Welcome to Handiham World!
Blank Sun continues - "Blankest sun of the space age" - frustrates ham radio operators
Image credit: SOHO/MDI
After a brief "tease" of a small sunspot appearance last week, the sun is once again completely blank as we end the month of September. Ham radio operators around the world have eagerly anticipated the start of the next solar cycle after what has seemed like a really, really long solar minimum. There was hope aplenty back on 4 January 2008, when the first sunspot of new cycle 24 appeared.
Although seasoned radio operators will know all of this, a visit to Wikipedia gives the new ham some background on why the 11 year solar cycle is important to amateur radio:
"Solar flares also create a wide spectrum of radio noise; at VHF (and under unusual conditions at HF) this noise may interfere directly with a wanted signal. The frequency with which a radio operator experiences solar flare effects will vary with the approximately 11-year sunspot cycle; more effects occur during solar maximum (when flare occurrence is high) than during solar minimum (when flare occurrence is very low). A radio operator can experience great difficulty in transmitting or receiving signals during solar flares due to more noise and different propagation patterns. However, sunspots can greatly increase the distances achieved on certain bands, and so are useful to radio amateurs. This is because the sunspots strengthens the ionosphere, and cause less radio waves to pass through and therefore increases propagation."
As we can see from the preceding quote, the appearance of more sunspots and the buildup of solar flare activity go hand in hand. While this may seem like a mixed blessing to a ham radio newbie who has never experienced a solar maximum, those of us who have operated through one will never forget the extraordinary benefits:
The 10 meter band comes alive, making it possible to work worldwide DX with low power, sometimes only a few Watts and very simple antennas.
The other high frequency bands are open, too, sometimes into the evening. 15 meters is a joy, because there is plenty of spectrum and a great north-south DX path. We could even start using 17 meters again, reviving the non-net Handiham get-together started during the last solar maximum by Alan Davis, K2WS, who has a big signal from Long Island.
And because there is more usable spectrum during solar maximum, some of the DX pressure comes off the often-crowded 20 meter band. 75 and 40 meters remain useful throughout the solar cycle, but some operators who usually hang out on those bands will move up in frequency to 20, 17, 15, 12, and 10 meter bands. There may even be somewhat of a migration from two meters and the EchoLink system as hams rush to get on the world-wide DX bands.
That is the kind of excitement and fun a solar maximum can deliver. So if you are new ham wondering what the old timers are waiting for with long faces while we experience a blank sun, now you know! There will never be a better time to take on challenges like WAS (Worked All States), DXCC, and multiband DXCC. C'mon sun!
Update! NASA Science News for September 30, 2008 reported that astronomers who count sunspots have announced that 2008 has become the "blankest year" of the Space Age. Sunspot counts are at a 50-year low, signifying a deep minimum in the 11-year cycle of solar activity.