Tag Archives: VK0EK

Ionospheric Science and Amateur Radio from Heard Island

Aurora Australis seen from the International Space Station as it flew over Heard Island on September 7, 2015.  Image credit: NASA (public domain).
Aurora Australis seen from the International Space Station as it flew over Heard Island on September 7, 2015. Image credit: NASA (public domain).

High above Earth’s surface, roughly 60–1000 km up, is an intriguing part of Earth’s upper atmosphere called the ionosphere. High-energy light (mostly ultraviolet and X-rays) causes electrons to be stripped away from gas molecules and neutral atoms, forming ions (and free electrons). The incoming light is most intense at the upper edge of the atmosphere (before it is absorbed), but the density of atoms and molecules is higher at lower altitudes (with atmospheric density highest at the Earth’s surface), leading to a peak in ionization in an intermediate region. Much of the interesting action in the ionosphere is in the regions between 60–300 km up, where the electron density is highest (though still very low compared to sea level).[1]

Under many conditions, radio waves between 160 m and 10 m (with frequencies of 1.8–30 MHz) can be refracted by the ionosphere, enabling wireless communication around the globe. This long-distance propagation is, at least to me, a wondrous phenomenon.

Effectively, there is a low-frequency limit below which the radio waves are strongly absorbed by the atmosphere. At a sufficiently high frequency, the radio waves will not refract back down to Earth, and will simply pass into space. However, in the Goldilocks zone between those two frequencies (the lowest usable frequency and maximum usable frequency), propagation can occur.

Schematic cartoon of ionospheric propagation.  Image credit: NOAA (public domain).
Schematic cartoon of ionospheric propagation. Image credit: NOAA (public domain).

With the amount and intensity of sunlight reaching the ionosphere changing throughout the course of the day, year, and solar cycle, the maximum and lowest usable frequencies will change as well. Additionally, since not all of the globe is illuminated at the same time, these limiting frequencies will vary spatially. Consequently, the maximum usable frequency in one location may be below the lowest usable frequency somewhere else, and no radio contact can be made between those points at that time.

Scattered around the world are many, many radio stations operated by licensed amateurs (sometimes also called hams; etymology unclear).[2] One aspect of the hobby which many amateurs enjoy is making contact with amateurs in other countries around the world. Just like birders have a life list of the species of birds they have seen, amateur radio operators often keep a list of other countries and territories they have contacted, splitting this list further by frequency and operating mode (Morse code, voice, or digital). Currently, there are 340 recognized entities worldwide.[3] Of those 340, many are small reefs, islands, or archipelagos, and may not have any permanent population—such as Heard Island, making them very rare. The last time Heard Island was heard on amateur radio was in 1997. It’s presently the longest-inactive of the 340 entities and ranks around #5 on most-wanted lists. Many amateurs have been looking forward to this expedition for a long time, and have been very generous in supporting it financially.

On Heard Island, our team will put up several amateur radio antennas at Atlas Cove, and set up approximately 6 radios. We will then make contacts with as many stations as we can on the various amateur frequencies, in a combination of voice, Morse code, and digital modes, using the callsign VKØEK. Contacts are extremely brief which helps keep the throughput high, giving more stations a new entity for their list and us a more statistically significant sampling of the ionospheric conditions.

Here’s how a voice contact might proceed:

[VKØEK]: Victor kilo zero echo kilo, listening up
[Din of thousands of stations calling with their callsigns]
[VKØEK]: Kilo zero bravo bravo charlie, five nine4
[KØBBC]: Five nine, thanks
[VKØEK]: Thank you

It’s not a long, drawn-out conversation, but is enough to be logged on both ends as having happened. Under ideal circumstances, within a minute or two, that contact will be shown on a near-real-time map of contacts from Heard Island. With luck and the cooperation of stations around the world, we should be able to log >100,000 contacts over the three-week period and gather some very interesting data about which frequencies work to which places at which times.

Simulated near-real-time map of contacts with Heard Island, shown on the DXA3 website.  QSO is radio shorthand for contact.  Numbers under Currently Working heading are approximate wavelengths in meters, corresponding to the amateur radio allocations.
Simulated near-real-time map of contacts with Heard Island, shown on the DXA3 website. QSO is radio shorthand for contact. Numbers under Currently Working heading are approximate wavelengths in meters, corresponding to the amateur radio allocations.

Of course, one other advantage of the amateur radio operation is that it is yet another means of communication in the case of an emergency. While we hope that no emergency communications are needed of any type, and we have a number of satellite communications options, amateur radio provides one more level of redundancy, and has been shown to be reliable in places where little or no infrastructure exists (e.g. following major earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.).

