NASA Scientists Blame Dearth of Sunspots on Sluggish Jet Stream

According to a report on the Science@NASA website, researchers think they have discovered the reason behind the dearth of sunspots. At an American Astronomical Society press conference yesterday in Boulder, Colorado, the researchers announced that a jet stream deep inside the sun is migrating slower than usual through the star’s interior, giving rise to the current lack of sunspots.

The good news is that according to their measurements, the jet stream is now finally reaching the critical latitude of 22 degrees, meaning that conditions should return to normal. In other words, no Maunder Minimum, or prolonged period of low sunspot activity, this time around.

Another reason this is good news is that while all this blathering has made for good blog fodder, I’m getting tired of all the complaining. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “Hams like to complain about the solar weather, but nobody does anything about it”!

Operating Notes

Here are some miscellaneous observations from my operations over the past week or so:

  • W1MX Turns 100. The MIT Radio Society, whose callsign is W1MX turned 100 on April 30, 2009. There was a great article on the history of the club in the April 2009 issue of QST. I had just read that article last Sunday, when I got an e-mail from KA8WFC, saying that he was going to be operating W1MX that evening. I got him on his cellphone around 8:30, and we made contact a short time later.

    It was a great thrill to work a station with such a cool history. And to think that I used to live in Somerville, MA, probably only five miles from W1MX, and never thought to visit the station.

  • Short Skip. I’ve noticed lately that the skip on 40m can be very short right around sundown. A week ago, I worked WA8JNM, near Cleveland, less than 150 miles away from me at 8:30pm (0030Z). Tonight, I worked KZ9H, near Indianapolis, not more than 230 miles away, at 9:00pm (0100Z). Both stations were 599 here. Can any of you propagation experts explain this to me?
  • Long Skip. I’m also working DX on 40m. Last night, I got on just after 10pm (0200Z). The band was kind of quiet, so I started calling CQ on 7033 kHz. After a couple of CQs, Alex, SP8ERY called. I quickly looked him up on QRZ.Com, and found a very interesting Web page that included a picture of his grandfather (right). Alex writes, “He was a radio operator during I World War. He worked on simple crystal RX and spark TX and in 1960’s when I was a young boy, he taught me first few letters of Morse code.” Since it was apparent that he knew quite a bit of English, we had a nice chat, not the usual 599/599 TU kind of DX contact.
    After working Alex, I heard IY8GM booming at 10 dB over S9. He was an easy catch. I then tuned upband again and called CQ around 7027. There, I got a call from another SP station. When we finished our short QSO, I got a call from OM3CDR. Juraj, as it turned out, also knew some English, so I was able to tell him that I am Slovak-American and had visited his home town, Bratislava.
    All in all, it was quite a good night for DX

Lack of Sunspots Make National News

Charles Osgood, a national news commentator for CBS Radio, commented last week on our current lack of sunspots. He says,

The Sun normally undergoes an 11-year cycle of activity — and last year, it was supposed to have heated up — and, at its peak, would have a tumultuous boiling atmosphere, spitting out flares and huge chunks of super-hot gas.

Instead, it hit a 50-year low in solar wind pressure, a 55-year low in radio emissions, and a 100-year low in sunspot activity. Right now, the sun is the dimmest it’s been in nearly a century.

If you’ve been on 20m lately, you already know that, though. To hear or read the rest of his commentary, go to The Osgood File website.

Here’s One for All You Propagation Gurus

This evening, just after dark, I called CQ on 40m CW. On the second call, VE3QO, in Ottawa, ON replied to my call. On that first transmission, he was at least 10 dB over S9, and that’s saying something because the S-meter in my IC-746PRO rarely reads anything over S9. Unfortunately, on the next go-around, VE3QO was a lot weaker, and on his third transmission he was nearly unreadable.

This is not the first time that I’ve noticed this phenomenon. It often occurs just after it’s gotten dark. In fact, I can often predict that this will happen by how strong a station is on his or her first transmission. The more out of the ordinary the signal strength, the more likely it is that the station will also disappear quickly.

