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Aids To Understanding HF Propagation Numbers
 and Using HF Beacon Tracking Programs
by N4UJW

This article is in 2 parts:
1. Propagation number understanding
2. HF Beacon Tracking Programs


Understanding hf propagation can be a daunting task for the newcomer to hf radio. There is much information on the internet and when you consider all of the theory books that, when digested, can still leave you thinking, "What does it all mean to me? All I want to know is can I make some good DX contacts today on the hf ham bands that I am authorized to use?"

There are a multitude of answers to that question and they all can be confusing to you if you try to remember what you have read with all that information overload. In this article we will not present a multitude of charts and graphs that mean little to many of you so.......

Here we hope to help you understand what those numbers mean in all of that information.

Let's get started......Take a look at the propagation forecast box with hf info below courtesy of G4ILO and WebProp...(Note that G4ILO IS NOW SK and the HF WebProp shown below is not in real time any more due to his passing. We regret this information and his passing. It is shown as an example only.)
Study it carefully!

(screen shot)

You will notice first off, it states "HF Propagation": (meaning 160 thru 10 meters) 
Next the date and UTC time, then:
Solar Flux and a number beside it.
K Index and a number beside it.
Sunspots and a number beside it.
"Conditions" forecast and a word or two in the right column. 
_ signs means stable or no change.
Arrows beside the numbers pointing up or down mean change in the respective direction.

So what do those numbers mean to me?

Look again at the numbers in the box above then compare them below.

Solar Flux  [ HIGH is GOOD ]
100+ BEST
Higher Solar Flux generally suggests better propagation on the 10, 12, 15, 17, & 20 Meter Bands; Solar Flux rarely affects the 30, 40, 60, 80, & 160 Meter Bands.
Represents the overall geomagnetic condition of the ionosphere (?Ap? if averaged from the Kp-Index) (an average of the eight 3-hour K-Indices) (?A? referring to amplitude) over a given 24 hour period, ranging (linearly) typically from 1-100 but theoretically up to 400.

A Index [ LOW is GOOD ]
1 to 6 is BEST
7 to 9 is OK
11 or more is BAD
A lower A-Index generally suggests better propagation on the 10, 12, 15, 17, & 20 Meter Bands; a low & steady Ap-Index generally suggest good propagation on the 30, 40, 60, 80, & 160 Meter Bands.

K index [ LOW is GOOD ]
0 or 1 is BEST
2 is OK
3 or more is BAD
The overall geomagnetic condition of the ionosphere (?Kp? if averaged over the planet) over the past 3 hours, measured by 13 magnetometers between 46 & 63 degrees of latitude, and ranging quasi-logarithmically from 0-9. Designed to detect solar particle radiation by its magnetic effect. A higher K-index generally means worse HF conditions.

A lower K-Index generally suggests better propagation on the 10, 12, 15, 17, & 20 Meter Bands; a low & steady Kp-Index generally suggest good propagation on the 30, 40, 60, 80, & 160 Meter Bands.

Next is "Conditions" with frequency ranges on the left and the "condition" of those frequencies on the right :
< 10Mhz (Means less than 10Mhz in frequency
The other two frequency ranges are self explained.

So the most important part of the propagation forecast box above is the "Conditions" section if you don't wish to refer to those "numbers".

Using them for the particular ham band/s within the frequency range you want to checkout should enable you to get a good "educated guess" at how the band/s will perform for you for those DX contacts!

But one important question remains....where in the world will those bands be open? Is South America open? Is Europe open? What about that other country you are interested in?

If the information in the forcast box still means little in answering your questions as to what part of the world is open.......then read on....

2. HF Beacon Tracker Programs!

Beacon tracker programs can be very helpful when you are ready to try DXing on the hf bands. But do you really know in advance if the band/s are open to the area of the earth you are interested in? The propagation forecast information above will only tell you "in general" if your band may be open and won't be "specific" to any particular country or part of the world.

How the HF Beacons Work:
HF beacons operated by amateur radio operators all over the earth transmit a  CW signal varing power levels in all directions. If you can hear it from it's location you are usually "good to go" for that particular location! But you need to know from what part of the earth the beacons are being heard
at your station. If you can't hear them from a particular part of the world, then odds are that the band is not open between your station and that part of the world!

