The Russian Woodpecker: Official Bird Of The Cold War Nests In Giant Antenna

On July 4th, 1976, as Americans celebrated the country’s bicentennial with beer and bottle rockets, a strong signal began disrupting shortwave, maritime, aeronautical, and telecommunications signals all over the world. The signal was a rapid 10 Hz tapping that sounded like a woodpecker or a helicopter thup-thupping on the roof. It had a wide bandwidth of 40 kHz and sometimes exceeded 10 MW.

This was during the Cold War, and plenty of people rushed to the conclusion that it was some sort of Soviet mind control scheme or weather control experiment. But amateur radio operators traced the mysterious signal to an over-the-horizon radar antenna near Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the USSR) and they named it the Russian Woodpecker. Here’s a clip of the sound.

The frequency-hopping Woodpecker signal was so strong that it made communication impossible on certain channels and could even be heard across telephone lines when conditions were right. Several countries filed official complaints with the USSR through the UN, but there was no stopping the Russian Woodpecker. Russia wouldn’t even own up to the signal’s existence, which has since been traced to an immense antenna structure that is nearly half a mile long and at 490 feet, stands slightly taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza.

This imposing steel structure stands within the irradiated forest near Pripyat, an idyllic town founded in 1970 to house the Chernobyl nuclear plant workers. Pictured above is the transmitter, also known as Duga-1, Chernobyl-2, or Duga-3 depending on who you ask. Located 30 miles northeast of Chernobyl, on old Soviet maps the area is simply labeled Boy Scout Camp. Today, it’s all within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

It was such a secret that the government denied it’s existence, yet was being heard all over the world. What was this mammoth installation used for?

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A Superheterodyne Receiver With A 74xx Twist

In a world with software-defined radios and single-chip receivers, a superheterodyne shortwave radio might not exactly score high on the pizzazz scale. After all, people have been mixing, filtering, and demodulating RF signals for more than a century now, and the circuits that do the job best are pretty well characterized. But building the same receiver using none of the traditional superhet trappings? Now that’s something new.

In what [Micha] half-jokingly calls a “74xx-Defined Radio”, easily obtained discrete logic chips, along with some op-amps and a handful of simple components, take the place of the tuned LC circuits and ganged variable capacitors that grace a typical superhet receiver. [Micha] started by building an RF mixer out of a 74HC4051 analog multiplexer, which with the help of a 2N3904 phase splitter forms a switching mixer. The local oscillator relies on the voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) in a 74HC4046 PLL, a chip that we’ve seen before in [Elliot Williams]’ excellent “Logic Noise” series. The IF filter is a simple op-amp bandpass filter; the demodulator features an op-amp too, set up as an active half-wave rectifier. No coils to wind, no capacitors to tune, no diodes with mysterious properties — and judging by the video below, it works pretty well.

It may not be the most conventional way to tune in the shortwave bands, but we always love the results of projects that are artificially constrained like this one. Hats off to [Micha] for the interesting trip down the design road less travelled.

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Web Pages (and More) Via Shortwave

If you are a ham radio operator, the idea of sending pictures and data over voice channels is nothing new. Hams have lots of techniques for doing that and — not so long ago — even most data transmissions were over phone lines. However, now everyone can get in on the game thanks to the cheap availability of software-defined radio. Several commercial shortwave broadcasters are sending encoded data including images and even entire web pages. You can find out more at the Swradiogram website. You can also find step-by-step instructions.

WINB in Pennsylvania and WRMI Florida both have shows that include interspersed data. To play along, you’ll need a decoder like Fldigi or TIVAR. If you don’t have sufficient radio gear, you can probably borrow some from the Internet.

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Tracking Down Radio Frequency Noise Source, With Help From Mother Nature

Amateur radio operators and shortwave listeners have a common enemy: QRM, which is ham-speak for radio frequency interference caused by man-made sources. Indiscriminate, often broadband in nature, and annoying as hell, QRM spews forth from all kinds of sources, and can be difficult to locate and fix.

But [Emilio Ruiz], an operator from Mexico, got a little help from Mother Nature recently in his quest to lower his noise floor. Having suffered from a really annoying blast of RFI across wide swaths of the radio spectrum for months, a summer thunderstorm delivered a blessing in disguise: a power outage. Hooking his rig up to a battery — all good operators are ready to switch to battery power at a moment’s notice — he was greeted by blessed relief from all that noise. Whatever had caused the problem was obviously now offline.

