The Amateur Amateur: DDDDXpedition

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
March 2017

Pluto Pluto (the planet, not the dog)
Nix Nix: Missed it by that much
Styx Styx: Doesn't look much better close up
Haumea Haumea: First part of a game of billiards
Makemake Makemake: Second part of a game of billiards
Eris Eris: Third part of a game of billiards
Triton Triton: Fourth part of a game of billiards
Sparky the Robot Sparky

I recently had a medical procedure that put me out of action for a few days. Unable to do much else, I sat in my La-Z-Boy recliner and read a science fiction novel about the future. On finishing that, I started reading about a recent DXpedition in QST magazine. I guess I zoned out in the middle of it, because I wound up having the strangest dream. It was all about a DXpedition in the future.

Here is the narrative of that dream:

DDXpeditions to Mercury, Venus, Mars and the asteroid belt having become passé, and DDDXpeditions to the gas giants and their assorted moons quickly becoming commonplace, our team decided to push the envelope and move on the the next step.

Yes, we were ready to mount the first DDDDXpedition... to the Kuiper belt!

As you might imagine, this presented some real challenges, the first one being how to get there. Fortunately, we were able hitch a ride on the Virgin Space I prototype exploration ship. (It had originally been named Space Virgin I, but the board of directors of Branson-Musk-Corp had wisely changed it just before the ship's maiden voyage.)

Our team, Three-Guys-And-A-Robot, consisted of Guy Burroughs, WA4ΠΣΦ; Guy Clarke, WB9ΨΩΔ; myself, Guy Spinrad, WA1ΞΦΘ; and our Asimov 2000 robot, Sparky, W(r)1Z. (To avoid confusion, we just use our last names.) Having already been on DDXpeditions and DDDXpeditions, we needed only a brief refresher in space safety procedures. (Hint: If your nose itches, do not open your helmet to scratch it.)

The Amateur Radio gear we took with us was on loan from Worksinspace Technology, and consisted of three WT-44 Zero-Thru-Infinity every-conceivable-mode transceivers, customized for ultra-ultra-high gain. They also provided us with several self-deploying SpidrThred antennas, each capable of spreading out over two hundred square kilometers. The real plum, though, was the WT-GWhiz Quantum 10,000 PileupBuster! Man, I sure would like to own one of those, but they are hideously expensive.

The voyage out to the belt was uneventful, in that we spent most of it in cryo-sleep. Sparky stayed awake, but after playing solitaire until he had exhausted every possible combination of cards, he pulled his own battery and went into "safe mode". We were only awakened, (and Sparky's battery re-inserted), when we were within a day of reaching the Kuiper belt.

The belt consists of countless rocks, so we had a lot of places where we could set up and operate. The most obvious choice, of course, would have been Pluto, but we wanted something a bit more challenging than a dwarf planet. We also wanted DDDDXers to be able to find us, so we decided to land on one of Pluto's moons. Since Charon, Kerberos, and Hydra were behind the planet when we arrived, it was a toss-up between Nix and Styx. After several rounds of rock-paper-scissors, we chose Nix.

The Virgin Space I was actually on a mission to find the old Voyager I probe and install the latest Windows® update into its computer, so the ship could not slow down to drop us off. We stowed our gear on a Zodiac Landing Raft, climbed aboard, and cast off. Our pilot, Roger Buck, adjusted our course toward Nix and began to decelerate the raft.

That's when we had our first hint of trouble.

"Coming in too fast, not going to make it," Roger said. "Going for secondary target."

So, it looked like he had nixed Nix, and we were stuck with Styx. But our problems weren't over yet.

"Gonna be a hard turn," Roger warned, and we all braced ourselves.

As the Zodiac swung right, the cargo shifted to the left. We managed to catch all of it except for the WT-GWhiz Quantum 10,000 PileupBuster, which slipped overboard, slingshot around Pluto, and was lost in space forever.

Oh well.

Roger slowed the raft to barely a crawl as we approached Styx. We were anxious to land and start setting up, but he explained that unless we touched down with just the barest kiss, our momentum would changed Styx's orbit. If we did that, we would most certainly hear from the International Astronomical Union's lawyers. So, with barely contained patience, we waited until the Zodiac had softly settled on Styx's surface.

While Burroughs and Sparky unloaded our equipment, Clarke and I made a survey of the terrain. There wasn't much to see, Styx being not much more than a big lump of ice, so it came as a surprise to us when we stumbled across a long abandoned shack made out of icecrete. "Kilroy was here" had been etched into one of its walls, but there was no hint of who Kilroy was, nor what he had been doing there.

We set up our base camp at Kilroy's shack. While we erected the environmental bubble, Sparky deployed the first SpidrThred antenna. That's when we discovered our next problem. The antenna covered an area larger than the moon's diameter. It would still work, but we definitely weren't going to be able deploy the others. We thought about how this would affect our on-air activities while we continued to make our base habitable. We had to evict a few ice snakes and methane weevils, but we were soon done. We had barely secured the bubble when Burroughs began assembling one of the WT-44s.

"Dibs on the antenna!" he chortled.

