Sunday, December 31, 2006

Review: Creative Live! 24-bit External Sound Card

This USB sound card, model SB0490, is apparently intended for use with high-end multimedia computers feeding home theaters with surround sound and subwoofers. It comes in a neat little silver box about the size of a Palm Pilot, with two handy volume pots on top (one for mike, other for speaker output and incorporating an instant mute switch). There are inputs for mike and line, and outputs for several different speaker configurations. These include DIN, digital, optical, headphones (thank goodness!), surround, and the standard 2-channel or 2.1 amplified computer speaker system with subwoofer. There's also an IR port for a remote control (not included).

I got interested in the unit when it was recommended by the company making SkySweeper as by far the best performing with their software. None of the stores around here ever heard of the thing, but a quick trip to Amazon turned up a good price (US $44) from The order was picked the same day, despite it being the Friday before Christmas, and arrived by UPS in a timely manner the week after.

I am told that refurbished units are available from Creative, with warranty, for around $25 US.

Once you get the plastic box open (I used a razor knife, a new blade, and lots of caution), there's the card in its little case, the quick start guide, a CD with drivers and other goodies for Mac and that other system out there, a USB cable, and a DIN cable for home theaters. You open up the quick start guide fearing the worst.

However, step one is to insert one end of the cable in the sound card, and the other in a free USB port on your machine (not a hub). No wall wart needed, as the power comes from the computer, which (if you're running a decent OS like XP) should find it right off. Step two is to install the drivers, a media center/player type of app, and (for Windoze) the appropriate version of DirectX. You don't have to install the player, but since I love to push every button on new software, I did.

Step three is to enable DMA and digital CD playback on your computer. Since XP has these both on by default, for me there was no step three. I was up and going.

I gave the player a nice music file with a known high quality that I'd been listening to for Christmas. It had sounded good, but now it sounded better, especially with the digital reverb and enhanced stereo off. It wasn't going to blow away a rack of vacuum tube gear from a good vinyl playback into studio-grade speakers, but then what does? This little box sings.

Even without the inputs padded down with caps, it took some real doing to find the noise floor. I forgot exactly where I measured it, but it probably met the claimed -100 dB. This is way, way cleaner than you'll ever get inside a computer case full of EM fields. Distortion is also way down, due possibly to the 24-bit processing.

Of course I tried SkySweeper, but it had worked well on my old card, so there wasn't much to test. Conditions weren't very good, and noise was up, making too many variables. DGPS, which is less subject to the ionosphere's bad moods, was worse until everything got tweaked in. Then it was detectably better, with fewer missed messages.

For a real test, I fired up the commercial PC-HFDL, which either likes your sound card or it doesn't. It had never liked the internal ones on my last two computers, making the program largely useless. It liked the SB Live! just fine, though. The screen filled right up, with lists of planes quickly appearing down the right. In fact, this might be a marriage made in heaven. This hardware and software really get along. The only problem is that now I will have to pay Charles Brain for his program.

If you think I like this sound card, you're right. It's one of those incremental little improvements that won't impress your friends with your technical prowess, but it does make a difference you can hear and measure. That has to count for something.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Storm Stories

The Weather Channel has this Storm Stories show, with melodramatic re-enactments of rescues and other life and death situations. These often end with lessons on what to do in such situations to avoid winding up like the people in the stories.

Over Christmas, utility listeners heard a couple of incidents that should make it onto this show.

The first one started on December 23, when the tanker Maersk Scotland went dead in the water off Cape Hatteras, NC. The ship was carrying 8300 tons of liquid butane, and its breakup would have posed a major hazard to say the least.

Here's the first automated distress call, as copied on 2187.5 kHz DSC:

UTC Date 12/23/06
UTC Time 23:43:32
RX Station gs3660001-0
Radio # 2
Tag # 03433
Frequency 02.187.5
FS 1 Distress call
FS 2 Distress call
Address All Stations
Self ID 775065000
Msg 1 Disabled and adrift
Msg 2 LAT 34 57 N
LON 074 06 W
Msg 3 23:42
Msg 4 TC1: J3E TP

This was acknowledged by US Coast Guard:

UTC Date 12/23/06
UTC Time 23:44:35
RX Station 003660003-0
Radio # 2
Tag # 13871
Frequency 08.414.5
FS 1 All ships call
FS 2 All ships call
Address All Stations
Category Distress
Self ID 003669991
TC1 Distress acknowledge
Vessel 775065000
Msg 1 Disabled and adrift
Msg 2 LAT 34 57 N
LON 074 06 W
Msg 3 23:42
Msg 4 TC1: J3E TP

It was also followed by voice communication on the international distress frequency of 2182 kHz USB. On 12/24, Christmas Eve, the Maersk Scotland called MAYDAY on 2182, getting several responses. They reported broken steering gear and hydraulic failure.