My question is what propagation mechanism is causing this behavior? Is it perhaps the combining of the F1 and F2 layers? If that’s the case, why is the calling station so unusually strong on the first transmission?

If the Economy Hasn’t Gotten You Down…

KN4LF is now reporting another sunspot group from Cycle 23:

On Tuesday January 27, 2009 yet another solar cycle 23 sunspot group (S738) formed near S05E40. If numbered by NOAA/SWPC it will be 11012.

Solar cycle 23 is now 12 years and 10 months long from first spot to present one, an extension of the already record long solar cycle!!!

Spotless Sun: Blankest Year of the Space Age

Science@NASA is reporting that 2008 is the “blankest year” of the Space Age, when it comes to sunspots. To date, the sun has had no visible sunspots for 200 days this year. To find a year that had more days with no sunspots, you have to go all the way back to 1954, which had 241 days with no recorded sunspots.

Although we ham radio operators aren’t excited by this turn of events,

Some solar physicists are welcoming the lull.

“This gives us a chance to study the sun without the complications of sunspots,” says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center. “Right now we have the best instrumentation in history looking at the sun. There is a whole fleet of spacecraft devoted to solar physics–SOHO, Hinode, ACE, STEREO and others. We’re bound to learn new things during this long solar minimum.”

Oh, well. At least some good is coming from it.

No Sunspots for More than a Month!

Daily Tech reports that it’s now been more than a month since a sunspot was sited. This is the first time that this has happened in more than 100 years. The article notes:

In the past 1000 years, three previous such events — the Dalton, Maunder, and Spörer Minimums, have all led to rapid cooling. One was large enough to be called a “mini ice age”. For a society dependent on agriculture, cold is more damaging than heat. The growing season shortens, yields drop, and the occurrence of crop-destroying frosts increases.

No mention was made of poor band conditions on 20m <grin>

QRP Operating Notes

Last weekend, our family had its annual get-together “up north,” as we say here in Michigan, at some cabins on Elk Lake. As I have for the last three years, I took my Elecraft KX-1 and did some operating.

This year, I had a lot more success than in years past. I attribute that to my antenna. The first two years, I used a 28-ft. random wire with a counterpoise. This is the antenna recommended in the KXAT1 antenna tuner manual. 28 feet is not a half wave on either 40m or 20m and, therefore, does not present a high impedance to the tuner at those frequencies. That antenna did tune up, but it wasn’t a very good performer.

This year, I used the 66-ft. doublet that I built last summer at an AMP Team meeting. Every time I’ve used it I’ve gotten good results. This year was no exception. In fact, I almost worked my first DX on 40m. One night, I heard EI9JF calling CQ. He had a strong signal, so I thought I had a good shot at working him. He heard me, but couldn’t quite make out my call, though, so I can’t claim a QSO.

One of the contacts I made was with W9ZN in Chicago. He was running a kW, while my little KX1 was putting out only 3W. Even so, he gave me a 579 signal report. He, of course, was 599+ at my QTH. Just goes to show you that you don’t have to run big power to make contacts.

Another notable contact was with N8UN in East Jordan, MI. East Jordan is about 20 miles away from where I was, as the crow flies, yet he gave me a 599 report. That got me to speculating about the propagation between our two locations. It seems to me that 20 miles away would be too far for a ground wave, but it also seems unlikely that we’d have been bouncing a near vertical signal off the ionosphere. I guess the latter is more plausible than the former, though. If you have any thoughts about this, please leave a comment.

NASA to Hams: Hold Your Horses

As hams, we live and die with the sunspot cycle. (OK, OK, that’s being a bit drastic, but you get my point.) And, it’s no secret that we’re at that point in the cycle where sunspots are few and far between. It seems that it’s been so long since we’ve gotten any good news on this front, that some hams are speculating that we’re entering another Maunder Minimun, the years between 1645 and 1715 when there was virtually no sunspot activity.

Well, fret not says NASA solar physicist David Hathaway. In the article, “What’s Wrong with the Sun? (Nothing),” he notes:

“There have been some reports lately that Solar Minimum is lasting longer than it should. That’s not true. The ongoing lull in sunspot number is well within historic norms for the solar cycle.”

