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From the Earth to the Moon (and Back)

BY RICH MOSESON,* W2VU

*Email: w2vu@cq-amateur-radio.com

Even Jules Verne couldn’t imagine this one1 … and it flew right past us last month, when we speculated on our cover about how soon we might see a lunar DXpedition. You might not be aware of this, but since last year, there has been a ham radio satellite orbiting the Moon, primarily sending back photos from the dark side in response to commands from hams on Earth. But if that wasn’t cool enough, LO-94 (Lunar OSCAR- 94) also carries a 70-centimeter digital (GMSK-to-JT4G2) repeater and, on this past July 1, DK5LA in Germany used that repeater to contact BY2HIT at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, where the satellite was built. It was the first time an amateur radio contact had been made through a satellite transponder in lunar orbit (see News on page 3 for more on LO- 94’s lunar adventures).

Speaking of firsts, the first-ever terrestrial transatlantic contact on 2 meters has finally been achieved. The Monteverde Contest Team, operating D41CV on Cape Verde off the coast of Africa, made an FT8 contact on June 16 with FG8OJ in Guadeloupe, followed by several other Caribbean QSOs. This is as much a testament to the capabilities of FT8 as to the persistence of hams trying to achieve this goal. Twenty-something years ago, I joined a group of hams on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as they tried unsuccessfully to make an SSB contact on 2 meters with Ireland. The group had carefully studied weather patterns and was hoping to be able to hop a lift on a duct along the northern boundary of a summertime Bermuda high. The effort was fun but no signals were heard on either end of the path. The closest we came was a very weak CW signal from somewhere that was so deep into the noise that it was impossible to decode. Of course, decoding signals that are buried deep within the noise is one of FT8’s strong points. And the speculation is that this June’s successful FT8 contact was made via a marine duct, exactly what my friends back in the 1990s hoped would help them “cross the pond” on 144 MHz. They were right on target but the technology to achieve their goal did not yet exist.

That technology — known as WSJT — has been developed primarily by Joe Taylor, K1JT, who shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering binary pulsars and, in the process, proving that Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was correct. Taylor told CQ in a 2009 interview3 that his weak-signal modes (WSJT stands for “Weak Signal Joe Taylor”) grew out of digital technology that he had to invent in order to conduct his research on pulsars and that his ham radio background prepared him for that challenge. He then applied that knowledge back to amateur radio by developing new modes to help hams have more success with meteor scatter, moonbounce, and other VHF/UHF weak-signal activities. As most of us know, the modes he developed — and continues to refine — have found wide popularity on HF as well as VHF and UHF, particularly during what might turn out to be an extended solar minimum (see News on page 3 and News Bytes on page 9 for more on solar cycle predictions).

Keep all of this in mind the next time someone tells you how old-fashioned and obsolete ham radio is. You can inform — or remind — the person that we hams not only bounce radio signals off the Moon itself, but we’ve built and orbited our own fleet of more than 100 communications satellites and now a hambuilt satellite is orbiting the Moon, allowing hams on Earth to use it to shoot photos of the Moon’s dark side and to make at least one two-way contact so far — between Germany and China — on 70-centimeter UHF frequencies that far too many of us still consider good only for local contacts. Plus, we’re using a sophisticated cutting-edge digital mode to ride a weather front across the Atlantic Ocean on 2 meters — another supposedly “local” band. And of course, the most “old-fashioned” mode of all — CW — is still the only digital code that can be decoded by ear (no computer needed) and still can get a message through with no infrastructure except a battery and a wire in a tree. How many “modern” communication techniques and networks can do all this? And if there are any, how accessible are they to the average citizen? Food for thought when the HF bands are suffering from “quiet sun syndrome.”

An Interesting Field Day Experience I’ve written here many times about my view that ham radio is as much a social hobby as a technical one, and I had an interesting confirmation of that opinion this past Field Day. I had family visiting from out of town for most of the weekend so I couldn’t make any advance plans, but I had some open time on Saturday night of Field Day weekend and went out to visit a local group that I drop in on from time to time. When I arrived, there were three stations set up, but only one was manned. There was no shortage of operators … several were sitting around chatting when I arrived and they welcomed me warmly. I asked about the different stations — the one with an operator was the 75/80-meter station; the second was a 6-meter station (which was very quiet except for one local station at 10:30 at night) and the third was the 40-meter station, whose operator was sitting and talking with me.

“Band’s dead?” I asked. “No,” he answered, “It’s quite busy. I just needed a break from all the noise in my headphones.” “OK,” I replied. “Let me know if anybody needs a relief operator.” “Oh, that’s all right,” he responded. “We’ve got nine ops for three stations, so we’re good.”

Bottom line (read between the lines): Yeah, the radio’s fun, but it’s a nice night and we’d rather sit around and shoot the breeze. Want a hamburger?

So yes, Field Day is an important emergency communications exercise. Yes, it’s an important public relations tool. Yes, it’s even a contest. But it’s also an opportunity for socializing with your fellow hams, swapping stories, and talking about different radios and operating modes. And sometimes, for some of us, that’s even more important than talking on the radio. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Because ham radio is as much a social hobby as a technical one.

Enjoy the summer weather with your fellow hams, whether it’s on the air, on the trail, at a hamfest, or at a nice air-conditioned restaurant!

– 73, Rich W2VU

Post-script: This was written in the immediate aftermath of the two strong earthquakes that struck southern California in early July. We haven’t heard any reports yet of related ham radio activity, but will keep you updated in the CQ Newsroom and in upcoming issues.
Notes: 1. Science-fiction writer Jules Verne, in his 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, correctly predicted many aspects of the actual trips made to the Moon a century later. 2. GMSK stands for Gaussian Minimum Shift Keying, which is essentially a digital frequency modulation mode; JT4G is one of the digital modes in the WSJT-X suite of weak-signal modes developed by Joe Taylor, K1JT. 3. CQ Interviews: Joe Taylor, K1JT, CQ 2009, Oct., p. 13

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