Tuesday, August 3, 2010

First Aurora QSOs Ever!

This afternoon I got the word via e-mail that there was an aurora opening on 6 and 2 meters. I spun the antennas north, fired up the IC-746 and listened. Sure enough, there were those strangely garbled CW signals coming in here and there. I listened for a while and answered a couple of CQs. I was able to work first N0SM in EN30, about 200 miles south of me and then W0RT in EM27, about 500 miles south of me. That's communicating hundreds of miles to the south......while the antenna was pointing north! How cool is that?

73 de W9HQ

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

QRP for Field Day 2010

Other commitments kept me from joining one of the local groups of hams for Field Day this year. But it just so happened that I got an FT-817ND in the mail that Saturday morning. Obviously, I had to try it on the air and Field Day seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I connected the rig to a battery/solar panel combo and my off-center fed Windom antenna. This is the first QRP rig that I've owned, so obviously I'm no expert. But between this and my experiences in VHF-UHF contesting here are a few of the things I found about making contacts in less than ideal situations.

I made contacts on 40, 20, and 10. 10 was great when it was open, because there was so little QRN. One thing is to try and maximize opportunities on the higher bands when they're open, because a QRP signal will really shine because it doesn't have to overcome S6 or S8 noise. 6 meters has been open a lot lately and you can do fantastic things with 5 watts on 6 meters. 10 meters is great this way too. And the antennas are very manageable. I built a little 2 element beam for 6 meters, turn it with a small TV rotor, and it has performed wonderfully for me.

During Field Day I made most of my contacts on SSB, a few on CW. 20 meter CW was an absolute zoo, so I didn't even bother. But in general, CW and QRP are a match made in heaven. CW is good for at least 10 dB in readability, especially in less than ideal band conditions, so you've made up most of your 12 dB difference between 5 watts and 100 watts right there. I was fast back in the day, but I can only clunk around now at about 10 wpm--but it's really a lot of fun and guys will slow down for you. So if you don't already do it, I'd say learning Morse code will give you a lot more satisfaction out of your FT-817 or any QRP rig.

Now on SSB, a lot of guys have commented on the fact that the FT-817 lacks a speech processor. Okay, well that add-on is a little too expensive for me so I just do my own speech processing. I yell into the mike, at least in Field Day type conditions where I'm trying to break a pile-up. Pretty much literally shout into it. And I raise the tone of my voice, so that the higher pitch makes a more readable signal at the other end. My son, KC9JTL, speaks too quietly into the mike and keeps the pitch of his voice too low. He gets frustrated during contests that stations will answer me and don't him. Well, that's because I raise my voice. And I get the contacts. But if you're willing to part with more cash to deck out your FT-817, I'm sure a speech processor would be a nice addition.

I signed QRP in my calls and several of the operators heard and cleared the way for me. "The QRP station, go ahead." Let's face it, a weak signal that is just a weak signal is uninteresting and difficult to work with. But a weak signal that is weak for a reason--either because you're QRP or because you're doing VHF-UHF-microwave stuff and you expect it be weak--well that's all of a sudden interesting to a lot more guys. So I'd suggest signing QRP after your call when calling CQ or trying to break a pile-up. Some guys will perk up at that and take the extra effort it takes to copy your weaker signal.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

KC9JTL/R in the June 2010 VHF QSO Party

After a rocky start, this contest definitely turned around and became a lot of fun.

We were scrambling past our scheduled departure time to pull equipment together, so arrived late for our desired start on Granddad Bluff overlooking La Crosse. I'm grateful for the local hams that were monitoring and gave us contacts. Don't know if we missed any due to tardiness.

