Radio Wave Propagation



The way energy is propagated into free space is a source of great dispute among people concerned with it. Although many theories have been proposed, the following theory adequately explains the phenomena and has been widely accepted. There are two basic fields associated with every antenna; an induction field and a radiation field. The field associated with the energy stored in the antenna is the induction field. This field is said to provide no part in the transmission of electromagnetic energy through free space. However, without the presence of the induction field, there would be no energy radiated.




Figure 1, which illustrates a low-frequency generator connected to an antenna, will help you understand how the induction field is produced. Let us follow the generator through one cycle of operation.


Initially, you can consider that the generator output is zero and that no fields exist about the antenna, as shown in figure 1, view A. Now assume that the generator produces a slight potential and has the instantaneous polarity shown in view B. Because of this slight potential, the antenna capacitance acts as a short, allowing a large flow of current (I) through the antenna in the direction shown. This current flow, in turn, produces a large magnetic field about the antenna. Because the flow of current at each end of the antenna is minimum, the corresponding magnetic fields at each end of the antenna are also minimum. As time passes, charges—which oppose antenna current and produce an electrostatic field (E field)—collect at each end of the antenna. Eventually, the antenna capacitance becomes fully charged and stops current flow through the antenna. Under this condition, the electrostatic field is maximum, and the magnetic field (H field) is fully collapsed, as shown in view C.

As the generator potential decreases back to zero,; the potential of the antenna begins to discharge. During the discharging process, the electrostatic field collapses and the direction of current flow reverses, as shown in figure 1, view D. When the current again begins to flow, an associated magnetic field is generated. Eventually, the electrostatic field completely collapses, the generator potential reverses, and current is maximum, as shown in view E. As charges collect at each end of the antenna, an electrostatic field is produced and current flow decreases. This causes the magnetic field to begin collapsing. The collapsing magnetic field produces more current flow, a greater accumulation of charge, and a greater electrostatic field. The antenna gradually reaches the condition shown in view F, where current is zero and the collected charges are maximum.

As the generator potential again decreases toward zero, the antenna begins to discharge and the electrostatic field begins to collapse. When the generator potential reaches zero, discharge current is maximum and the associated magnetic field is maximum. A brief time later, generator potential reverses, and the condition shown in view B recurs.

Note: The electric field (E field) and the electrostatic field (E field) are the same. The terms are y will be used interchangeably throughout this text.


Figure 2-1. Induction Field about an Antenna


Figure 1. Induction Field about an Antenna


The graph shown in figure 2 shows the relationship between the magnetic (H) field and the electric (E) field plotted against time. Note that the two fields are 90 degrees out of phase with each other. If you compare the graph in figure 2 with figure 1, you will notice that the two fields around the antenna are displaced 90 degrees from each other in space. (The H field exists in a plane perpendicular to the antenna. The E field exists in a plane parallel with the antenna, as shown in figure 1.)


Figure 2-2. Phase Relationship of Induction Field Components


Figure 2. Phase Relationship of Induction Field Components


All the energy supplied to the induction field is returned to the antenna by the collapsing E and H fields. No energy from the induction field is radiated from the antenna. Therefore, the induction field is considered a local field and plays no part in the transmission of electromagnetic energy. The induction field represents only the stored energy in the antenna and is responsible only for the resonant effects that the antenna reflects to the generator.




The E and H fields that are set up in the transfer of energy through space are known collectively as the radiation field. This radiation field is responsible for electromagnetic radiation from the antenna. The radiation field decreases as the distance from the antenna is increased. Because the decrease is linear, the radiation field reaches great distances from the antenna.


Let us look at a half-wave antenna to illustrate how this radiation actually takes place. Simply stated, a half-wave antenna is one that has an electrical length equal to half the wavelength of the signal being transmitted. Assume, for example, that a transmitter is operating at 30 megahertz. If a half-wave antenna is used with the transmitter, the antenna's electrical length would have to be at least 16 feet long.  When power is delivered to the half-wave antenna, both an induction field and a radiation field are set up by the fluctuating energy. At the antenna, the intensities of these fields are proportional to the amount of power delivered to the antenna from a source such as a transmitter. At a short distance from the antenna and beyond, only the radiation field exists. This radiation field is made up of an electric component and a magnetic component at right angles to each other in space and varying together in intensity.

With a high-frequency generator (a transmitter) connected to the antenna, the induction field is produced as described in the previous section. However, the generator potential reverses before the electrostatic field has had time to collapse completely. The reversed generator potential neutralizes the remaining antenna charges, leaving a resultant E field in space.

Figure 3 is a simple picture of an E field detaching itself from an antenna. (The H field will not be considered in this example, although it is present.) In view A, the voltage is maximum and the electric field has maximum intensity. The lines of force begin at the end of the antenna that is positively charged and extend to the end of the antenna that is negatively charged. Note that the outer E lines are stretched away from the inner lines. This is because of the repelling force that takes place between lines of force in the same direction. As the voltage drops (view B), the separated charges come together, and the ends of the lines move toward the center of the antenna. However, because lines of force in the same direction repel each other, the centers of the lines are still being held out.