Fifteen minutes later Sparky managed to separate us and calmed us down. Putting away the first aid kit, he proposed a new schedule in which each of us got a reasonable amount of air time. Burroughs, having suffered the most cuts and bruises, was the first to agree. Clarke and I soon followed.

Burroughs, having already put together the transceiver, was allowed the first shift. He tuned up the machine and announced, "CQ CQ, this is WA4ΠΣΦ with the Kuiper belt DDDDXpedition located on Styx." He repeated this three more times, then set down the microphone and got up.

I took his place at the transceiver and re-tuned to a different band. It would be nine hours before Burroughs received any replies. I made much the same announcement as Burroughs had, then turned the radio over to Clarke.

And so it went, each of us making our first call on a new band and/or mode. Sparky acted as our automatic logger and would remind each of us when it was time to listen for replies. We kept at it for seven hours and then took a break.

Sparky asked if he could use the transceiver while the rest of us were idle. No one had any objections, so he sat down, removed the top of the radio, and stuck his face in it. Either he or the transceiver went, "Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz."

"What the heck was that!?" Clarke said, sitting up in alarm.

"Hyperwave transmission," I said.

"I don't have hyperwave certification," Clarke replied. "None of us does."

"Sparky does," Burroughs chimed in.

"He does?"

"Yep. Passed his exam in 43 microseconds."

"Dang. Must be a killer of a test," said Burroughs.

"It is. I took the exam, almost had a stroke, and only got 2%," Clarke answered.

Five minutes later Sparky detached himself from the transceiver and replaced its cover.

"Best to let it cool off for an hour," he said.

"Did you make any contacts?" I asked.

"Seven thousand four hundred and fifty-five," he replied, "but so far only 82 percent have been confirmed in Logbook of the Planets."

Just under two hours later Sparky informed Burroughs that his first replies should be coming in soon. Burroughs sat down at the XT-44 and tuned to his original band. A minute later the radio's speaker came alive with multiple overlapping signals. We all listened, not really comprehending much, until Sparky indicated that my turn was coming up in fifteen seconds.

Burroughs stood up and I took his place. I put my hand on the band switch and waited as Sparky counted down.

The speaker continued to jabber the entire time.

"Now," said Sparky.

I flipped the switch, and almost immediately and new burst of activity came over the speaker.

"How did I do?" Burroughs asked.

"Seven hundred thirty-eight contacts," said Sparky, "with four hundred twelve requests for a repeat, two hundred replies to the wrong station, and eighty-eight invalid call signs."

"Confirm the 738 contacts and dump the rest into the trash folder," said Burroughs.

"Already done," Sparky replied. "Mister Spinrad, Mister Clarke's turn begins in twenty seconds."

I stood and made way for Clarke.

We operated like this for another seven hours and then decided to eat and get some rest. Sparky once again worked the hyperwave, but stopped after only a minute, announcing that some of the transceiver's components had given out under the strain.

"Can it be fixed?" I asked.

"It will need a complete rebuild, which cannot be accomplished here," said Sparky. "Fortunately, we have two more XT-44s."

"Right. Go ahead and make the swap. But, uh, let's save the hyperwave QSOs until the end, okay?"

"Understood."

I nodded and crawled into my sleeping bag.

I awoke eight hours later to find that we had a new problem. While we slept, Styx had slowly turned so that our antenna was no longer facing the earth.

"Can we deploy one of the others?" asked Clarke.

"No, it would get tangled up with the one we already have," I said.

"Will Styx rotate around until the antenna is properly aligned again?"

"Yes, but not until after our departure time," Sparky announced.

"Well, I guess that's it. Anyone got a deck of cards?" said Burroughs.

"Hey, aren't we supposed to be highly innovative Amateur Radio operators?" I said. "Aren't we the Three-Guys-And-A-Robot? Let's use our brains. We can figure this out!"

Well, my pep talk worked for a short while, and we did come up with some ideas. But waiting until Styx's far side was facing the earth and then deploying a second SpidrThred would not work. It was a good idea, but we couldn't move our base camp and we didn't have enough coax to wrap halfway around the moon. Similarly, forcing Styx to rotate to the correct orientation by igniting one of our Sterno cans might have worked, but the can's instructions did not include the detailed force/vector information that we needed.

In fact, we had pretty much given up, when Clarke, staring at Pluto through the clear fabric of the bubble said, "I have an idea."

And thus, we were the first Amateur Radio operators ever to perform a Plutobounce. It being such an historic event, that we gladly shared the radio, and each of us was credited with contacts. We made a total of eleven, one of them was with the Sol System Radio Relay League in Newington, Connecticut, assuring that our triumph will get a lot of press.

Styx continued to slowly spin, and our antenna lost its lock on Pluto. Burroughs had one more idea he wanted to try, and spent a long time conferring with Sparky about it. He gave it a shot, but of course, there was no way to know to know whether or not he had succeeded.

The Virgin Space I picked us up a few days later and we headed home. We went back into cryo-sleep, satisfied that our accomplishments would be hard to beat.

That is, unless, Burroughs' crazy idea of a Haumea/Makemake/Eris/Pluto/Triton bounce actually works. It will take years to find out. If it does, and if he's listening, he may actually be the first person ever to make contact with himself.


© 2017 Gary Ross Hoffman
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