Anyway, to run with a metaphor first used by Bill Davis (K0AWU) on the NLRS e-mail reflector, the major opening on 6 meters was almost the Grinch that stole "Christmas" for a rover station like ours. Yes, we had 6 meters and yes we could even operate while mobile. But we were seriously outgunned, with only 100 watts into a coax dipole up maybe 8 feet. So we only made a few QSOs on the drive up to the EN44-EN45-EN54-EN55 grid convergence. And when we got to EN55, 6 was still banging away and 2 was dead. We got a small flurry from the guys in EN44 and we thought, Okay here we go, but then silence again. We tried for more Qs on 6 with little success and even tried calling CQ and announcing that we were in the "rare" EN55. Nothing. This was getting discouraging. Man, I thought, if this stays like this tomorrow it will be a total bust.

Then came Santa Claus, or at least one of his helpers, K2YAZ over in EN74. He caught us just after we moved over to EN45. Worked him on 144, 222, 432 (but not 6 meters, because I forgot to throw the IF switch back to 6 meters after we were done on 222. Doh!). Then I got the idea of just moving to the other three grids and working him from there. He was a great sport and we did indeed catch him on those three bands in EN44, EN54, and EN55. Thank you so much Bob! You really saved the day. Finally, feeling much better about the whole thing, we headed for Wausau where we sacked out about 11 pm.

Sunday morning we assisted at the early Mass at St. Mary's Oratory in Wausau, caught a bite of breakfast, and then fortified in body and soul headed back out to do battle. We listened on 6 meters and heard nothing, so we decided that instead of driving south immediately per our plan we would go back out to the grid convergence and try again. So glad we did. It was much, much better now, with a number of stations finally listening on 2 meters. So in the end we worked KC9BQA, W9GA, W0UC, N8LIQ, K9UHF, and several others as we worked our way back through the grids. Now that's more like it! We then headed south where we set up in EN53 to work some 6 meter e-skip and some "locals", then to EN44 where we worked a few more, then finally back to EN43 for the last 45 minutes of the contest. Whew!

Equipment-wise it was a scramble to pull it all together, but basically the station worked very well. I built a power distribution box with heavy fused cables coming from the engine compartment and PowerPoles out from there that worked like a champ. We had a rotor for the antennas that was a huge improvement over the "armstrong" rotor we used last time. And we had a 4 element beam on 2 meters, 6 element "cheap yagi" on 222, 11 element "cheap yagi" on 432, and a shortened coax dipole inside PVC on 6 meters. All antennas seemed to work pretty well. I had an initial glitch on 432 from Granddad Bluff--W9RPM couldn't hear me and since I could have hit him with a rock I knew I had a problem on that band. Turns out I had a bad connection to the amplifier and, to top it off, the amplifier wasn't working. Nice to catch it early. So we were barefoot on that band. But it didn't seem to matter much. After that, all equipment worked as it should.

Here's where I think we're at score-wise:

QSOs Mults
50 41 18

144 64 14

222 25 8

432 24 7

If I'm doing the math right, that looks like about 10759 points.

73 de W9HQ

Thursday, May 27, 2010

FT-897D deaf on 6 meters no more

As I have already mentioned, during our first roving experience in the September 2009 VHF-UHF contest we found out that my FT-897D had gone deaf on 6 meters. Several guys could hear us clearly, but we could not hear them at all or only just barely. We made a few QSOs, but it was painful. Something was wrong.

I searched several FT-897 forums to see if anybody else had had the same problem, but came up empty. I tried one potential configuration setting solution, but that had no effect. So, I was bracing myself for having to send the rig in and face an expensive repair.

Just by chance, I visited again the blog of Rex Lester, G8UBJ, looking for his transverter interface design for his FT-897. And there on his blog was a posting on his own FT-897 going deaf on.....6 meters. Hey, maybe this was it!

I corresponded with Rex, he told me about what he had figured out had gone wrong, we identified the part, and I ordered some from Yaesu. The part is Q3034 (a 2SC5374) and it resides on the PA board, just below transformer T3006 which is itself just below that yellow relay you see in the picture. Happily, once you remove the cover over the PA board, it's pretty easy to get at.