The ionosphere does amazing things, and our amateur radio operation will both yield data on the ionosphere as well as make many thousands of amateur radio operators happy that they were able to contact a new entity.

*** Notes and References ***

[1] For a point of reference, airplanes generally fly at a height of 10–13 km, the highest jet aircraft flight record is 37.6 km, and the International Space Station is at a height of roughly 340 km; even high-altitude weather balloons and rarely exceed 40 km.

Features of Earth's atmosphere.  Image credit: NOAA (public domain).
Features of Earth’s atmosphere. Image credit: NOAA (public domain).

[2] In the US, getting an entry-level amateur radio license requires passing a 35-question multiple-choice test on terminology, regulations, basic electronic theory, and operating practices, and is roughly equivalent to a written driver’s exam. Knowledge of Morse code is not required. For more on US licensing, see this page.

[3] Islands and outlying territories beyond certain distances from the main entity are considered separate, so Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands all count as separate entities even though they are US states, territories, or possessions. The gritty details on criteria for listing as separate entities is found in section 2 here.

[4] “Five nine” is a signal report, meaning “I hear you loud and clear”.

Heard Island Expedition Update: T-7 Months

Visualization of a proposed Heard Island shelter setup, using two HDT Global airbeam tents.  Each shelter is 20'x21'.  Image credit: Bob Schmieder [?].
Visualization of a proposed Heard Island shelter setup, using two HDT Global airbeam tents. Each shelter is 20’x21′. Image credit: Bob Schmieder [?].

It’s only seven months until the Heard Island expedition leaves Cape Town, South Africa, heading for Heard Island. Preparations are really beginning to get going!

This morning (Minnesota time) we had a conference call with the entire on-island team (such as were able to join). Scheduling that can be tricky, because we have team members scattered around the globe, including from Australia, the US, and Ukraine.

From the conference call, it was clear that things are coming along nicely. We are gaining familiarity at least with the voices of other team members, so that when people are speaking they don’t need to identify who they are. Planning for the shelters is mostly done. Camp layouts have been presented, and are up for argument. Logistics are coming along, but there is a lot to discuss: how much testing of equipment is required, where should it take place, and how do we get the materials from that place to Cape Town in an efficient manner?

For the past few weeks, the satellite link has been worrisome. Although there are two satellites which may be “visible” from Heard Island (in the radio sense, not the optical), they were not very high above the horizon. With terrain being significant on the island (camp is in a valley), and potential for local weather—especially low-layer marine weather—to negatively affect the satellite radio link, we were concerned that there would not be reliable data/phone connection from the island. Our expedition relies on that data link for safety, to keep in touch with off-island expedition headquarters, as well as to help the VK0EK ham radio operations with real-time contact reporting.

Fortunately, while discussing the expedition with satellite service providers, our satellite team found that one of the satellites in the constellation has been repositioned over the Indian Ocean. We will now have a satellite quite high in the sky, and communications are likely to be reliable. Bandwidth may not be very high still, but it’s better than from Pluto.

I’ve been doing some things for the expedition recently, too. Our Bay Area team has acquired laptops which will be used for the radio operation, and I have been helping with software configuration specifications for that. I have also been involved in radio team discussions about how to set up these portable stations—as an apartment-dweller, I know some things about setting up and tearing down stations. Simpler is better, as are plans with fewer moving parts (and less to haul on and off the island).

Last month, I tweeted a live Q&A session, discussing some of the science that has been done (or is proposed) on Heard Island. Check out the hashtag #HeardQuestions for that, and keep an eye out for another Q&A sometime (in a few months).

My physical training continues as well. I’ve been running, biking a little, doing core strength exercises, and stretching a lot more. Yesterday I was even convinced to take part in a 5k run. It has been several years since I last ran a 5k race, and while I’m not in the shape I was ten years ago, I definitely achieved my goals.

With seven months to go, I’m feeling really good about this expedition. Here’s hoping it comes off that well!

T -8.5 Months and Counting

A cold winter day in Minnesota.  The weather makes staying inside working on Heard Island expedition planning easier.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell.
A cold winter day in Minnesota. The weather makes staying inside working on Heard Island expedition planning easier. Image credit: Bill Mitchell.

We are more than eight months away from departing Fremantle bound for Heard Island, but there is a lot happening behind the scenes. Here is a sampling of what I have been up to for the last week or so.

