.
  • Set frequency tolerance to F Tol 100.
  • Set the T/R sequence duration to 15 s.
  • To match decoding depth to your computer’s capability, click Monitor (if it’s not already green) to start a receiving sequence. Observe the percentage figure displayed on the Receiving label in the Status Bar:
MSK144 Percent CPU
  • The displayed number (here 17%) indicates the fraction of available time being used for execution of the MSK144 real-time decoder. If this number is well below 100% you may increase the decoding depth from Fast to Normal or Deep, and increase F Tol from 100 to 200 Hz.
Most modern multi-core computers can easily handle the optimum parameters Deep and F Tol 200. Older and slower machines may not be able to keep up at these settings; at the Fast and Normal settings there will be a small loss in decoding capability (relative to Deep) for the weakest pings.
  • T/R sequences of 15 seconds or less requires selecting your transmitted messages very quickly. Check Auto Seq to have the computer make the necessary decisions automatically, based on the messages received.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Quadrantids meteor shower marks the end of the season?

3 January 2018 marked the peak of the Quadrantids meteor shower. The Quadrantids also mark a break in the procession of the main showers in the Northern Hemisphere until April.

At GM4FVM Quadrantids 2018 produced this result:-
VHF meteor scatter QSOs at GM4FVM 30 December 2017 to 8 January 2018

This year saw me working many of the usual stations, but it felt very different. Only one QSO was on 6m, the rest were evenly split between 4m and 2m. All were on MSK144 mode. This was the first year when I could call CQ on 2m MSK144 and get successful results.

For too long now 2m operators in Western Europe have been sticking with FSK441 mode. This time I watched PSK reporter carefully and I noticed several stations working into Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. As those Eastern stations were using MSK144, the people trying to work them had to use MSK144 as well. This gave me the opportunity to be heard, and it worked. If some people want to stick with FSK441 then that is their choice, but they are not going to work me.

I did hear stations from Belarus and Russia myself but I have never worked that far on meteor scatter (though I have worked Belarus on Sporadic E). I suspect that some of these stations run quite high power levels.

Perhaps I am beginning to find 6m meteor scatter "too easy". Well, not really, but when I call CQ I can see that I am heard by many stations but few answer. So maybe they find it too easy to work me, so they don't try. I find that on 2m there are fewer stations but a lot more of them are ready to reply and try to make a contact.

So that was a successful Quadrantids campaign to round off the VHF year.

I am still left wondering whether 10m would be any good for meteor scatter from here.

Between now and April there are still plenty of things which might happen. Random tropo and aurora events can be very good fun but they are impossible to predict until a day or two before they occur. There may be several or there may be none.

The NOAA 27 day Space Weather Outlook (which you can find here) suggests no recurrent auroral activity can be expected - or at least the test of Kp index over 5 is not predicted to be met in the 27 days from 8 January. However, this predictor only really lists recurring coronal holes; a solar flare could happen at any time, or not, as the case may be.

Meteor scatter will still work of course. Just because there are no major showers does not rule out taking advantage of minor showers or background meteor action.

Plus there could be some minor Sporadic E events.

I might try some Earth Moon Earth operation. More accurately I might try listening again. My station is not well suited to EME, but it might be worth trying. There is nothing to lose. I had an email from Gordon GM4OAS which has given me a nudge towards listening again.

I had a phone call from Keith, MM6KFE, asking for a test on the local 70cm repeater GB3BE. As I had no antenna I had to try to reach him on my £8 Baofeng hand held. Not a sophisticated rig and I ended up standing in the middle of the back garden in the rain. So I have relented as far putting a 2m dipole in the loft which works (badly) as a 3/4 wave dipole for 70cms. I have managed to work Keith on that so I am back on 2m and 70cms FM for now anyway. There followed contacts with Wallace, MM0AMV on BE and Paul GM0IQI on GB3DU. Active locals! Things are not as bad as they looked.

I am quite looking forward to a lull. This has been very eventful year.




Sunday, 31 December 2017

FT8 and the arrival of even more Christmas Es

Happy Hogmanay Everybody.

Storm Dylan is currently whipping round and about my masts, but apparently the weather forecast is that it will indeed be braw in Edinburgh at midnight tonight, and it may even be bracing for the Loony Dook in the waters of the Firth of Forth tomorrow.

I hope to stay dry and warm here.
It was only two days ago that I commented on the Christmas Es here.