These are tiny surface mount transistors, smaller than a grain of rice. The transistors were $0.55 apiece from Yaesu. I ordered 5 and they charged me over $10 for shipping (ahem.) Still, if this was really the problem then it would work out as a bargain.

I put the rig on the bench yesterday. Swapping the part took only about 15 minutes--a little hot air to get it off, then tack the new part down while working under the microscope. If you don't have the facilities to work on surface mount parts, please don't try this--you'll screw up your rig and it'll be expensive. You must have magnification, a fine-tipped soldering iron, and a steady hand. A hot air source to remove the part is certainly the preferred way, to avoid tearing pads/traces. But if you have the right tools and technique, go for it.

Last night I did an on-air test with Ralph, KC9LBO and all was back to normal! Thanks a bunch Rex and Ralph for your help on this one. So, 6 meters is back in play and ready for the June ARRL VHF-UHF contest which is coming up fast.

73 de W9HQ

Monday, May 17, 2010

Just a Little IF Padding

My 902 MHz transverter board is stuffed and ready to check out. But first, I need an appropriate IF signal.

I have a 2 meter HT that can be dialed down to 20 mW (13 dBm) on its lowest power setting. That's within spittin' distance of the 0 dBm that I need. So I built an attenuator pad that's adjustable from 10-13 dB of attenuation. Perfect!

It seems like I'm awfully close to getting some 902 MHz RF out of my first homebrewed transverter. Maybe tomorrow.......

Friday, May 14, 2010

1152 MHz LO Working

Okay, today I finished stuffing the 1152 MHz LO board, which goes with the W1GHZ 1296 MHz "Right Side Up" transverter. Since I hit a few landmines with the 756 MHz board, I double-checked a few things before applying power. All looked good, so on she goes.......

And yes, it's working right out of the chute. As you can see from the photo, I'm only getting -8.58 dBm out of this LO, although my test cable which is about 10 feet long is soaking up about 1 dB.

Paul Wade (W1GHZ) says he got -5 dBm out of his prototype, but that some trimming of the R2 and R3 bias resistors on the last two stages of amplification may be necessary for maximum power output. I'm 2.5 dBm off, but I guess we'll see just how much is really needed when it comes time to connect this to the transverter board, which has another stage of amplification for the LO input.

Next task is to get a 144 MHz IF rig to drive this stuff with. The trick is that these transverters only want to see about 1 mW of drive, so it's going to take some finagling to get the output of any of my rigs down to that level. I'll let you know what I figure out.

73 de W9HQ

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Okay, now it works.....

Alright, that's better. As I said in my last post, the output of the 756 MHz LO board for my 902 MHz transverter (W1GHZ design) was only putting out -28 dBm, so something was obviously wrong. Now, to find out what it was.

Worst case was that I had blown all the MMICs when I accidentally hooked the power up backwards for a split second. (Did I really do that? Uh, well, yeah, I did.) Time to find out. So I pulled C4 and put a test probe on there and sure enough I had 0.5 dBm at 252 MHz out of the first filter stage. So at least I knew that A1 right after the crystal oscillator was working. Phew! Dodged that bullet.

I wasn't too keen on actually slicing the board to test right after the second amplifier stage, so instead I double checked the values of the bias resistors. They were okay. Could it be that running the bias to A2 through a leaded ferrite bead changed the resistance of that path enough to matter? Unlikely, but I removed the ferrite. Same deal.

So I decided to re-flow the solder connections to A2 and A3 and, in doing so, noticed that I had the bias resistor to A3 going to its ground pin, not its output, one via over. Ah ha! Moved that over and....Bingo! 6.68 dBm of beautiful RF at 756 MHz.

Next up......the 1152 MHz LO board for the 1296 transverter.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It Lives! .....but it limps....