On Christmas Eve, the world could hear the Maersk Scotland working US Coast Guard CAMSLANT on 4125 kHz USB. The ship was in the gulf stream, and drifting northeast at one knot. A seagoing tug, the Katie McAlister, was dispatched for a tow, and also came up on frequency.

On Christmas Day, the Maersk Scotland reported she was under tow to Virginia in rising seas from a bad storm which created tornadoes in Florida. Fortunately, the tow was successful under these worsening conditions, and we were spared a tragedy and/or release of explosive gas.

The next day, the annual Sydney-Hobart yacht race had one of its notorious storms come up. The HF race net on 4483.0 and 6516.0 USB got busy, with the police launch Alert picking up crew from at least two racing yachts in serious trouble. Another boat dismasted, injuring several, and several others requested aid.

Hope everyone else had a far less eventful holiday. Happy New Year from Utility World!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Monday, December 18, 2006

FLASH: FCC Drops Code from Amateur Exams!

With everything else that was going on last week, this one slipped under the proverbial radar. On December 15, the US Federal Communications Commission released a Public Notice of its intention to issue a Report and Order that will eliminate all Morse code testing in the Amateur service.

Currently, US Amateur Radio applicants must pass a 5 WPM Morse code test to operate on HF. The FCC's action will eliminate that requirement all around. There will be no code test for General or Extra Class licensing.

This, of course, makes the older Technician Plus license irrelevant, and when the order takes effect, the privileges will be identical for both licenses. In other words, Technicians will be allowed the same limited use of HF as present Tech Plus licensees, who were grandfathered in after new examinations for that class were eliminated.

There is no effective date yet, as these are always contingent on 30 days elapsing from publication in the Federal Register. ARRL estimates that the change will take place sometime next February.

Here's the full FCC text:

December 15, 2006
Chelsea Fallon: (202) 418-7991


Washington, D.C. – Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration (Order) that modifies the rules for the Amateur Radio Service by revising the examination requirements for obtaining a General Class or Amateur Extra Class amateur radio operator license and revising the operating privileges for Technician Class licensees. In addition, the Order resolves a petition filed by the American Radio Relay League, Inc. (ARRL) for partial reconsideration of an FCC Order on amateur service rules released on October 10, 2006.

The current amateur service operator license structure contains three classes of amateur radio operator licenses: Technician Class, General Class, and Amateur Extra Class. General Class and Amateur Extra Class licensees are permitted to operate in Amateur bands below 30 MHz, while the introductory Technician Class licensees are only permitted to operate in bands above 30 MHz. Prior to today’s action, the FCC, in accordance with international radio regulations, required applicants for General Class and Amateur Extra Class operator licenses to pass a five words-per-minute Morse code examination. Today’s Order eliminates that requirement for General and Amateur Extra licensees. This change reflects revisions to international radio regulations made at the International Telecommunication Union’s 2003 World Radio Conference (WRC-03), which authorized each country to determine whether to require that individuals demonstrate Morse code proficiency in order to qualify for an amateur radio license with transmitting privileges on frequencies below 30 MHz. This change eliminates an unnecessary regulatory burden that may discourage current amateur radio operators from advancing their skills and participating more fully in the benefits of amateur radio.

Today’s Order also revises the operating privileges for Technician Class licensees by eliminating a disparity in the operating privileges for the Technician Class and Technician Plus Class licensees. Technician Class licensees are authorized operating privileges on all amateur frequencies above 30 MHz. The Technician Plus Class license, which is an operator license class that existed prior the FCC’s simplification of the amateur license structure in 1999 and was grandfathered after that time, authorized operating privileges on all amateur frequencies above 30 MHz, as well as frequency segments in four HF bands (below 30 MHz) after the successful completion of a Morse code examination. With today’s elimination of the Morse code exam requirements, the FCC concluded that the disparity between the operating privileges of Technician Class licensees and Technician Plus Class licensees should not be retained. Therefore, the FCC, in today’s action, afforded Technician and Technician Plus licensees identical operating privileges.

Finally, today’s Order resolved a petition filed by the ARRL for partial reconsideration of an FCC Order released on October 10, 2006 (FCC 06-149). In this Order, the FCC authorized amateur stations to transmit voice communications on additional frequencies in certain amateur service bands, including the 75 meter (m) band, which is authorized only for certain wideband voice and image communications. The ARRL argued that the 75 m band should not have been expanded below 3635 kHz, in order to protect automatically controlled digital stations operating in the 3620-3635 kHz portion of the 80 m band. The FCC concluded that these stations can be protected by providing alternate spectrum in the 3585-3600 kHz frequency segment.

