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Youth@HamRadio.Fun: New Mexico -- Land of Hamchantment

02/26/2013

Sterling Coffey, N0SSC
ARRL Youth Editor

In a typical engineering discipline, one spends four (or more commonly, five) years in classes learning more math, science, circuit analysis and classroom topics than you could ever fathom to understand. Included in those years lies a personal responsibility to acquire an internship -- real-world work experience. Internships usually take place over summer break, so you don’t have to miss class.

An alternative to the internship is a cooperative education program, or co-op. This is a much longer stint that takes place over an entire semester. The co-op allows the student to remain enrolled in college while all educational duty is taken over by the place where he or she decides to work. Co-ops tend to be more oriented toward programs that are very close to the student’s career path and often fill in many of the practical, real-world elements of learning -- including business practices, ethics and teamwork -- that most engineering classes don’t provide.

Fate had something different in mind for me.

Early last semester, I trudged through internship applications and interviews, but I couldn’t seem to secure a position. Feeling beaten, I gave up on the search and planned to take another semester of classes, hoping my odds would be better during the spring semester. My odds were much better than I imagined: In early December, I received an e-mail from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, or NRAO. I read it and my jaw dropped to the floor. This e-mail was an offer to work for 6-7 months at the Very Large Array (VLA) near Socorro, New Mexico. I was speechless. According to the e-mail, I was a good candidate for the Interference Protection Group, based on my experience in college with the Amateur Radio club and other design teams. With my jaw still on the floor, I accepted the position after an interview that seemed more like a conversation about ham radio and receiver characteristics.

What is the VLA? I describe it as the world's biggest “professional” ham radio station, which only receives signals from space. The VLA was popularized in the movie Contact (1997) where Jodie Foster controls the array searching for signs of other life in the universe. It’s an arrangement of 27 25-meter-wide, 230 ton Cassegrain reflector dish antennas, all of which are mathematically combined to function as a gigantic 22-mile-wide receiving array for space research. At one time, it did work on the search for extraterrestrials, but those days are long gone, and currently it spends most of its time looking at the edge of the universe, pulsars, far away galaxies and other worlds unimaginably far away, keeping its engineers busy.

The array is located about 50 miles west of the town of Socorro, where I now live. The remoteness of the area made it desirable for escaping RFI; however, to an array of dishes, each of which has some of the world’s best receiver characteristics -- and a combined gain greater than that of any antenna in the world -- even a cell phone’s spurious emissions can be heard 30 miles away behind a mountain, and in someone’s pocket. Orbiting satellites also account for lots of noise. It’s not unheard of when receivers may be overdriven by an unexpected satellite passing through the VLA’s narrow beam. So my team has a lot of work on their hands.

Did I say work? I meant fun! On a day to day basis, I get to play with antennas and testing chambers, design and build, do research and experiments, write reports about the spurious emissions of LCD flat panel displays and socialize with the NRAO’s team of amazing engineers and scientists (many of whom are hams) that all make this massive operation work as smooth as butter -- sometimes.

If that story itself isn’t enough to write about, the Land of Enchantment -- New Mexico’s nickname -- is much more than enchanting; as my Elmer, Ward Silver, N0AX, said, it’s “hamchanting.” New Mexico is home to many of some of the most active and innovating hams around. Also, everyone seems to be involved with -- or at least know about -- ham radio. My boss is a ham, and even my landlord is a ham. He even told me to remove the old CATV cable running into my room to install an HF dipole antenna. What kind of property owner would say that? I think I’m in ham heaven.

New Mexico is home to the Mega-Link repeater system, a network of 37 repeaters that blanket the entire state. It’s one of only a few systems of its kind, and it really performs. Linking is a common feature with repeaters. Back in Rolla, our club had two linked repeaters: one in the city for handheld users within the city limits, and another about 10 miles outside of town on a tall tower that covers about a 50-mile radius to users outside of town. The two are always linked, and during special nets or SKYWARN events, the repeater could be linked via telephone to a repeater in Springfield, Missouri, where the local National Weather Service office is.

D-STAR and EchoLink are also common Internet linking modes, but in terms of continuous coverage, the Mega-Link system has them beat. The mountains of the state serve as excellent foundations for many of the repeaters; mountains seem to pop out of areas that are generally plains or otherwise flat, and are visible for many miles. This gives unparalleled coverage to repeater users, base, mobile or handheld. Therefore, if one stands in a random place in New Mexico, they can expect to be within line of sight to a repeater, and that person may be able to contact any other location throughout the state with nothing more than a handheld radio. For example, one could be in El Paso, Texas -- a few miles from the New Mexico border, talk on the Mt Franklin repeater with a handheld and expect to be heard by people back in Socorro, Albuquerque or even in Colorado, Utah or Arizona!

As a side project, I decided to take Missouri S&T with me. The local college, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, has an Amateur Radio club (KC5ORO) that I plan to help out with, much in the way that I helped to get W0EEE back online. Not being a student might get in the way of doing so efficiently, but I’ve already made progress by introducing myself to the shack’s key bearer and a few members online.

For the next six or seven months, I won’t know if I’m in heaven, paradise, the Land of Hamchantment or just really lucky. I know that this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I probably won’t work a single day, as what they call “work” is actually fun!

73,
Sterling Coffey, N0SSC

Sterling Coffey, N0SSC, is a junior majoring in electrical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, currently doing a co-op at the VLA in New Mexico. Interested in wireless communications from a young age, he welcomes e-mail from readers.



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