Later on 29 December produced another fine 6m opening bringing the total Es picture in the week since Christmas to this:-
Es QSOs at GM4FVM 25 to 31 December 2017
This of course excludes meteor scatter and 10m WSPR which are usually my stalwarts at this time of year, and is only up to 13:00 on the 31st. There were more stations available to work but I have to live you know! Life outside radio goes on.

What strikes me is the difference from the same period last year
Es QSOs at GM4FVM 25 to 31 December 2016
In fact, all the QSOs last year were on one day in an opening which lasted an hour.

Natural variation? Probably.

It is called Sporadic E for a reason.

However, it is worth just thinking about what has changed since last year.

All my 2017 Es QSOs were made using the FT8.  During the same period in 2016 FT8 was not available, so two were on SSB and the rest on JT65.

This year the openings have lasted 27 hours.

Could the arrival of FT8 have made a difference?

My posting on 21 September, here, sets out a possible mechanism suggesting how some data modes can transform a marginal situation into a QSO-feast. It could not open a closed band, but it could make just enough difference to achieve QSOs.

But surely I was using a data mode (JT65) in 2016? True, but not so many others were. FT8 has developed a "cult following". Also, although FT8 is theoretically less efficient that JT65, FT8 harbours a major advantage in these marginal conditions. By using FT8 you can complete a QSO between two and four times faster than on JT65. In rapidly fading periods this makes all the difference between finishing a QSO and not making it. I did not record the times in 2016 when I got only one over from the other station, but I know it happened a lot with JT65.

There is not enough evidence to draw any conclusion yet. We need many periods of observation for comparison, but there might be something in this. On the other hand, the fanatical take-up of FT8 will no doubt decline as its newness wears off.

There is no doubt either that the availability of stations at the far end of a QSO often has more influence on the QSO count than the conditions. So perhaps this is just a storm in a teacup, driven by a few articles about FT8.

On the other hand I did notice that a lot of the stations I worked were callsigns already in the log. I had worked them, usually in the Summer, in various years. In 2016 I worked them on JT9, in 2014 on JT65, in 2013 on PSK .... anyway, they were regulars and not people drawn into 6m data after a burst of publicity following the launch of FT8.

I also rather absent mindedly clipped a page out of the 6m DX-cluster for 29 December. There are 37 Es QSOs recorded in 28 minutes, 27 on FT8, 8 on CW and 2 on SSB. Is it just that FT8 is more popular, or could it (and CW of course) just be better at producing QSOs than SSB? Not enough evidence to tell yet, but I think it is worth considering.

When I started using data modes (in the 1970s) they were viewed as a (rather poor) substitute for SSB, not something measurably better. I need to recalibrate my thoughts on this.

Right I am off to browse through my log book.

Before anybody asks, here is the map for the same period 2015 when I was using JT65 and JT9 ...
Es QSOs at GM4FVM 25 to 31 December 2015

I might not get too much time to browse as there is a slight uptick in geomagnetic activity predicted for 1 January, round about the same time as the Quadrantid and Ursids meteor showers usually keep me busy.

Have a great New Year.



Friday, 29 December 2017

A little Christmas propagation present

Before I start, I went out on what is called "Boxing Day" round here (also "St Stephen's Day" or just 26 December), and I was unable to lower my Tennamast. The mast holding up the 2m and 4m antennas had frozen in the raised position thanks to a heavy frost. My usual trick is to shake the upper section of the mast to break the frost but it was frozen solid. So it just had to stay up all night. Lucky thing.

As compensation I took some photos of it
2m and 4m antennas at GM4FVM on 26 December 2017
If you click on the image to enlarge it you can see a faint star pattern behind it. There is no need to contact me once you have worked out what aspect that is, because it is not the shot I was after.

I did think that I had taken a better one than that. I wanted to show the antennas with Orion in the sky behind them and that worked quite well on that particular night. Sadly during the long exposure there was some vibration in the tripod so it did not turn out very well once I came indoors and looked carefully at the results. It is a pity as I had managed to get Alnitak and Alnilam on one side of the 4m boom, with Mintaka on the other side of the boom, but they are shown as elongated lines in the final photo. So this one will have to do.

Ah well, Orion's belt is for another day.

Or rather it is for another night.
In my last posting on 24 December I suggested that it would be worth looking out for "Christmas Es" until early January.

