Sunday, August 8, 2010

(Almost) All Quiet on the Northern Front

This past week brought a C-class x-ray flare, and the sun sent a coronal mass ejection hurtling toward earth.  The HF prognosis for the first week of August was poor, indeed.  There would be a "solar tsunami" arriving around August 3rd, according to one local headline, while worldwide there were predictions of fantastic auroral displays.  The six-meter gang at the mid-latitudes must have been drooling with anticipation, but HF radio operators inferred a dismal time on the bands.  The HAARP riometer looked grim.  Kp was at 5 and headed upward, plus the aurora scale was pegged at 9.

I would have written off the radio and cleaned the cameras to prepare for the northern lights had it been a week or two later.  The skies at night are still too light to see aurora at 65 North, though.  Instead, I fired up the rig to see what, if anything, I could hear during the onslaught.

I chose to explore 20m around 0200Z, and I heard W1AW with code practice almost ESP-weak.  No other CW signals were audible.  I switched to the 85-foot C3 pointed to Europe, and I noticed  a surprising number of apparently European PSK31 signals.  Although the signals were moderately strong, I could see on the waterfall an unsettling dance of flutter and Doppler.  DM780 could just make out a few prefixes and other tantalizing details.  PSK31 on trans-polar paths is notoriously susceptible to corruption.  I switched to the North American C3 and could begin to see (and decode) several US stations, but copy was still rough. With the Kp index so high, I had little hope of them being able to hear me.  Years of experience have taught me that much.

I quickly scanned the higher bands up through six meters.  I was surprised to hear some weak but readable ZL/VK SSB on 17 meters, but otherwise, they were dead.  Back on 20, I watched the digital waterfall display and saw slightly improving conditions towards the States.  Two very clean PSK signals appeared, which turned out to belong to a VK and a 3D2, both 90-95% readable.  The north-south route was less impacted by the ionospheric turbulence overhead, and I believe grayline enhancement helped things along.  (A short time later I had a nice chat with Aisea 3D2AA and proved the reasonably good path was two-way.)

The signal ID function in DM780 then reported an Olivia 500/16 signal just up the band.  I could barely discern the smeared, faint tones on the waterfall, but I tuned up and changed modes to see what I could monitor.  Lo and behold, it was Peter VE7NBQ having a ragchew with a W5.  Peter had told me of the impressive performance of Olivia earlier in the week, and now I am convinced. As the tones faded from view on my screen, characters continued to print a clean QSO. Olivia's forward error correction makes it far superior to PSK31, and perhaps even CW under some circumstances.  I will have to explore more.

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