Action by the Commission on December 15, 2006, by Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration. Chairman Martin and Commissioners Copps, Adelstein, Tate, and McDowell.

For additional information, contact William Cross at (202) 418-0691 or

WT Docket Nos. 04-140 and 05-235.

– FCC –

News and other information about the Federal Communications Commission
is available at

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Severe Storm In Progress

The expected major geomagnetic event has arrived. The current planetary K index is 8. (9 is as high as it can go.)

WWV was so distorted on 10 MHz that it was barely understandable. Converting the file to a stereo MP3 showed phase distortion so severe that the sound would literally jump back and forth between speakers. A somewhat less dizzying mono MP3 is at the column's web site.

5 MHz was at least intelligible, but the flutter was so severe as to change the audio tone frequency randomly plus/minus several hertz at a rapid rate.

Similar flutter is appearing on 31 meter broadcast stations, even from Cuba.

This is a good night to go out and look for aurora. Current auroral oval plots show a southern limit well into the United States, and this is expected to improve over the next few hours.

Active region 930 produced another X class flare around 14/2210 December UTC. It is not known whether a radio fadeout occurred in the Western Hemisphere.

Magnetic Storming Continues

Looks like we're just going to have to get used to unstable conditions. Active region 930 continues to produce flares. A well-aimed coronal mass ejection from yesterday's X3 event reached the earth at 1400 UTC on the 14th, immediately pushing the planetary K index to 6, followed by 7. Such a short time from ejection to storm commencement indicates a very energetic event, and one that should intensify as the less energetic particles reach the Earth. Unfortunately, a coronal hole is also rotating into position, and will still be visible after region 930 finally rotates out.

An R2 radiation event forced astronauts on the Shuttle/ISS to go to a safe area of the station, as a precaution in case it intensified. Fortunately, it did not. Last I heard, today's EVA is still on.

Auroral propagation fans, or those who just want to watch the pretty show, should have an interesting night tonight. The usual precautions are being taken by pipeline and power grid operators.

The WWV Geoalert predicts a severe geomagnetic storm event. Here's a recent message:

:Product: Geophysical Alert Message wwv.txt
:Issued: 2006 Dec 14 1810 UTC
# Prepared by the US Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, Space Environment Center
# Geophysical Alert Message
Solar-terrestrial indices for 13 December follow.
Solar flux 94 and mid-latitude A-index 8.
The mid-latitude K-index at 1800 UTC on 14 December was 6 (122 nT).

Space weather for the past 24 hours has been moderate.
Geomagnetic storms reaching the G2 level occurred.
Solar radiation storms reaching the S2 level occurred.

Space weather for the next 24 hours is expected to be severe.
Geomagnetic storms reaching the G4 level are expected.
Solar radiation storms reaching the S1 level are expected.
Radio blackouts reaching the R2 level are expected.

HFDL System Table 30 is Current

As we noted a couple of weeks back, ARINC has been changing to winter frequencies for its High Frequency Data Link system. If you are using PC-HFDL, you might notice that it has changed back to the numbers. Leave it running long enough, and it will eventually acquire and load a system table off the air. At this point, it will start showing the frequencies again. Of course you have to know at least one active HFDL frequency to do this, but fortunately they don't change all of them.

The current system table is number 30 decimal, 1E in hex.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Cool Utility Blog

UDXF members will know Manolis in Greece. He just started an English utility blog, Surfing the Radio Waves. There's already a lot on it, including recordings of oddities, and a CBV fax he received at his QTH, 12500 km from the Playa Ancha point of origin near Valparaiso, Chile.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Shuttle Count Proceeds

Tonight's launch time is 20:47 Eastern Standard Time, or 01:47 UTC. At this time, all weather parameters are Go. Crosswinds stand a good chance of violating constraints at time of launch, but at this time the count proceeds.

DOD Cape is calling Liberty Star on 7833.0 kHz.

DSCDecoder Now Decodes DGPS

Those looking for an inexpensive program that allows identification of mediumwave Differential GPS beacons may be in luck. The latest version of DSCDecoder, a terrific little shareware program available for 25 Euros from the COAA observatory site, now includes decode of several DGPS message types such as the satellite corrections and the almanac.

The download works for 21 days before registration and payment are necessary, and new users are advised to tweak everything in and see if they like the rather minimal user interface before registering. Upgrade is free for current users.

A description of features and link for a download are available at COAA's DSCDecoder page.