Unusually, Christmas Es decided to make a showing near to Christmas this year.
10m WSPR spots at GM4FVM on 26 December 2017
Even more unusually, I went on 10m and actually worked a few stations ...
10m contacts (all FT8) at GM4FVM  on 26 December 2017
Then 6m opened and I turned to that band:-
6m Es (FT8) contacts at GM4FVM on 26 December 2017
Thinking that this could not last, 27 December produced even more 10m Es WSPR spots:-
10m WSPR spots at GM4FVM on 27 December 2017
.. and then even more 6m FT8 contacts:-
6m Es contacts at GM4FVM on 27 December 2017
Now it is grand to leave WSPR running and just observe the spots, but that map shows real contacts, all of which were logged. Eventually after a few hours I got "brain fade" and I stopped an hour before the opening ended. Not bad though for December Es, something that many amateurs ignore completely.

And of course, being a reasonable time for meteor scatter I have been there too...
Meteor scatter contacts at GM4FVM 22 to 29 December 2017
I would have been happy enough with those contacts if the Es had not occurred at all (OY being a new country on 6m, although I have worked it on all the other bands I use).

Nothing at all was heard on 4m (so there was no point putting up the mast for it just to get frozen).

The openings were very long - on 26 December 09:28 to 19:38, and on 27 December from 11:32 to 18:26. So my comment about these openings being short and localised was proved to be rubbish this year (so far). Well they usually are ... honestly.

OK, I was wrong.

So was it all worth it? It proves that in my business you can never let your attention waver or you miss things. New DXCC, new squares ... but the brain fade was a problem. Having let Katy the shack cat out into the garden, I got so caught up in the action that I forgot to let her in again. In weather cold enough to freeze an antenna mast she was not happy. I had to bribe her with a tin of tuna. But apart from that, yes, I think so.

Adding all the contacts since Christmas together (excluding WSPR of course) looks like this:-
All contacts at GM4FVM 25 to 29 December 2017
Frankly I am shattered by all this activity. But I did enjoy it!

Whilst the next couple of weeks promise more meteor scatter and maybe some more Es, a long winter lies ahead. So work them while they are there.

Might be a good winter good for photographing the stars though.



Sunday, 24 December 2017

Merry Christmas, more noise and some updates

First of all, have a great Christmas. If you don't celebrate the religious festival then have a good cultural Christmas. You might as well because there is no way of avoiding it, wherever you are.

Frankly, I find the cultural Christmas a bit of a pain. The main problem for me is that it starts in October. Then there is all sorts of goo-gorey-ness, trivia and general wasteful marketing of things which destroy the planet's resources for little benefit.

For me, this time of year is a time for reflecting. And for me this year it has definitely been about reflecting on those less well off than myself. Less well off in every sense, including health, fitness, wealth and also for those who feel excluded from society. This can be a very lonely and frightening time for many people.

Have a good time and be like me - do not over-indulge.
Thanks to several people for your emails, posts and comments over the air.

Particularly motivating were messages from Thomas OV3T and Geoff G0LUJ.

I think I have done my home-spun noise solutions to death on this blog, be here goes again.

Thomas replied to an earlier post about WSJT-X. I could not get WSJT-X to work well with my computers, and especially if I tried to use multiple instances of the software. I had not really written that piece very well, as it looked like I could not get multiple instances to work, but actually what I meant to say was that my computers are not able to process MSK quickly enough - other WSJT-X modes are fine. This seems to apply particularly to AMD processors.

As Thomas has raised the subject, I set to thinking more about it. I certainly do have a faster computer. Although it also has an AMD processor, it is an eight core and quite fast. The problem with it is that it makes a lot of noise, especially on the 2 metre band. In the past I have tried and rejected it as it simply swamps my 2m receiver with hash.

Geoff has also been tackling noise. As well as everything else, he has started a blog - here. Reading Geoff's thoughts set me to work. I decided to install the faster computer and just deal with the noise.

I do like a challenge. I have looked at this machine several times, and each time it produced enough noise to render 2m impossible to use. Here we go again.

After a lot of tinkering, including disconnecting every peripheral device, and removing most of the plug-in boards, I drew a blank. The faster computer was adding a good 20dB to the noise. Then I tried disconnecting the case fans - and the S-meter fell by 12dB.
The rogue computer case fan
There are two case fans, the one at the front does not seem so bad but I have left it disconnected for now. The rear one was making a nasty chopping noise and I  have removed it. It had been running continuously while the PC was running. I have replaced it with a new Arctic Fan Pro temperature controlled fan with a screened lead. The speed varies with the temperature detected by the fan's temperature sensor.