In a group buy sponsored by W8ISS, I bought the PCBs and parts for LO/transverter boards to build W1GHZ transverters for 902, 1296, 2403, and 3456 MHZ. I have stuffed the LO and transverter boards for 902 and 1296 MHz, but had no way to check them out. I was recently able to borrow a spectrum analyzer for a few weeks, so now I'm scrambling to get as many of these boards up as I can. I've just applied power to the first piece in the line-up, the 756 MHz LO board for the 902 MHz transverter. It's definitely oscillating at 756 MHZ, but unfortunately the signal is at about -28 dBm. The docs for the W1GHZ design say I should be seeing about +5 dBm. Well, I guess that's why they call it troubleshooting. Still, this is extremely cool. I never thought I would be into VHF-UHF-SHF operating, let alone building my own gear for these freqs!

Paul Wade, W1GHZ, has done the amateur community a real service in these simple transverter designs. If you have to buy all the parts outright, you can expect to pay about $70-80 per band which is still darn cheap. But if you can get in on a group buy, that price will drop to sub-$50, which is really incredible. What a fantastic way to experiment with SHF. I have already learned a ton of good stuff and I'm sure both learning and fun have just begun.

73 de W9HQ

January 2010 VHF-UHF Sweepstakes

Okay, time to update this blog more often. My problem—both in blogdom and in other parts of my life—is that I let the best become the enemy of the good. In this case, I always want photos and details all lined up so that the blog posting is as complete and interesting as possible. But then I never quite get around to blogging at all. Enough of that.

My son Christopher (KC9JTL) and I had a great time in the January 2010 ARRL VHF-UHF sweepstakes. One really cool aspect of this contest was hearing so many locals on the air, on both FM and SSB.

As for locals on FM we worked KB9TPG, KC9LBO, K9ALT, KC9OYG, KC9NHQ, KC9KVJ, W9ET, KC9MRV, WX9EP, and N9UNW.

Local contacts on SSB came from WV9E, WV9S, KA9FOX, W9UUM, W9GM, W9RPM, N9ETD, KB9BGN, and AB9HW. (I hope I'm not forgetting anybody.)

I think that's just great, so thanks again for everybody who got on the air!

Christopher and I made a total of 93 contacts. Here's the breakdown:

Freq QSOs Grids

50 27 9

144 52 14

222 9 6

440 5 1

That's almost twice as many contacts as we got last January, which was our first VHF-UHF contest. And conditions were pretty poor this weekend. Hope to do better in June.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

W9HQ operates BY4DX from Shanghai

Late last year, during my annual trip to China, I had the privilege to operate the amateur radio club station BY4DX.

China does not have a reciprocal operating agreement with the U.S., so you have to get special permission to operate there and can only do so at a club station. During my first trip to China, the license didn't come through from Beijing in time. And during the second trip, I was just too busy!

This time, though, my work colleagues helped me get in touch with the members of the BY4DX club and so I met them on Saturday morning, October 17, 2009 for a trek outside of Shanghai to their temporary club station. They were getting ready for the inaugaural kick-off of the club station the next day, but they were kind enough to let me have an early crack at operating the station.

I was happy to hear that this was only a temporary location for them. Unfortunately (and they had told me about this ahead of time) there was a huge amount of RFI across the spectrum. The noise was S9 on all of 20 meters, making it very difficult to operate. I began calling CQ on that band and did make a few contacts, but soon stopped because I could tell that there were people calling me whom I just could not hear. Didn't seem quite fair to them. So I tuned around the band listening for really loud stations and called them instead.

Finally I switched to 15 meters, where the noise level was only S6 or so. There I called CQ and, after a while, got on the other end of an honest to goodness pile-up. The band was open to the west and so most of the stations calling me were from Russia, the Ukraine, etc.

During my afternoon at BY4DX I was able to contact Guam, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, several provinces in China, Russia, Ukraine, Muldova, and Austria. Pretty cool. Hopefully, by the time I return, they will have moved into their permanent location in Shanghai itself and the conditions will be better.
These are great guys and I had a great time.