Ham Radio and the April 8 Solar Eclipse QSO Party

Hams being quite focused on solar phenomena, so to speak, many are getting ready for the total solar eclipse coming on April 8. This is the second of two eclipses that are part of a Saros cycle of 6,585 days. The first, in August 2017, crossed the entire United States from Oregon to South Carolina. The path of totality over land for the upcoming eclipse begins in Mazatlán, Mexico; enters the U.S. northwest of Laredo, Texas; leaves the U.S. as it passes over Cleveland, Ohio; and finally heads out to sea after visiting Newfoundland, Canada. The next total eclipse visible anywhere in North America won’t be until August, 23, 2044!

Eclipses are valuable to geophysical research because they are predictable and the effects can be studied. In the past, researchers have been limited to taking data at established or temporary research stations. For the 2017 eclipse, though, a team of ham radio citizen scientists created the Solar Eclipse QSO Party (SEQP) to allow radio amateurs to support the research community. Signal reports were collected by the Reverse Beacon Network, PSKReporter, WSPRnet, and from the submitted SEQP logs. This was so successful—more than 2.4 million signal reception data points were generated—that the group sponsoring the SEQP grew to become HamSCI. (See the supporting articles for the results of the 2017 Solar Eclipse QSO Party.)

HamSCI is an informal community of science-friendly hams and professional researchers around the world. They collaborate in a variety of ways from ordinary signal reports to sophisticated SDRs that digitize the RF spectrum and store it for research. Does this sound like something you could do? HamSCI membership is free and only requires an interest in amateur radio and research. Participating is easier than you think, and this article provides a few ways for you to help and have fun while doing it.

The 2024 Solar Eclipse QSO Party

If you have an HF station, the easiest way for you to join the citizen science team is to get on the air for the Solar Eclipse QSO Party on Monday, April 8 from 1400 to 2400 UTC. You can operate for any or all of the 10-hour contest period. Although totality, when the solar disk is completely covered, only lasts for a few minutes, the SEQP is active for 10 hours, so the data it generates will extend from well before to well after totality is passing over land. Totality lasts from 1807 UTC in Mazatlán to about 2045 UTC in Newfoundland.

The photo shows New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT – K2MFF) students Josh Katz, KD2JAO, and Josh Vega, WB2JSV, operating in the 2017 SEQP from the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey (UACNJ) Observatory at Jenny Jump State Park in Hope, New Jersey. See the referenced NCJ article for more information. [Ann Marie Rogalcheck-Frissell, KC2KRQ, photo]

The SEQP rules are straightforward. Make QSOs using any mode: CW, Digital, or SSB, on 160 through 6 meters (60, 30, 17, and 12 meters excepted). The exchange is simply a signal report and your four-character grid square, such as EM48 or CN87. Instead of the usual “599” of most contests, please give a reasonably accurate value for signal strength on CW or SSB. Digital modes like FT8 and FT4 exchanges will include a signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) automatically. Stations on CW and digital modes are encouraged to call CQ so automated receivers can record their signal strength. 

Most logging software will have a template for the SEQP. For example, N1MM+ provides the ECLIPSE contest template, selected from the “New Log In Database” menu. If your software doesn’t support the SEQP directly, use an ARRL VHF Contest template with the same basic exchange and enter signal reports manually. To use a digital mode, see Section VII of the rules and be sure to enable automatic reporting of contacts to the PSKReporter website.

This is a chance for modest stations to make a big contribution! The most desirable ionospheric paths to measure are those going through the shadow of the eclipse (partial or total), so even if you’re not going to experience totality, you can generate a signal that can be measured on the other side of the shadow. A low antenna covering a wide range of elevation angles will generate a lot of useful reception reports. If you are operating and hear signals begin to fade, stay on that band and keep operating until they come back. The data from your signal will include the pre-, during, and post-eclipse periods on that band. Even just calling CQ is valuable! 