Moving on I found that most of the remaining noise seemed to be coming from the SVGA display lead - which oddly enough was on the previous computer too. Much more tinkering, with moving over to a DVI lead, eventually proved that the noise was coming principally straight off the Asus display board's plugs. So out came the display board and it was swapped with the one on my "Office" computer (which has an Intel processor and which runs only the IC-7300). The Office computer has an on-board display driver and, while it was not quite as good as the separate board, it can manage without a dedicated display board for now.
The dusty rogue display board (with original fitted fan).
This Asus display board is one of two I have - both the same model but the later one came without a fan. It just has a bigger heat sink and the label "High EMC Protection". The one I swapped over is a cheap generic one with no fan and it seems quiet. I do have one application where the fan-equipped board is useful because it has a low profile form factor and can fit in smaller PC boxes. It is banished from the shack though.

The result was another drop of 6dB on the S-meter. With a more normal amount of pre-amplification than I regularly use the S meter is at zero all the time, unless there is a signal on 2m SSB, which is a rare thing these days.

So I am almost there. I can still detect on 2m if this faster computer is in use. The difference is now small enough to work people. You can never have perfection.

The faster computer now drives WSJX-X or MSHV on my FT-817, TS-590 and IC-7100. It is vastly better than the slower 4 core computer. Two instances of MSK144 at the highest settings still shortens the trace by about half a second. However, I generally do not use the highest settings, preferring normal decode and FTol set to 100.

Typically I would run WSPR on 10m, and listen on MSK144 on both 2m and 6m. That is perfectly possible now if I use MSHV for 2m.

The point of all this is to reinforce the idea I put forward in previous postings. The solution to most of my noise problems lies in the shack. Sure, at Christmas there is a lot of noise from down the street, where one house is covered with flashing LED icicles. Most of this internal noise can be cured, and after Christmas I hope the festive lights will come down.

A basic desk top PC has a box which forms a large Faraday cage. This is pretty effective at keeping noise inside the case. It is the cables and plugs that seem to let the noise out. The case fan is beside several holes but I think that the reason for that problem was simple - it was just awfully noisy. And the display board was connected to a long cable to carry its fan noise out of the box.

Although the computer case is fairly effective, the front USB sockets, the front audio sockets and any fans mounted in the front will be fed by cables passing outside the metal case. The sockets are usually mounted on a plastic front panel. In my example, the simple twisted pair wires cross the void and feed to the USB sockets. This could be a big problem. Whether it is the sockets or the cable is not clear, but a simple solution is present - I don't use the front sockets unless it is for a very short term hook up.

So I have managed to improve things a bit and avoid buying a better PC by tackling the noise. I have another set of rear USB sockets to fit to the fast computer but I am not sure if it is worth it right now. I have the box nicely sealed up and noise-tight. Maybe I should just leave things as they are.

I am pretty sure that the snag remains that AMD processors (or at least those of my vintage) are not very good at handling WSJT-X. I doubt if this is a plot, but probably WSJT-X was designed to work on Intels simply because those designing it used Intels. And they probably did not do much with two instances of MSK144. Anyway, I have saved a few bob here by silencing and using an otherwise good computer.
There is not much to report on the radio front as I have been pretty busy with other things. However there have been a few good Es openings on 10m, associated with increased solar activity. I will not go into all the details, but here is one example
28Mhz Es spots on WSPR on 9 December 2017
There is no doubt that these openings are limited geographically (though 10m WSPR coverage is not well spread out in Europe so it is difficult to be sure). They are also usually short. I enjoy them though.

There was also a 6m Es event which did not extend beyond Central Europe to reach me. This was not associated with any solar activity that I could find and I think this was a "Christmas Es" event. There may be more - it is worth watching 6m from now until the middle of January. Christmas Es events can be very good indeed, if you can catch them.

I continue to use 4m meteor scatter regularly. My contact tally with Henning, OZ1JXY, has now reached 70 on meteor scatter alone, which proves that this is a really effective day-to-day method of propagation. Then again, a nice contact with Fred, G4BWP, adds another station to the list I have worked via Es, aurora, tropo and meteor scatter, on SSB, CW and data. That list, of multiple contacts in multiple modes via multiple propagation methods continues to grow, showing how many aspects of this hobby are available.

Thanks to both Richard GI4DOH and David GM4JJJ for alerting me to an article in QST about Es. I have to say that this was one of the least scientifically sensible articles I have read for some time (back in fact to the very dodgy ideas about jet streams). For any theory to stand up it needs to show a mechanism causes the event, not is merely vaguely associated with it. This latest article was (mostly) very wide of the mark.

For some reason I do not understand, people are perfectly happy to associate the variabilities in the D and F layer with solar events and the diurnal and solar cycles. The same goes for E-layer events in general. But when it comes to Sporadic E there seems to be a need to associate those events with storms and winds. Here's a clue which they might like to follow up before charging into print with their scrappy ideas - storms and winds are down here, the Sporadic E is 100km up in the sky. And there is another ionised layer (the D layer) to pass through on the way.

