May 22, 2018

To the Moon and Back - A Unique Moonbounce
Expedition Sets up Shop in Avon


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 world.

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,” explains Paul.

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 we do.]”

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.”

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