Finally, be sure to send in your log using the online upload tool as described in the rules. This will add to the data set collected by the researchers. Your log will be scored automatically and the final results published as soon as log processing is complete. Certificates will be sent to you by email, so include your email address.

The Gladstone Challenge

Along with the SEQP events, HamSCI organizes other opportunities to make measurements. During the eclipse, you can participate in a receiving exercise called the Gladstone Signal Spotting Challenge. The challenge is named for Philip Gladstone, N1DQ, creator of PSKReporter, which collects signal reports for research and propagation evaluation and displays the information about the stations on a worldwide map.

To participate, all you need is the ability to receive WSPR, FST4W, PSK, or CW. If your station is licensed, transmit signals using the FST4W or WSPR mode as described on the challenge website. The goal is to generate a lot of reception reports either by your station or from stations that hear your test signals.

Participating as receive-only is a great opportunity to get students involved in a major on-the-air event without having to be licensed! If you have the opportunity, please consider helping a local school or student group set up a station or use yours.

GRAPE WWV Measurements

What happens between eclipses? Interesting things occur all the time in the ionosphere, on the Sun, and in the geomagnetic field. Wouldn’t it be great if thousands of ham stations would be collecting data when these events occur? It sure would, and that is the purpose of the Personal SpaceWeather Station or PSWS. Patterned after the network of home weather stations that share local data with Weather Underground, a network of receivers at amateur stations will increase the number of measurements available to researchers by orders of magnitude.

The first standardized project for the PSWS system is the GRAPE receiver for making continuous measurements of a 10 MHz signal from WWV. (GRAPE stands for Great Radio Amateur Propagation Experiment, and of course, grapes work best in bunches!) The receiver consists of a simple receiver that conditions the WWV signal and mixes it with a very stable 10 MHz signal from a GPS receiver module to generate in-phase (I) and quadrature (Q) signals. Those signals are digitized by a Raspberry Pi single-board computer which stores the resulting spectrum data on a hard drive. Once a day, the data is uploaded to a server at the University of Alabama where it will be available to the research community.

This photo shows the author’s GRAPE 1 system receiving the 10 MHz WWV signal in eastern Missouri. The bottom graph shows the amplitude spectrum of the signal with frequency. The top graph is a waterfall display (sequential frequency sweeps) over 24 hours with midnight at the top and bottom. You can clearly see the signal fade out at night and then recover at sunrise. The Doppler shift of the signal is visible in the slanted lines showing the refracting regions of the ionosphere re-forming in daylight and gradually extending to lower altitudes.

You can assemble your own GRAPE receiver system from the instructions on the project website. Prototypes of a GRAPE 2 system, to be distributed as a complete package, are being tested and they should be available before long. Watch the GRAPE website for more details.

Ham Radio and Citizen ScienceGet Involved!

The GRAPE project and associated data management operations are funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. More information is available on the project website. Grants and resources received in support of HamSCI and related projects show that the capability of amateur radio to help implement cutting-edge science, demonstrated over and over again during the past century, has been noticed and is appreciated. Consider making your station part of this continuing success story!

Supporting Articles:

  • “HamSCI Workshop 2023: A Radio Science Collaboration” by Gary Mikitin, AF8A, Oct. 2023, QST
  • Solar Eclipse QSO Party Wrap-Up by Nathaniel Frissell, W2NAF, Jan./Feb. 2019, National Contest Journal
  • “Testing the Eclipse’s Effect on 80 Meters with WSPR” by Barry Pfeil, K6RM, Jan. 2018, QST
  • “The Great American Solar Eclipse at 70 Centimeters” by David L. Smith and J. Kelly Smith, Dec. 2017, QST
  • “The Reverse Beacon Network” by Pete Smith, N4ZR, and Ward Silver, NØAX, Oct. 2016, QST
  • “WSPRing Around the World” by Joe Taylor, K1JT, and Bruce Walker, W1BW, Nov. 2010, QST

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