The Amateur Amateur: DDDDXpedition
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
Pluto (the planet, not the dog)
Nix: Missed it by that much
Styx: Doesn't look much better close up
Haumea: First part of a game of billiards
Makemake: Second part of a game of billiards
Eris: Third part of a game of billiards
Triton: Fourth part of a game of billiards
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
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
"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.
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
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.
"Yep. Passed his exam in 43
"Dang. Must be a killer of a test,"
"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
"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
"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
"Right. Go ahead and make the swap.
But, uh, let's save the hyperwave QSOs until the end, okay?"
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
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.