Also, the absence or presence of an amateur signal has got more to do with whether there is anybody there to send it than anything else. An elaborate explanation of why I hear more Es to the South East than to the South West could be worked out, but then in one direction I have Italy, and in the other direction I have the Atlantic Ocean. I suspect that there are more operators in Italy than in the middle of the Atlantic. Something to think about?

It is a pity because that QST article did touch on a few important issues which get very little attention - for example variation in the Earth's magnetic field. This is often associated (carefully chosen word there) with variations in the Earth's crust, especially at Earthquake and subduction zones. Someone comparing the magnetic field and the incidence of Es might be able to write an interesting article. But any such article would need to take account of the fact that more than half the world's amateurs do not have access to 6m, and that activity in the countries which do have the band varies enormously.

Also, and here is a thing somebody should consider before someone rushes into print - sometimes it is night and those funny foreign people don't come on so much after they go to bed, even when it is daytime here.

I have been reading some interesting stuff. Research has suggested a link between thunderstorms on Earth and cosmic ray bursts. This needs more investigation, but you can see that the chain of ionisation down through the ionosphere could indeed bring many lower energy particles down into the weather zone and have some effect.

Even more surprising was a piece on the BBC "Inside Science" programme which explained that two independent groups of researchers had found evidence of atom splitting in high-intensity thunderstorms. These strong storms are rare, but the effect may be similar but weaker in everyday thunder storms. They found not only that the strong electric fields and currents cause ionisation (which we knew from the lightening), but also they could be strong enough to create X-Rays and Gamma rays, which in turn create isotopes of surrounding atmospheric atoms. Indeed, not only did this split atoms, but they found evidence of positrons. Anti-matter made in thunderstorms (admittedly very powerful storms).

Phew. Long lasting isotopes (with half-lives in the tens of minutes) and anti-matter created by nature on Earth. These storm events are very powerful so perhaps I should not be surprised, but I am.

All this is pretty amazing stuff. I have grave doubts about the simple linkages suggested by people between weather and Sporadic E. OK, they might share the same basic source, such as the first research into cosmic rays suggests (though this is still fairly far-fetched). But the second piece of research prompts me to accept that another linkage is possible, that thunderstorms could create high energy particles which could well travel towards the ionosphere. Maybe in less energetic storms this could play a part too. I doubt it.

I am not about to rush off and write an article which links the variation in Es events to thunderstorms, based on these ideas. That is because they probably don't cause Es. I do wish that we were not regularly subjected to the "I got up one summer, looked out at the roses, and realised that rose flowering and Es are related"-type articles. Yes, roses and Es share the times of their incidence. But that does not mean they are linked by the rose perfume rising up to the E layer and activating the ions.

Hey, maybe I could get some payment for an article based on just that.

The way that science progresses is for people to be proved wrong when better theories appear. I may be proved wrong. That is fine with me. But where are those better theories? All I see are ideas that might come from the brain of Professor Frink in The Simpsons.
Again, please enjoy your Christmas.

Activity is usually up around Christmas. Must be due to the roses.



Sunday, 3 December 2017

Using aurora warnings to predict Es, and more on noise reduction.

November is another time of the year when, in addition to nice meteor scatter contacts, I can find Es openings by using the data available for aurora watchers.

There is nothing especially new about this, I do it every year. The first step in the process is to forget the constant barrage from amateurs who have "found the link" between Es and the weather, the sea temperature, Alpine lightening and so forth, and return to the more generally accepted view that the ionosphere is affected principally by events on the Sun. Particles (and radiation) from the Sun have a major influence on the ionosphere.

I hasten to point out that the weather does have some influence on Es, as to some extent wind shear is a factor. But none of the theories put forward so far seems to work for me in a predictive sense. I can do without theories which look backwards and explain how the events occur after they have happened. This is interesting but not very helpful when you are trying to fit radio into your already busy life. I like something that tells me when something is likely to happen (in the future!).

When there are strong events on the Sun this often produces auroral propagation here, and I enjoy that. But less powerful events also make for nice Es which most people miss. At one time I just stayed tuned to 144MHz and listened for aurora, now I enjoy contacts on 10m and 6m Es while waiting for any possible aurora. Often there is no aurora here anyway. So my time is not wasted.

