Monday, August 1, 2016

My Station - A Reference Post

The #1 question I get asked with regards to Ham Radio is "What kind of equipment do you use to operate on the Satellites?" - worded in about 47 different possibilities. I plan to make this post the one stop shop for my current AMSAT Station configuration, and I'll update it as needed if any life changing modifications are required.

So, how do I work Satellites? It comes to 4 things really.

1: Antenna:

I start with the Antenna because it paramount to successful operation on the birds. Yea Yea, you've heard it all before 'the antenna is the biggest part of your station' yada yada.. Well, I mean it. If your antenna system sucks, then don't even bother trying to get on the birds. Really. Seriously. Just go away. You'll end up transmitting in the blind and being deaf as a post and ruining the bird for everyone else. Whatever antenna you decide to use it needs to have some GAIN on it. I personally use two different varieties of Arrow Antennae (a small version and a big version.. more about that in a later post) for my operations and they work fantastically. You also may see me playing around 'cheap yagis' from time to time.. These are home-brewed gain antennae made out of plywood and welding rod. They also work pretty good. Any other type of gain antenna will work, but you're dealing with very weak signals, mostly < 1W, and so gain is absolutely required. Anyone who tells you it isn't, isn't a very successful operator.

2. Good Coax:

OK, so that picture isn't actually the coax I use, but it's an example of a station owned by a guy who get's it, and thus, makes the point more dramatic. Use the best coax you can afford, and is practical for your station. In that picture, 7/8th hardline works... In my station, I use 2x 8' pieces of Times LMR-240. I almost emphasize coax as much as I emphasize using the proper antenna, because there's no way you can cause more damage to your ability to hear than using cheap lossy coax. Make sure to  have the proper terminators on each end, that are high quality silver Amphenols, and make sure the coax is in good condition. Test it regularly to make sure it's as close to 0db loss as possible. I have gotten by with RG58 and RG8X in the past, but only on very short runs (like < 12") and usually only then for a novelty. When dealing with VHF/UHF frequencies, anything shy of LMR just doesn't cut it if you want to be a serious op. 

3. Rig

Now we're getting into some places where there is room for interpretation. At it's heart, you need a rig (or rigs) capable of operating on the band and mode the Satellite is transmitting and receiving on. Simple enough right? At the moment my rig of choice for Satellite operation is my Icom 821h. It is a 2M/70cm dual VFO, full duplex, all mode rig. It has some nice features like VFO lock, RIT and some other things that make it nice for bird operation, plus it will do anywhere from 2W-30W on 70cm and 5W-40W on 2m - which is more than enough to get into the birds with a strong signal to overcome QRM when needed, but not enough I have to do a RF field study when running at modest levels (Or using AO-7(B) you QRO numpties). You will also see me using my 857d on occasion, and pairing it with a random HT. Sometimes if I'm doing just the FM birds, I'll be using my FT2900 in the Jeep as one side of the equation. Sometimes you'll see me using my FunCube Dongle Pro+ to receive SDR style. There's really a lot of choices here. Some work better than others, but you can make a whole lot of things work if you try.

4. Accessories

Lots of different options here - I'll just go over a few that make my life easier. First - a headset. I use a Heil Pro Micro. When one hand is holding your antenna, and the other is trying to adjust the dial and write stuff down, having a headset is practically a necessity. Also in this picture, you'll see a battery. This is a personal preference thing, and you can read more about them in my Battery Powered blog entry, but I like the LiFePo4 battery packs for normal operation.

You'll also see in this picture a few more extras. There's Heil Audio footswitch that is used as my PTT button. See above necessity to have 4 hands to see why this is nice. I've also got a little cheap foldable table I bought at Home Depot to put everything on when I'm out in the field... It's the perfect height and perfect size. Finally I've got a big tub that all my gear goes into for easy packing. I'll almost always have pencil and paper.. sometimes I use a voice recorder, sometimes I'll have an external speaker on a tripod and a camera too.. it all just depends on what I'm trying to accomplish with that pass.

That's how I Satellite.

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