Rather than waste the quiet time on searching down the culprit, [Emilio] worked the bands until the power returned, and with it the noise. He killed the main breaker in the house and found that the noise abated, leading him on a search of the premises with a portable shortwave receiver. The culprit? Unsurprisingly, it was a cheap laptop power supply. [Emilio] found that the switch-mode brick was spewing RFI over a 200-meter radius; a dissection revealed that the “ferrite beads” intended to suppress RFI emissions were in fact just molded plastic fakes, and that the cord they supposedly protected was completely unshielded.

We applaud [Emilio]’s sleuthing for the inspiration it gives to hunt down our own noise-floor raising sources. It kind of reminds us of a similar effort by [Josh (KI6NAZ)] a while back.

Comparing Shortwave Antennas With RTL-SDR And Python

Measuring the performance of antennas in absolute terms that can involve a lot of expensive equipment and specialized facilities. For practical applications, especially when building antennas, comparing performance in relative terms is more practical. Using cheap RTL-SDR dongles and Python, [Eric Urban] was able to compare the performance of two shortwave/HF antennas, and documented the entire process.

The two antennas in question was a single band inverted-L and smaller broadband T3FD antenna. [Eric] first gathered performance data for each over few days, connected to separate PCs with RTL-SDRs via low-pass filters. These were set up to receive FT8 transmissions, a popular digital ham radio mode, which allowed [Eric] to automate data collection completely. GQRX, a software receiver, converted the signals to audio, which was then piped into WSJT-X for demodulation.

Data for each received FT8 transmission was recorded to a log file. [Eric] also modified GQRX and WSJT-X to give him all the remote control features he needed to automatically change frequencies. Between the two antenna setups, more than 100,000 FT8 transmissions were logged. Using the recorded data and Python he compared the number of received transmissions, the distance, and the heading to the transmitters, using the location information included in many FT8 transmissions. Where the same transmission was received by both antennas, the signal-to-noise ratios was compared.

From all this data, [Eric] was able to learn that the inverted-L antenna performed better than the T3FD antenna on three of the four frequency bands that were tested. He also discovered that the inverted-L appeared to be “deaf” in one particular direction. Although the tests weren’t perfect, it is impressive how much practical data [Eric] was able to gather with low-cost hardware. Continue reading “Comparing Shortwave Antennas With RTL-SDR And Python”

Radio Shack Shortwave Goes Digital

If you spent the 1970s obsessively browsing through the Radio Shack catalog, you probably remember the DX-160 shortwave receiver. You might have even had one. The radio looked suspiciously like the less expensive Eico of the same era, but it had that amazing-looking bandspread dial, instead of the Eico’s uncalibrated single turn knob number 1 to 10. Finding an exact frequency was an artful process of using both knobs, but [Frank] decided to refit his with a digital frequency display.

Even if you don’t have a DX-160, the techniques [Frank]  uses are pretty applicable to old receivers like this. In this case, the radio is a single conversion superhet with a variable frequency oscillator (VFO), so you need only read that frequency and then add or subtract the IF before display. If you can find a place to tap the VFO without perturbing it too much, you should be able to pull the same stunt.

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Homebrew Loop Antenna Brings The Shortwave World To You

Radio may be dead in terms of delivering entertainment, but it’s times like these when the original social network comes into its own. Being able to tune in stations from across the planet to get fresh perspectives on a global event can even be a life saver. You’ll need a good antenna to do that, which is where this homebrew loop antenna for the shortwave radio bands shines.

To be honest, pretty much any chunk of wire will do as an antenna for most shortwave receivers. But not everyone lives somewhere where it’s possible to string up a hundred meters of wire and get a good ground connection, which could make a passive loop antenna like this a good choice. Plus, loops tend to cancel the electrical noise that’s so part of life today, which can make it easier to pull in weak, distant stations.

[Thomas]’s design is based on a length of coaxial cable, which should be stiff enough to give the loop some stability, like a low-loss RG-8 or RG-213. The coax braid and dielectric are exposed at the midpoint of the cable to create a feed point, while the shield and center conductor at the other ends are cross-connected. A 1:1 transformer is wound on a toroid core to connect to the feedpoint; [Thomas] calls it a balun but we tend to think it’s more of an unun, since both the antenna and feedline are unbalanced. He reports good results from the loop across the shortwave band.

The shortwave and ham bands are a treasure trove of information and entertainment just waiting to be explored. Check them out — you might learn something, and you might even stumble across spies doing their thing.