I have been appointed the on-island IT czar for the expedition. Making sure the expedition computers run, and that the network interfaces properly to the satellite equipment for phone/data links to the rest of the world, fall under my responsibilities. Despite the satellite phones, we have to plan for having no or nearly no data connection with the outside world. Any software we need has to be installed before we go. Manuals need to be saved locally, because the standard “just ask Google” method of tech support will not work.

The amateur radio operations (VK0EK) will need some fairly complicated software and networking. Data needs to be saved redundantly, and shared across computers in near-real-time. We also intend to have custom software sending some of that data back to the outside world. So this week, I have been installing software on a laptop I will use for testing everything. I met with the software developer of our custom software via Skype to get an idea of how it works and what the trouble spots may be. Documentation is important, so I am taking notes on how the computer is being set up. Once it’s working, we may need to replicate it on another 10 computers.

Some of the programs I am installing are new to me, so I have also been learning how to use them. This weekend, I will have a chance to test my understanding of them more thoroughly. There are several different programs which all need to function in concert with each other, and we need for things to be very reliable.

One consideration that goes into the decisions on technology for Heard Island is that with the high winds, volcanic ash and dust tends to get picked up and blown about absolutely everywhere. This is not only a problem in terms of keeping the insides of the shelters clean, but can also do quite a number on moving parts such as motors, fans, and hard drives. In creating our technology plan, we need to plan for multiple hardware failures, and devise a resilient solution. With guidance from the many experienced team members (both on- and off-island folks), I think we will do well in creating a computer system to support the expedition. It looks to be coming together well so far.

In addition to the IT work, I have been working on my plans for scientific work on the island (mini-spoiler: I’m not ready to disclose details of the plans; the following will be abstract). Scientific activities this week have included trading a few emails with a potential collaborator, continuing to track down as much Heard Island research in the peer-reviewed literature as possible, and even reading some of that literature.

Here are some of the questions I’m wrestling with:

  • Where are the best places to sample?
  • What equipment will best balance scientific value of samples with cost, size, and the number of personnel needed to operate it?
  • What are the likely difficulties I will encounter?
  • What am I likely to find?
  • In what ways will the simple model I have in my head differ from the more complicated reality on Heard Island?
  • How close are the sampling locations to the base camp?
  • Would any of the work I intend to do be replicating what has already been done?
  • Are there ways to make my work help guide interpretation of previous research or other research being done on this expedition?
  • How much time is needed for carrying out the scientific work, and in what size blocks?

Many of these questions are interconnected. Sampling locations need to be close enough to the base camps that I can reach them easily, no multi-day hiking trips will work for me, and water transportation is unreliable due to the weather. They need to be in a location which has the kind of rocks/other stuff I want to study. I need to have the tools to sample or measure well, but they can’t be so large or bulky that they require a 4-person team to haul and operate. All of the equipment has to be landed by zodiac, after all. The overall budget for my research is not very large, so equipment choice will need to bear that in mind.

But the biggest thing is figuring out what to expect. Will the sample of rock I get be a few years old? A few decades? Tens of thousands of years old? More? Will vegetation, ice, or fauna block access to the sampling location? If I were to sample sedimentary rocks, would processes such as mass wasting (e.g. landslides), glacial movement, or animal burrowing have disrupted the even bedding of my ideal sediment? The equipment which is best suited for the work, and the amount of interest from collaborators, could vary greatly depending on what the expected results are.

So in the mean time, I read all that I can, talk with other scientists, and prepare a plan of action. Decisions need to be made soon, because equipment needs to be acquired either in Australia by some of the local team there, or here in the US in time for the Bay Area team to load it into the container to be shipped in the early (northern hemisphere) fall.

Back to work!


Welcome to The Inquisitive Rockhopper!

Named after rockhopper penguins, which are naturally inquisitive, the title plays on the author’s affinity to hop about on rocky outcrops admiring the geology.

This draw to neat rocks has extended so far that I am going on the Heard Island Expedition to (you guessed it!) Heard Island in November and December of 2015 March and April, 2016. While there I will do some science—perhaps assisting with a population survey of rockhopper penguins and other birds—as well as lots of ham radio as VK0EK.

On this blog I intend to cover a review of the scientific knowledge so far acquired on or about Heard Island, what I hope to accomplish while I’m there, and what some of the challenges are associated with this expedition. I am also on Twitter as @i_rockhopper.

Update 5/13/2015: Expedition has been rescheduled for March/April, 2016. More info here (my blog) and here (official).