November produced a few of these events, as it often does. It is not helpful to look at sunspot activity as a predictor here. There is some vague link - auroral activity is said to peak two years or so after a "solar maximum". Fortunately for mankind the Sun is always active and many very good events can occur at any stage of the solar cycle. There are mini-eruptions, and a huge variety of disturbances and small irregularities on the Sun which have an affect here.

So I look for raised solar wind speed predictions. The polarity of the arriving material seems to have little influence. Some very nice Es openings have occurred when the "Bz component" (an element of the Solar wind's three-dimensional magnetic fields which tends to encourage radio auroras when negative) is either positive or negative. Sometimes I wonder if positive Bz is not better for Es and worse for radio aurora, but I have no strong evidence to make a conclusion about that.

Anyway, enough waffle, what happened? After rambling in my last post on 24 November I decided to try out 6m Es. I could see that "space weather" was disturbed, with high solar wind speed. The "normal state" for the GOES low energy Xray flux level (the lower blue graph) is so low that it often disappears off the bottom of the logarithmic chart. However, in the period 22 to 24 November it was high and variable. This is the sort of thing which makes me look for Es ...
GOES Xray flux levels as shown on Solarham, period 22 - 25 November 2017
I was getting good results on 10m WSPR ...
10m WPSR spots at GM4FVM 24 November 2017.
So I reckoned that the best propagation would be to the South, given the 10m results and the fact that what solar energy there is at this time of year is concentrated towards the equator. Any slight improvement to that background ionisation by the raised Xray levels and solar wind might cause a 6m opening.

At 13:30 I worked EA5/G3XGS on 6m using FT8.
This was the only contact I had but it proved that the aurora warning was fairly effective in predicting Es. Not every contact is reported on DX Maps and no doubt if there had been other stations operational on the generally North/South axis I might have worked more.

The 10m opening continued for another hour or so.

These openings are frequently weak and often short, but they do prove that there is life on 10m, and sometimes even 6m, outside the enthusiastically supported Summer season.

With another warning of possible auroral activity on 1 and 2 December I tried again. The event proved to be too weak for auroral work here, with the wind speed over 400 but less than 500, and the Bz negative but in the range 2 to 5.
Solarham data 1 December 2017
Just the formula for Winter Es 10m action ...
10m WPSR spots at GM4FVM on 1 December 2017

Nothing got high enough to worry anybody on 6m Es, and anyway, most 6m activity has switched to MSK144 for meteor scatter events (which is another subject, but covered in my last posting). Still, on 2 December the 10m event continued.
10m WPSR spots at GM4FVM on 2 December 2017
Maybe not as productive as the day before, but still hardly "the band is closed" as many think.

Sometimes I think that non-auroral events give me more fun that the full-blown ion-stripping magnetic blast of the Northern Lights at their most majestic. Anyway, a big event which causes auroral propagation often produces Es as it gets weaker, which all seems to be the same mechanism to me.

Anyway, more solar fireworks are predicted for around 4 January (possibility of Au and Es) due to several coronal holes, and this is a period which could coincide with raised barometric pressure (possibility of tropo) and a combination of weak patterns of meteor shower activity (possibility of meteor propagation). We shall see if this grand conjunction comes to anything, but a bit of 10m Es would satisfy me; anything more is a bonus.
Coronal Holes as detailed by Solarham on 2 December - effects expected around 4 December

I have talked to couple of amateurs who have complained about man-made radio noise in their localities, but when I asked them if they had checked their own noise generation they replied that they had not.

It is very easy to blame everyone around you without checking your own contribution.

When it comes to noise the Inverse Square Law is our friend. Anything twice the distance from me is one quarter of the power here. So anything generated "down the street" is likely to be weak. But the converse applies - anything generated in our own home is likely to be very strong indeed.

As with so many pet subjects, I have been banging on about this for years. The thing is, the task is never-ending. I can blame Mrs FVM's laptop. The power supply is surrounded by ferrites but the thing radiates directly. The upside of this is that Mrs FVM is more likely to respond to a request to turn the thing off than my neighbours.

I recently bought a new laptop myself. It has an i5 processor and a large quantity of nice fast RAM. Well it is not exactly new. It was second hand from eBay, quite a bit less than £150, and it came without a power supply. Bargains like this often come from company liquidations, one-off exercises and the like. I myself was involved with a one-off project where 1500 people were loaned lap tops for a three month period. The computers were then collected back up and appeared on the "almost new" market. Mine has a slight screen defect, but it was much less than a quarter of the new price.