The article is chock full of data and charts, including the one below:

I won’t attempt to quote the whole thing, but the gist of it is that there’s nothing wrong with the sun, and we should start seeing more spots soon. I guess time will tell.

Explore the Ionosphere in 4 Dimensions (from the safety of your own home)

NASA-funded researchers have released to the general public a new “4D” live model of Earth’s ionosphere. Without leaving home, anyone can fly through the dynamic layer of ionized gases that encircles Earth at edge of space itself. All that’s required is a connection to the Internet.

A screenshot of the 4D Ionosphere. Red denotes regions of high electron density where radio communications can be limited to few or no frequencies. Credit: Google

“This is an exciting development,” says solar physicist Lika Guhathakurta of NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. “The ionosphere is important to pilots, ham radio operators, earth scientists and even soldiers. Using this new 4D tool, they can monitor and study the ionosphere as if they’re actually inside it.”

“The best way to appreciate the 4D ionosphere is to try it,” says W. Kent Tobiska, president of Space Environment Technologies and chief scientist of its Space Weather Division. He offers these instructions:

“One, download and install Google Earth at

“Two, visit our web site and click on the link “Total Electron Content” found on the top navigation bar.”

Wait for the file to load and voila—you’re flying through the ionosphere.”

“Colors represent electron content,” he explains. “Bright red is high density; that’s where radio communications are restricted to few or no frequencies. Blue denotes low density; no problem there.”

Using the intuitive Google Earth interface, users can fly above, around and through these regions getting a true 3D view of the situation. Make that 4D. “The fourth dimension is time. This is a real-time system updated every 10 minutes,” he says.

The ionosphere is, in a sense, our planet’s “final frontier.” It is the last wisp of Earth that astronauts leave behind when they enter space. The realm of the ionosphere stretches from 50 to 500 miles above Earth’s surface where the atmosphere thins to near-vacuum and exposes itself to the fury of the sun. Solar ultraviolet radiation breaks apart molecules and atoms creating a globe-straddling haze of electrons and ions.

Ham radio operators know the ionosphere well. They can communicate over the horizon by bouncing their signals off of the ionosphere—or communicate not at all when a solar flare blasts the ionosphere with X-rays and triggers a radio blackout. The ionosphere also has a big impact on GPS reception. Before a GPS satellite signal reaches the ground, it must first pass through ionospheric gases that bend, reflect and attenuate radio waves. Solar and geomagnetic storms that unsettle the ionosphere can cause position errors as large as 100 meters. Imagine a pilot flying on instruments descending toward a landing strip only to discover it is a football field to the right.

“Understanding the ionosphere is clearly important. That’s why NASA’s Living with a Star (LWS) program funded this work,” says Guhathakurta. Space Environment Technologies, Inc. of California received the LWS grant and they partnered with Space Environment Corp. of Utah and the US Air Force to develop the 4D ionosphere.

The 4D model can be fun and even a little addictive, warns Tobiska, who likes to use it to pilot an imaginary plane over the Arctic. “A growing number of commercial business flights are crossing the Arctic Circle,” he says. “It’s the shortest distance between, say, Chicago and Beijing and many other major cities.”

The ionosphere is particularly important to these lucrative flights. While they are over the Arctic, planes lose contact with most geosynchronous satellites and must rely on “old-fashioned” radio communications—a link that could be severed during a radio blackout. Using the 4D model, a flight controller could examine the ionosphere from the flyer’s point of view and use that information to anticipate problems that could cause a flight to be delayed or diverted.

The proper name of the system is CAPS, short for Communication Alert and Prediction System. Earth-orbiting satellites feed the system up-to-the-minute information on solar activity; the measurements are then converted to electron densities by physics-based computer codes. It is important to note, says Tobiska, that CAPS reveals the ionosphere not only as it is now, but also as it is going to be the near future. “Forecasting is a key aspect of CAPS available to our customers from, e.g., the Dept. of Defense and the airline industry.”

Start your own flight at