Shuttle Will Attempt Launch Saturday Night

Latest dispatch from the KSC mailing list:

Mission: STS-116 - 20th International Space Station Flight (12A.1) -
P5 Truss Segment
Vehicle: Discovery (OV-103)
Location: Launch Pad 39B
Launch Date: Dec. 9, 2006, at 8:47 p.m. EST
Launch Pad: 39B
Crew: Polansky, Oefelein, Curbeam, Higginbotham, Patrick, Fuglesang
and Williams
Inclination/Orbit Altitude: 51.6 degrees/122 nautical miles

The orbiter's external fuel tank, which was drained of its liquid
hydrogen and liquid oxygen last night, will be re-filled on Saturday
at approximately 11 a.m., once the go-ahead is provided by the
Mission Management Team.

The current forecast for Saturday shows a 70 percent chance of weather
prohibiting the launch. The primary concerns are crosswinds at the
Shuttle Landing Facility, a low cloud ceiling and isolated showers.
The temperature at launch time is forecast to be 63 degrees, with 90
percent relative humidity.

There are two solid rocket booster recovery ships that are deployed
prior to each launch. The Freedom Star, which was positioned just off
the coast of Cape Canaveral, is back in port and will depart Saturday
at noon if the go-ahead is given for launch. The Liberty Star, which
is positioned 140 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral, remains at sea
awaiting the Saturday launch attempt.

[See below for BRV/DOD Cape/Cape Radio comm reports]

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Magnetic Storms Likely

The K index has headed back up to 5 after a period where it settled down to 3. Weak magnetic storming is expected to continue. WWV:

Solar-terrestrial indices for 07 December follow.
Solar flux 96 and mid-latitude A-index 21.
The mid-latitude K-index at 0600 UTC on 08 December was 5 (85 nT).

Space weather for the past 24 hours has been strong.
Geomagnetic storms reaching the G1 level occurred.
Solar radiation storms reaching the S3 level occurred.
Radio blackouts reaching the R1 level occurred.

Space weather for the next 24 hours is expected to be strong.
Geomagnetic storms reaching the G1 level are expected.
Solar radiation storms reaching the S3 level are expected.
Radio blackouts reaching the R2 level are expected.

Next Shuttle Try is Saturday Evening

Friday has only a 30% chance of favorable weather. Saturday is better, but not great. In fact the first really favorable forecast isn't until next week.

Be that as it may, NASA officials have set the next launch attempt for 8:47 p.m. EST on Dec. 9.

The STS-116 mission is the 33rd for Discovery and the 117th space shuttle flight. During the 12-day mission, the crew will continue construction on the International Space Station, rewiring the orbiting laboratory and adding a segment to its integrated truss structure.

No Shuttle Tonight

DOD Cape just announced scrub on 7833.0

Cape Radio Now on 7665.0 & 7833.0 kHz

I am currently copying BRV Freedom star working Cape Radio on 7833.0, at 0208 UTC.

Weather Now Iffy at KSC

Nothing like that changeable Florida weather.

Maybe it will support a launch, and maybe it won't.

We'll find out pretty soon, since a ten-minute launch window starts at 0230 UTC, about 25 minutes from now. No extended waiting on this one.

Shuttle Count Continues At 0130 UTC

With an hour to go before the middle of tonight's launch window, the weather has been cleared of any constraints on the Eastern Test Range or landing sites. At this time, about an hour before launch, the count continues. This is the first night launch since return to flight, and should be pretty spectacular if it goes.

Major Solar Storm Disrupts HF

Solar active region 930 has produced several large X-ray flares, including an X6 which caused an immediate Short Wave Fadeout in the United States. An S3 level solar radiation storm is in progress, and saturation of the sensor on the ACE spacecraft has made solar wind readings unreliable.

An S3-level event is deemed unsafe to astronauts. Further events could complicate space station EVAs that are planned for next week, but the major concern is for more X-level flares in the short term. The probability is around 50% for the next 24 hours.

These flares did eject coronal mass, so there is an enhanced possibility of a Sudden Storm Commencement followed by auroral activity. As always, though, we will have to wait and see if coronal mass hits or misses the Earth's magnetosphere.

So far, HF conditions have remained relatively good, despite a planetary A index of 22, at least after the bands recovered from the initial hit to the ionosphere.

It is obvious that Cycle 23, while nearly at an end, still has a few surprises before going spotnil long enough to allow marking the offical start of Cycle 24.

Possible Shuttle Launch Tonight

The first launch opportunity is Thursday, Dec. 7, with liftoff
targeted for 9:35 p.m. EST. This launch time is approximately in the
middle of a 10-minute launch window.

Booster Recover Vessels Freedom Star and Liberty Star are audible on the US West Coast on 10780 kHz, working Cape Radio at 1842 UTC. Closer to KSC, listeners heard them leave port. Range safety comms are likely on the same frequency as we get closer.

Weather does not look good for a launch today, but we'll have to wait and see.