It was mid-May when residents in Avon noticed a slight change in their view of the Pamlico Sound.
Almost overnight, a small collection of skinny
antennas suddenly hovered over the other rooftops, creating a strange
aesthetic that looked out of place in the residential neighborhood, but
which might have looked at home on the grounds of a radio station.
Curious neighbors stopped by to see what the
intricate and unusual new equipment was, (because after all, it’s not
every day that you see temporary, 24 ft. high antennas erected on your
street), and what they discovered when they chatted with the antennas’
owners was almost as unique and unexpected as the equipment itself.
Meet Charles “Chuck” Gress Jr. and Paul Newcombe.
They are part of the EME Rovers Amateur Radio Club N4EME, and their
hobby is a little more intricate and unusual than most, because - and
this is the simplest and most bare bones way to put it - they bounce
signals off the moon.
Earth-Moon-Earth communication (EME) is a radio
communications technique that relies on the propagation of radio waves
from an earth-based transmitter, which are directed via reflection from
the surface of the moon roughly 250,000 miles away, and are sent back
to an earth-based receiver. Essentially, it’s a form of wireless
communication where the moon is used as a passive satellite, and it’s a
pastime for a number of amateur radio operators all around the globe.
Through this process, operators are able to
connect with other radio operators all over the world, collecting these
distant signals like other people collect global stamps or coins.
“This is just a hobby,” said Chuck. “I’ve had my
Amateur Radio License since I was 12, and there’s a lot of personal
satisfaction in figuring out how all this stuff works.”
“The basic idea is that someone who has a similar
set-up will see our call letters and respond,” explained Paul. “It’s
similar to a boat radio, or a TV antenna – theoretically, we are doing
the same thing.”
And for many EME fans, the end goal is to collect as many signals as possible.
The world is divvied up into grid squares, which
is a shorthand means of describing your general location anywhere on
the earth in a manner that is easy to communicate over the air. When a
signal is sent or received, it’s coming from a specific grid square
that measures 1° latitude by 2° longitude, and approximately 70 × 100
miles. Each grid square is identified by is two letters (the field) and
two numbers (the square), and there are thousands of squares around the
Sending and receiving signals from some of the
more unusual squares is a challenge for amateur radio operators, and as
it turns out, Hatteras Island and a good swath of the Outer Banks is
located in a very coveted locale.
“One of the reasons why we come here is that
there aren’t many people who do this in North Carolina,” said Paul.
“Several guys in Europe are dying to talk to us, because they’ve never
talked to anyone in North Carolina before. And we’re trying to see how
many grid squares around the world we can work.”
“This is the only time of the year we’re geeky,” he adds. “The rest of the year, we really are normal people.”
After a week or so in Avon, the group had already
connected with 52 grid squares, and a total of 21 countries. And their
remote locale has garnered some attention, with at least one other
operator responding with “Thank you for the new grid square… Not much
land in that one!”
“As long as you can see the moon, and the other
person can see the moon, there’s a good chance you can make contact,”
The operation is a vacation for Chuck, Paul, and
their friends and family, and all of the elaborate equipment is solely
temporary. Nothing has been fixed or attached to their temporary Avon
station, but there are plenty of straps and rope to keep everything in
place without leaving a mark.
“We make sure that we don’t cause any damage,” said Paul. “None of this [equipment] is connected to anything.”
But it’s an impressive set-up, nonetheless. A
small trailer serves as a base for several antennas that stretch
roughly two stories high, and inside the home, multiple monitors track
the transmitted signals, as well as other “noise” that may come from
porch or interior lights, power lines, and other potential
obstructions. It’s an intricate set-up to be sure, and an everyday
visitor not versed in moon bounce communications would have a hard time
deciphering the software, signals, and the suite of technology that
keeps the visiting radio operators busy.
And despite being an unusual - albeit temporary –
sight in Avon, this is not the crew’s first trip to the Outer Banks,
although it is their first time to Hatteras Island.
The group has worked out of Manteo and Duck in
previous years, but Paul said after discovering this new Outer Banks
location, Avon is pretty hard to beat. Its isolation is a bonus when it
comes to their communications, with few obstructions to cause added
obstacles in bouncing radio signals off the moon – an attribute that’s
not that surprising, since the Cape Hatteras National Seashore has been
called one of the best places for stargazing in the world, and is in
the process of seeking a “dark sky” designation from the International
Dark-Sky Association (IDA.)
“The first time we came to Nags Head and Manteo,
there was so much ‘noise,’” said Paul. “We love the fact that it’s not
built up here – it’s quiet, it’s affordable, and it’s ideal for [what
The group is in the process of winding up their
vacation, and it will take roughly a day to dismantle their temporary
equipment – just as it took them a day to set everything up.
But visitors and residents who missed the sudden
arrival and departure of antennas and associated equipment in an
otherwise quiet corner of Avon will likely someday have an opportunity
to be surprised again.
“We travel a lot, and we didn’t realize that
there are basically two [versions of the] Outer Banks,” said Paul.
“Hatteras Island is completely different from Duck or Nags Head, and we
would definitely come back here again.”