Monday, August 28, 2017

Monitoring the "CT" MedFER beacon from "Eclipse land"

Figure 1:
The MedFER beacon, on the metal roof of my house,
attached to an evaporative ("swamp") cooler.
I must admit that I was "part of the problem" - that is, one of the hoardes of people that went north to view the August 21, 2017 eclipse along its line of totality.  In my case I left my home near Salt Lake City, Utah on the Friday before at about 4AM, arriving 4 hours and 10 minutes later - this, after a couple of rest and fuel stops.  On the return trip I waited until 9:30 AM on the Wednesday after, a trip that also took almost exactly 4 hours and 10 minutes, including a stop or two - and I had no traffic in either case.

This post isn't about my eclipse experiences, though, but rather the receiving of my "MedFER" beacon at a distance of about 230 miles (approx. 370km) as a crow flies.

What's a MedFER beacon?

In a previous post I described a stand-alone PSK31 beacon operating just below 1705 kHz at the very top of the AM broadcast ("Mediumwave") band under FCC Part 15 §219 (read those rules here).  This portion of the FCC rules allow the operation of a transmitter on any frequency (barring interference) between 510 and 1705 kHz with an input power of 100 milliwatts using an antenna that is no longer than 3 meters, "including ground lead."  By operating just below the very top of the allowed frequency range I could maximize my antenna's efficiency and place my signal as far away from the sidebands and splatter of the few stations (seven in the U.S. and Mexico) that operate on 1700 kHz.
Figure 2:
Inside the loading coil, showing the variometer, used to fine-
tune the inductance to bring the antenna system to
resonance.  This coil is mounted in a plastic 5-gallon
bucket, inverted to protect it from weather.

As described in the article linked above, this beacon uses a Class-E output amplifier which allows more than 90% of its DC input power to be delivered as RF, making the most of the 100 milliwatt restriction of the input power.  To maximize the efficiency of the antenna system a large loading coil with a variometer is used, wound using copper tubing, to counteract the reactance of the antenna.  The antenna itself is two pieces:  A section, 1 meter long, mounted to the evaporative cooler sitting on and connected to the metal roof of my house and above that, isolated from the bottom section is an additional 2-meter long section that is tophatted to increase the capacitance and reduce the required amount of loading inductance to improve overall efficiency.

As it happens, the antenna is mounted in almost exactly the center of the metal roof of my house so one of the main sources of loss - the ground - is significantly reduced, but even with all of this effort the measured feedpoint resistance is between 13 and 17 ohms implying an overall antenna efficiency of just a few percent at most.

Figure 3:
The antenna, loading coil and transmitter, looking up from the base.  In
the extreme foreground in the lower right-hand corner of the picture can
be seen the weather-resistant metal box that contains the transmitter.
Originally intended only as a PSK31 beacon I later added the capability of operating on 1700 kHz using AM and being able to do on/off keying of the carrier at the original "1705" kHz PSK31 frequency, permitting the transmission of Morse code messages.  For the purpose of maximizing the likelihood of the signal being detected, this last mode - Morse - I operate using "QRSS3", a "Slow" Morse sending speed where the "dit" length of the characters is being transmitted is 3 seconds - as is the space between character elements - and a "dah" and the space between characters themselves is 9 seconds.

Sending Morse code at such a low speed allows sub-Hz detection bandwidths to be used, greatly improving the rejection of other signals and increasing the probability that the possibly-minute amount of detected energy may be detected.

Detecting it from afar:

Even though this beacon had been "received" as far away as Vancouver, BC (about 800 miles, or 1300 km) using QRSS during deep, winter nights, I was curious if I could hear it during a summer night near Moore, ID at that 230 mile (370km) distance.  Because we were "camping" in a friend's yard, we (Ron, K7RJ and I) had to put up an antenna to receive the signal.

The first first antenna that we put up received strong AC mains-related noise - likely because it paralleled the power line along the road.  Re-stringing the same 125-ish feet (about 37 meters) of antenna wire at a right angle to the power line and stretching out a counterpoise along the ground got better results:  Somewhat less power line noise.  It was quickly discovered that I needed to run both the receiver and the laptop on battery as any connection to the power line seemed to conduct noise into the receiver - probably a combination of noise already on the power line as well as the low-level harmonics of the computer's switching power supply.