Anyway, I also ordered a branded "original" power supply from an unknown site on eBay. In the past I have ordered these and they turned out to be unbranded copies which poured out interference, but the seller had always mysteriously disappeared when I tried to complain. This time it didn't even turn up and I got a refund. I run the "new" laptop on a multi voltage, multi plug general purpose PSU which make almost no noise. Anyway, the one that I had refunded turned up weeks later. Although it is branded it make a dreadful racket. Is it a fake? Who knows.

This story just reinforces my thoughts that you cannot expect to be noise-free. My own computers and screen make some noise and I try to minimise that. My central heating boiler makes a noise on 10m which affects the received signal on my FT-817 but not on my IC-7100. If you look at the design of various rigs some will be more inclined to suffer from noise than others, and as usual the degree of linearity will play a part (in both the susceptibility to noise and the price of the rig).

Noise is unavoidable but it is not incapable of being reduced. Regular readers will have read about my efforts with LED versus fluorescent lights, BT modems versus generic brands, cooker hood power supplies, USB leads of all sorts ... the process never ends. Nor should it. New devices appear in the FVM household regularly and there is always a dB or two to save. I don't automatically blame the neighbours because experience has shown me that the latest noise is ALMOST ALWAYS arising from within the FVM demesne.

For a while I have been wrestling with setting up some sort of network for the shack and office computers. This was wi-fi based but keeping the wi-fi dongles going despite Windows cheerful but destructive updates finally beat me. I also found it hard to keep the USB cables quiet. Several computers in a room should be wired for internet connectivity, or so my out of date thinking goes. The problem was that my last (also second hand) computer produced dreadful noise when connected to an ethernet connection. That computer has been stripped down to the mother board, fitted with a new processor, got up with new peripherals and power supply, and mounted in a new box. So everything was approved noise free except the one thing that changed, the motherboard.

Having left it on wi-fi for months while I cogitated on this issue, I decided that the ethernet socket must be at fault. After all, that was the story behind the BT modem. I bought a USB3.0 to ethernet link to allow the internet access to reach the computer via  a different route and first trials suggested that this made no difference.

After allowing all this to mature a bit further, I decided to move the internet access point closer to the computer and use a better quality ethernet cable. I chose a CAT 6 cable, well screened with metallised plugs and only 500mm long. This replaced a CAT 5 with plastic plugs which was 1.5m long. The result was remarkable. Not complete silence, but manageable.
Not all ethernet cables are the same: Left screened CAT6 with metal plug, right regular CAT5 with plastic plug.
I am beginning to wonder if all ethernet plugs and sockets are suspect. Next project is to screen the USB3 to ethernet converter using the "Bacofoil" method to see how that works.

It is worth it. I now have both radio computers linked via a wired connection which is not only quicker, it allows ShareMouse to work perfectly and allow me to use just one keyboard and mouse.

New sources of interference pop up all the time. Just moving a cable can cause problems. At the extreme I have turned off the house mains and run the radio on battery power to see if it was coming from within this house (in that case it was). A simple test is to listen to the radio while you turn off the suspect device and unplug the power supply. Most computers create some hash but some if it can be tolerable.

We have a general rule in this house the every device should be turned off at the mains if not in use. This extends to two "smart" TV devices. The policy also saves on the electricity bill. Simple ferrite filters work remarkably well. I have recently invested in a commercial mains filter as I have no other protection against common mode interference entering the rig power supplies via the mains. I doubt if this is a major issue but it seems worth being able to test it. And so the battle continues.
Cross Country Wireless mains filter - still being evaluated
I guess that I may yet be affected by the sort of over-powering interference which has put other amateurs off the air. However, it will not happen until I have tried my best to carry on using my own best efforts and a few simple precautions.




Friday, 24 November 2017

Leonids, another brief Es opening and a new type of radio amateur.

This time of year is really the peak of the meteor scatter season, though I am always quick to point out that meteor scatter is possible all year round. Certainly a trio of major showers and a few minor ones can make the period between mid-October and mid- January very productive.

The Leonids shower peaked around 17 November, but I found 16 November most active. Then of course as 18 and 19 fell on Saturday and Sunday, those days looked pretty good. Weekends always make the propagation look better.

I was fairly busy with other things but I managed this:-
4m and 6m Meteor Scatter contacts at GM4FVM 10 to 24 November
As I mentioned, the peak time here was the evening on 16 November, with long sustained bursts of signal.