HF Beacon Worldwide Sequence of Operation:
The 10 second beacon transmit sequence moves westward from New York across North America, Asia, Pacific to Africa, Europe, and South America. On each frequency, each beacon transmits the following for ten seconds:

its call sign (in Morse code at 22 wpm) and a one-second carrier at 100 watts followed by three additional one-second carriers at 10, 1, and 0.1 watts respectively.

When each beacon completes a transmission it goes silent on that band and switches to the next higher band. One by one each beacon station will transmit it's call and output four 1 second carriers (100, 10, 1 and .1 watts) until all 18 beacons have completed the cycle.  Then the sequence will start over again.  Total time for all 18 beacon stations to complete a transmit cycle on a given band is 3 minutes.

"Seeing" the Beacons On The Map! 
Beacon tracker programs can let you "see" if the beacons are on the air by a "lighted" indicator in various countries. They are located all over the earth. You can "see" if they are transmitting and whether or not they can be heard with your receiver tuned to that particular beacon frequency at your location using the program and your receiver.
Using both your receiver and the program together helps confirm that the band is propagating signals from a particular area of the earth where the hf beacon is located to your location.

So what this means is, if you can't hear the hf beacon on your receiver, that part of the world is usually "dead" at the present time for THAT SELECTED BAND AND THAT PARTICULAR TRANSMITTING BEACON so you must try another hf band or wait for the program to cycle thru all 18 beacons in the  NCDXF/IARU  
nework using a beacon tracker and hopefully you will "see" and hear a beacon on your chosen band.

Each beacon station cycles between the 5 bands listed in a programmed sequence, so in real time, if you are listening to a beacon on say 17 meters, there is another beacon in another part of the world transmitting on another band.

There are many methods, websites, programs, etc you can download to your computer that will help you to get an idea of what bands are open to various countries or parts of the world. Some are free and some are not!

One of the programs I recommend that you download and install on your computer is called The W6NEK HF Beacon Tracker and best of all it's FREE and very simple to use!

It does a great job in telling you what beacons are transmitting in real time from their respective countries. You do not have to be connected to the internet for it to work. You can use it directly from your computer.

One of the better FREE HF Beacon Tracking Programs shown below.....

W6NEK Beacon Tracker Screen Shot
Screen shot above showing tracker in action on 17 Meter band.

How to use it....
It could not be more simple....The tracker is shown above set for 17 meters at 18.110Mhz CW on your receiver. It shows OH2B in Finland active and transmitting with the red "led" indicator. The beacon in Finland will transmit for 10 seconds, then the beacon tracker will switch to the next beacon in line at another location and repeat the process. You will notice that all of the other beacon "leds" are off on the map. The beacons from various locations rotate transmitting and are synchronized with each location with very accurate time so as not to interfere with other beacons. What this means is that only one of the beacons on the map is transmitting at any given time for one chosen band at the bottom of the tracker program. Each beacon transmits for 10 seconds then the next one in line starts the sequence with it's turn on the air in the pathway around the world. All of this happens in real time as long as your computer time is accurate!

In simple words, Turn on your transceiver then download and install the beacon tracker program on your computer...set the computer time on the internet (it MUST be be very accurate to work with this program), open the tracker program,  follow any instructions you see and it will start tracking worldwide hf beacons including the ones in the U.S. Choose the band with the buttons on the bottom, (refer to screen shot above), tune your CW receiver to the frequency shown where the beacon transmits CW for the band you choose on the tracker and watch the magic happen.
It will "scan" the world showing the active beacons from different parts of the earth. If you can hear one or more of them, then you know, that band in that part of the world indicated by the tracker is "open" or at least is propagating that frequency to your location that you are hearing on your transceiver! 

It helps to know CW since the beacons are transmitted in Morse Code at 22wpm for identification! No, there is nothing to hookup to get the program to work!

You can download it here> http://www.w6nek.com/ Read all about it, download, install it and have fun!

Many more beacon tracking programs downloads here...check them out!

Other methods of course are just to tune the bands listening for DX call signs or find a list of all of the worldwide beacons on the internet, use it and...tune, listen, tune, listen, tune, listen.

More Beacon info:
Hear sound bites of what each beacon sounds like here! 
(click the little speaker when page loads)

NCDXF/IARU Beacon Status and Transmission Schedule (Same page as above)

List of Shortwave Beacons compiled by DL8WX (Very detailed and loaded)

The W6NEK Beacon Tracker is copyrighted by W6NEK - His email address is on QRZ.COM