I'd originally tried using my SDR-14 receiver, but I soon realized that between the rather low signal levels being intercepted by the wire - which was only about 10 feet (3 meters) off the ground - and the relative insensitivity of this device I wasn't able to "drive" its A/D converter very hard, resulting in considerable "dilution" of the received signals due to quantization noise.  In other words, it was probably only using 4-6 bits of the device's 14 bit A/D converter!

I then switched to my FT-817 (with a TCXO) which had no troubling "hearing" the background noise.  Feeding the output of the '817 into an external 24 bit USB sound card (the sound card input of my fairly high-end laptop - as with most laptops - is really "sucky") I did a "sanity check" of the frequency calibration of the FT-817 and the sound card's sample rate using the 10 MHz WWV signal and found it to be within a Hertz of the correct frequency and then re-tuned the receiver to 1704.00 kHz using upper-sideband.  It had been several years since I'd measured the precise frequency of my MedFER beacon's carrier, last being observed at 1704.966 kHz, so I knew that it would be "pretty close" to that value - but I wasn't sure how much its crystal might have drifted over time.

For the signal analysis I used both "Spectrum Lab" by DL4YHF (link here) and the "Argo" program by I2PHD (link here).  Spectrum Lab is a general-purpose spectral analysis program with a lot of configurability which means that there are a lot of "knobs" to tweak, but Argo is purposely designed for modes like QRSS using optimized, built-in presets and it was via Argo that I first spotted some suspiciously coherent signals at an audio frequency of between 978 and 980 Hz, corresponding to an RF carrier frequency of 1704.978 to 1704.980 kHz - a bit higher than I'd expected.

As we watched the screen we could see a line appear and disappear with the QSB (fading) and we finally got a segment that was strong enough to discern the callsign that I was sending - my initials "CT".

Figure 4
An annotated screen capture of a brief reception, about 45 minutes after local sunset, of the "CT" beacon using QRSS3 with the "oldest" signals at the left.  As can be seen, the signal fades in so that the "T" of a previous ID, a complete "CT" and a partial "C" and a final "T" can be seen on the far right.  Along the top of the screen we see that ARGO is reporting the peak signals to be at an audio frequency of 978.82 Hz which, assuming that the FT-817 is accurately tuned to 1704.00 kHz indicates an actual transmit frequency of about 1704.979 kHz.

As we continued to watch the ARGO display now and again we could see the signal fade in and out and be occasionally clobbered by the sidebands of an AM radio station on 1700 kHz - at least until something was turned on in a nearby house that put interference everywhere around the receive frequency.

The original plan:

The main reason for leaving the MedFER beacon on the air during the eclipse and going through the trouble of setting up an antenna was to see if, during the depth of the eclipse, its signal popped up, out of the noise - the idea being that the ionospheric "D" layer would disassociate in the temporary darkness along the path between my home where the eclipse would attain about 91% totality and the receive location within the path of totality, hoping that its signal would emerge.  In preparation for this I set up the receiver and the ARGO program to automatically capture - and then re-checked it about 5 minutes before totality.

Unfortunately, while I'd properly set up ARGO to capture, I'd not noticed that I'd failed to click on the "Start Capturing" button in ARGO and the computer happily ran unattended until, perhaps, 20 minutes after totality, so I have no way of knowing if the signal did pop up during that time.  I do know that when I'd checked on it a few minute before totality there was no sign of the "CT" beacon on the display.

In retrospect, I should have done several things differently:
  • Brought a shielded "H" loop that would offer a bit of receive signal directionality and the ability to reject some of the locally-generated noise and would have saved us the hassle of stringing hundreds of feet of wire through trees.  Some amplification with this loop would also have helped the SDR-14 work properly.
  • Actually checked to make certain that the screen capture was activated!
  • Record the entire event to an uncompressed audio (e.g. ".WAV") file so that it could be re-analyzed later.
 Oh well, you live and learn!

P.S.  After I returned I measured the carrier frequency of the MedFER beacon using a GPS-locked frequency reference and found it to be 1704.979 kHz - just what was measured from afar!


This information stolen from

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