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Youth@HamRadio.Fun: Hams on Mars (Almost)


BySterling Coffey, N0SSC
ARRL Youth Editor

Eight New Hams on “Mars”

Eight Missouri University of Science & Technology (S&T) students took their Amateur Radio license exams last week -- and passed! Most of the examinees wanted to get a license so they could legally operate high power wireless equipment for the school’s Mars Rover Design Team (MRDT) that is competing in the University Rover Challenge (URC), sponsored by The Mars Society.

The URC challenges teams to “[d]esign and build the next generation of Mars rovers that will one day work alongside human explorers in the field.” Fourteen teams from the US, Canada, Poland and India -- including the S&T Team -- will face off with their robotic counterparts on May 30 at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, simulating tasks that could take place on the red planet, such as trekking over a one kilometer radius, performing experiments on soil, moving objects with a robot arm and assisting in the rescue of downed astronauts. But without communications, the rover wouldn’t budge an inch and you couldn’t see what it sees, making the project pointless.

The MRDT asked the Missouri S&T Amateur Radio Club for assistance. They said they needed to find a way to command and control the robot from up to one kilometer away, guided only by its onboard cameras. This would need much more power than what’s available to the public -- most Wi-Fi hotspots max out at only 20-30 µW, which gives them a short range of around 100 meters. Other devices, such as Bluetooth or ZigBee, couldn’t provide either the power or the bandwidth required to carry the high-definition video feeds from the rover’s cameras. Compounding the problem even more is the rocky, undulating terrain of Mars (which, in the URC, is actually a research station in the Utah desert), so a lot more power, antenna gain and height is required.

Radio club members told the MRDT of the limitations of commercial Wi-Fi equipment and that they had the opportunity to use much higher power with an Amateur Radio license. I supplied them with some quick propagation analysis and showed them the many “dead zones” and limitations they would face if they used Part 15 devices. They went for their licenses without hesitation.

Congratulations to these new Technicians: Greg Jones, KD0VNW; Hailey Tipton, KD0VNX; Charles Gardner, KD0VNY; Markus Baur, KD0VNZ; Joshua Jetter, KK6EJF; Ian Lee, KD0VOA, and Michael Bouchard, KD0VOB. A special shout-out goes to Doug Lippert, AD0EC, who passed all three exams -- Technician, General and Amateur Extra -- in one go!

Another group of licensees a little closer to my new home of New Mexico also passed their exams. I mentioned a “blitz session” in my March column. The blitz went great, and three young hams -- all of whom studied very hard -- walked out with a new license, with one 7-year-old upgrading to General! One of my fellow interns at the VLA radio telescope also took the Technician exam and passed. She’s eager to join in weekly nets.

ARRL Field Day and Learning CW

ARRL Field Day -- the largest operating event of the year -- is coming up next month. The objective is simple: To make as many contacts as possible. But there’s a catch -- you get bonus points for operating with portable power, as well as for making the event as public as possible. Field Day is one of the most fun events of the year; it’s like a big radio campout at the public park. Chances are that there is an ARRL Field Day station in your area. Find one via the Field Day Locator Service.

This year, I’ll be participating with the Sandia National Labs Amateur Radio Club, W5MPZ, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We’ll escape the city’s heat and radio noise and head to a mountain outside of the city. We plan to operate a modest station on battery power on as many bands as possible. For the first time, I’m going to give Morse code a try.

I’ve been drilling hard on Morse code (or CW for short) for a few weeks now. Ever since getting my General ticket, I have wanted to become proficient at code. In my December 2011 column, I mentioned a few computer-based and online CW trainers that use the Koch method -- sending letters at full speed, but keeping a lot of room in between them so the brain has time to decipher the quick burst.

So far so good -- my sending skills are really improving! I used to have to write down or read off CW as I was sending. But now I can send with an iambic paddle at almost 20 words per minute; however, I tend to trip over characters when trying to receive and decode CW in my head. I get caught up on the longer characters, like “L” and “Q” as I try to count the dits and dahs, and then I miss the next few. This is a very common issue.

The best way to fix that is to forget about trying to think through the dits and dahs and listen to the letters as a single sound. “L” isn’t “dit-dah-dit-dit,” it’s “diDAHdidit.” Think about it as fast as you can voice it. And when you simply forget the character, drop it. Chances are you’ll be able to make out the word with a few missing characters:

T-E WE-TH-- IS -ARM AND S--N-. M- ANTE--A IS A -I-O-E. I AM U-IN- 100 -ATTS.

Did you get it? I bet you did up until “-I-O-E.” Seeing that “ANTE--A” must be “antenna,” and some kinds of antennas are beams, verticals or dipoles, you can start to chip away at the possibilities. Or just send “QRS,” which means “send more slowly.” Hams will be more than willing to slow down to help you improve your skills.

Dayton Hamvention Recap

This year’s Dayton Hamvention was a brilliant experience! Hara Arena was packed with sellers, forums and hams. I had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of young and adult hams. I also helped out at the ARRL Youth Lounge, teaching and inspiring kids to get excited about ham radio. For the first time at Hamvention, we gathered all the college-age hams we could manage in one place -- a sign of good things to come!

Look for the Dayton recap in my column next month -- there will be lots of photos, videos, stories and experiences from young people like you!

73, and thanks for reading
-- 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. He has been interested in wireless communications from a young age, and welcomes e-mail from readers.



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