Well, that map is not quite what it seems. The contact into Croatia (9A2DI) sounded more like Es than meteor scatter. At that time, 17:20 on 21 November, my 10m WSPR station was receiving hits from the South East.
10m WSPR spots at GM4FVM, 21 November
I quickly had a look at Solar Ham to see if there had been a sudden rise in the X-Ray graph and as usual in these situations the blue graph had shown a sudden rise on 21 November.
GOES X-ray flux graph 19 to 21 November
Also at the same time, my aurora alarm had gone off as one GM station was hearing Norwegian beacons on 2m via aurora. He is a lot further North than me. I heard very little in the way of aurora, at least as far as I could confirm. There was a lot of noise on 70MHz and some peaks which might have been beacons, but I would not call that a confirmed aurora.

I was already on aurora alert following the appearance of a large coronal hole, number 42, which was noted a couple of days earlier as being likely to enhance auroral conditions on 21 November.

Despite hearing 9A2DI for over 45 minutes, with a strong Es signal, nobody else seemed to be workable from here. Various stations were posting "Es" as the means of making MSK144 contacts but MSK is not very useful on Es - 9A2DI was filling my waterfall. Switching to FT8 I got no response and saw no stations. Es events like this are often very localised, but I cannot help thinking that at 17:20, in November, near the bottom of the sunspot cycle, there just were not many stations around on 6m from the Balkans region.

Anyway, 9A2DI worked quite a few stations in "these islands", so at least there were a few operators around from near me.

This looks like a classic "disturbed geo-magnetic conditions short of an aurora" type brief opening. No surprise to me as I have been banging on about these openings for years. Or "pre-auroral enhancement" if you prefer that expression.

I suspect that those X-ray figures are not quite the full picture. I might have expected most of the X-rays to arrive at the same time as the coronal hole was visible facing the Earth, which the SolarHam photo shows was 18 November. In fact the enhancement occurred when the solar wind speed rose, which was 21 November. However, I suppose that X-rays can result from the activity in the material contained in the enhanced solar wind. Or the X-rays are just a consequence of the arrival of the material effects of the coronal hole.

Even though the X-ray figure works as a sign of the opening, I would expect measures of increased arriving protons and electrons would give a better sign. This is something which needs more investigation (by me at least).

My own take on what is happening is that the ionosphere is energised by the arriving particles (and the associated X-rays show up on the graphs) and that is enough to push a small area of the E layer into providing Es propagation. This event is obviously a lot less energetic than the full sunlight would be, so the area of ionisation is smaller and fairly short lived, making the propagation very localised. Mind you, 45 minutes is surprisingly long for a winter Es event. Also that was propagation at 50MHz.

Many of these short lived Winter Es openings (no doubt they occur in Summer but we don't notice them amongst generalised Es) only show up here up to the 10m band. It was nice to see one at 50MHz for a change.

Frustrating, watching Es on MSK144 where only one station can be received at a time, especially after you have worked the one station and he then fills your receiver. Still, I could watch it on 10m WSPR.

So perhaps my map of contacts during the Leonids needs to be qualified by saying that working 9A2DI was really Es.

I like exploiting these short openings. You need to put in the hours but they are there to be found. It is another part of amateur radio which proves the old adage "Amateur radio is for life, not just for Christmas". You can treat yourself to a shiny new rig, but to get the best out of radio you have to do the work.

I was interested to read recently, on the ARRL site, mention of a new breed of amateur who uses amateur radio to pursue their interests in computing and propagation. This might be fine but it seemed to worry them that there new amateurs are not interested in circuit diagrams or drilling boxes to fit switches.

I am beginning to realise that I am not a "proper" amateur at all. Even though I was licensed over 40 years ago, I can now see that I am one of these "new" amateurs.

Eh? The first of the new wave? Not my style.

Switching from reading soldery old Practical Wireless to irreverent Radio User seems to be sign that I have decided to "come out" as a new amateur. Not that many of the readers of Practical Wireless ever bothered to make any of the circuits mentioned there, but there seems to be some need to keep up the pretence that lots of us build our own rigs. We don't. Or at least I don't, I never have, and I never will.

Radio User is probably only 50% relevant to what I do. On the other hand, Practical Wireless was about 30% relevant to what I do, and getting less so all the time. Of course, I still take the RSGB's impressive organ, "RadComm", which I will not risk assessing in percentage terms. Lets just say that "news" to me should be about radio, not about administration. The fact that some old duffer has been a member for 70 years is not really as newsworthy to me as short durations Es openings, which they never mention anyway.

Radio User now has Tomas Hood, NW7US as their new columnist for propagation. His first article has the modest title "Space Weather, the Sun-Earth Connection and Radio Propagation", which is fairly wide subject area. I suspect this is to get us up to speed for what comes next. It is really a pretty good article. I hope that he continues in a similar vein.