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Radio Signal Propagation

Radio signals with very short wavelengths generally follow straight line paths much as do beams of light, traveling from transmitter to receiver as a direct wave. Radio signals with very long wavelengths follow the curvature of the earth, staying close to the surface as signals called ground waves.

Radio signals with intermediate wavelengths often reflect from layers of electrically-charged particles high above the earth's surface. These signals are known as skywaves. The layers of electrically-charged particles found between 25-200 mi (40-322 km) above the earth are collectively known as the ionosphere. The ionosphere is renewed each day when the sun's radiation ionizes atoms in the rarefied air at this height. At higher altitudes the distance between ions causes the ionization to persist even after the sun sets.

A good way to become familiar with radio propagation is to listen for distant AM-broadcast radio at various times of the day. A car radio works well for this experiment because they often have better sensitivity and selectivity than simpler personal radios.

During the daylight hours, on the standard-broadcast band, only local stations will normally be heard. It is unlikely that you will hear stations from more than 150 mi (241 km). As the sun sets you will begin to hear signals from greater distances.

AM-broadcast reception is generally limited to ground-wave radio signals when the sun is high in the sky. There is a very dense layer of the ionosphere at a height of approximately 25 mi (40 km) that is continually created when the sun is high in the sky. This D layer, as it is called, absorbs medium wavelength radio signals so that skywave signals cannot reflect back to earth. The D layer dissipates quickly as the sun sets because the sun's rays are needed to refresh the ionization of this daytime-only feature of the ionosphere. After dark, when the D layer has disappeared, you will hear strong signals from far away cities.

After the D layer has disappeared, skywave signals reflect from a much higher layer of the ionosphere called the F layer. The F layer acts as a radio mirror, bouncing skywaves back to earth far from their source. The F layer degrades in darkness as does the D layer, but since the ions are separated more widely at higher altitude, the F layer functions as a significant radio mirror until dawn. Toward morning stations at intermediate distances fade, leaving only skywave signals that reflect from the thinning ionosphere at a very shallow angle.

Signal absorption by the D layer is less at shorter wavelengths. Stations using higher frequencies can use skywave in the daytime. High frequencies pass through the D layer. Skywave radio circuits are usually best in the daytime for higher frequencies, just at the time that the standard-broadcast band is limited to groundwave propagation.

Forecasting long distance radio signal propagation conditions depends upon predicting conditions on the sun. It is the changing radiation from the sun that affects long distance radio circuits when the ionosphere changes as the earth rotates. On the sunlit side of the earth the ionosphere is most strongly ionized. On the night side of the earth the radio ionosphere begins to dissipate at sunset until it is almost insignificant as a radio mirror in the early morning hours. When the ionosphere is at its best as a reflector it can support communication between any locations on the earth.

When the ionosphere is more densely ionized it will reflect radio signals with a shorter wavelength than when the ionization is weaker. At any one time, between any two distant locations on the earth, there is a limiting upper frequency that can be used for radio communication. Signals higher in frequency than this maximum-usable frequency, F layer called the MUF, pass through the ionosphere without returning to earth. Slightly lower than the MUF, signals are reflected with remarkable efficiency. A radio signal using less power than a flashlight can be heard on the opposite side of the earth just below the MUF. The MUF tends to be highest when the sun is above the midpoint between two sites in radio communication.

The 11-year solar sunspot cycle has a profound effect on radio propagation. When the average number of sunspots is large, the sun is more effective in building the radio ionosphere. When the sun's surface is quiet the maximum-usable frequency is usually very low, peaking at less than half the MUF expected when the sun surface is covered with sunspots.

From time to time, the sun bombards the earth with charged particles that disrupt radio transmissions. When solar flares are aimed toward the earth, the earth's magnetic field is disturbed in a way that can cause an almost complete loss of skywave radio propagation. Microwave radio signals are not significantly disturbed by the magnetic storms since microwaves do not depend upon ionospheric reflection.

FM-broadcast signals are seldom heard reliably further than the distance to the horizon. This is because the frequencies assigned to these services were deliberately chosen to be too high to expect the ionosphere to reflect them back to earth. FM signals are received as direct waves, not skywaves. The limited range of FM stations is an advantage because frequency assignments can be duplicated in cities that are in fairly close proximity without encountering unacceptable interference. This protection is much harder to achieve where skywave propagation may permit an interfering signal to be heard at a great distance.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningRadio - The History Of Radio, Radio And The Electromagnetic Spectrum, How Radio Signals Are Created, Modulation - Demodulation