Figure 2-3. Radiation from an Antenna


Figure 3. Radiation from an Antenna


As the voltage approaches zero (view B), some of the lines collapse back into the antenna. At the same time, the ends of other lines begin to come together to form a complete loop. Notice the direction of these lines of force next to the antenna in view C. At this point the voltage on the antenna is zero. As the charge starts to build up in the opposite direction (view D), electric lines of force again begin at the positive end of the antenna and stretch to the negative end of the antenna. These lines of force, being in the same direction as the sides of the closed loops next to the antenna, repel the closed loops and force them out into space at the speed of light. As these loops travel through space, they generate a magnetic field in phase with them.

Because each successive E field is generated with a polarity that is opposite the preceding E field (that is, the lines of force are opposite), an oscillating electric field is produced along the path of travel. When an electric field oscillates, a magnetic field having an intensity that varies directly with that of the E field is produced. The variations in magnetic field intensity, in turn, produce another E field. Thus, the two varying fields sustain each other, resulting in electromagnetic wave propagation.

During this radiation process, the E and H fields are in phase in time but physically displaced 90 degrees in space. Thus, the varying magnetic field produces a varying electric field; and the varying electric field, in turn, sustains the varying magnetic field. Each field supports the other, and neither can be propagated by itself. Figure 4 shows a comparison between the induction field and the radiation field.


Figure 2-4. E and H Components of Induction and Radiation Fields


Figure 4. E and H Components of Induction and Radiation Fields



An energy wave generated by a transmitter is called a radio wave. The radio wave radiated into space by the transmitting antenna is a very complex form of energy containing both electric and magnetic fields. Because of this combination of fields, radio waves are also referred to as electromagnetic radiation. The discussion that follows will explains the Earth's atmosphere and its effect on radio waves.


Note. The term radio wave is not limited to communications equipment alone. The term applies to all equipment that generates signals in the form of electromagnetic energy.



Shape. The basic shape of the wave generated by a transmitter is that of a sine wave. The wave radiated out into space, however, may or may not retain the characteristics of the sine wave.

A sine wave can be one cycle or many cycles. The number of cycles of a sine wave that are completed in 1 second is known as the frequency of the sine wave. For example, 60 cycles of ordinary house current occur each second, so house current is said to have a frequency of 60 cycles per second or 60 hertz.

Frequency. The frequencies falling between 3000 hertz (3 kHz) and 300,000,000,000 hertz (300 GHz) are called radio frequencies (abbreviated RF) because they are commonly used in radio communications. This part of the radio frequency spectrum is divided into bands, each band being 10 times higher in frequency than the one immediately below it. This arrangement serves as a convenient way to remember the range of each band. The RF bands are shown in Table 1. The usable radio-frequency range is roughly 10 kilohertz to 100 gigahertz.


Table 1. Radio Frequency Bands




Very low


3 to 30 kHz



30 to 300 kHz



300 to 3000 kHz



3 to 30 MHz

Very high


30 to 300 MHz



300 to 3000 MHz



3 to 30 GHz

Extremely high


30 to 300 GHz



Harmonics. Any frequency that is a whole number multiple of a smaller basic frequency is known as a harmonic of that basic frequency. The basic frequency itself is called the first harmonic or, more commonly, the fundamental frequency. A frequency that is twice as great as the fundamental frequency is called the second harmonic; a frequency three times as great is the third harmonic; and so on. For example:

· First harmonic (fundamental frequency) 3000 kHz
· Second harmonic 6000 kHz
· Third harmonic 9000 kHz

Period. The period of a radio wave is simply the amount of time required to complete one full cycle. If a sine wave has a frequency of 2 hertz, each cycle has a duration, or period, of one-half second. If the frequency is 10 hertz, the period of each cycle is one-tenth of a second. Because the frequency of a radio wave is the number of cycles that are completed in one second, you should be able to see that as the frequency of a radio wave increases, its period decreases.

Wavelength. A wavelength is the space occupied by one full cycle of a radio wave at any given instant. Wavelengths are expressed in meters
(1 meter is equal to 3.28 feet). You need to have a good understanding of frequency and wavelength to be able to select the proper antenna(s) to use for successful communications.

Velocity. The velocity (or speed) of a radio wave radiated into free space by a transmitting antenna is equal to the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second or 300,000,000 meters per second. Because of various factors, such as barometric pressure, humidity, and molecular content, radio waves travel inside the Earth's atmosphere at a speed slightly less than the speed of light. Normally, in discussions of the velocity of radio waves, the velocity referred to is the speed at which radio waves travel in free space.

The frequency of a radio wave has nothing to do with its velocity. A 5-megahertz wave travels through space at the same velocity as a 10-megahertz wave. However, the velocity of radio waves is an important factor in making wavelength-to-frequency conversions, the subject of our next discussion.




Radio waves are often referred to by their wavelength in meters rather than by frequency. For example, most people have heard commercial radio stations make announcements similar to the following: "Station CXYZ operating on 240 meters." To tune receiving equipment that is calibrated by frequency to such a station, you must first convert the designated wavelength to its equivalent frequency.


As discussed earlier, a radio wave travels 300,000,000 meters per second (speed of light); therefore, a radio wave of 1 hertz would have traveled a distance (or wavelength) of 300,000,000 meters. Obviously then, if the frequency of the wave is increased to 2 hertz, the wavelength will be cut in half to 150,000,000 meters. This illustrates the principle that the higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength.

Wavelength-to-frequency conversions of radio waves are really quite simple because wavelength and frequency are reciprocals: Either one divided into the velocity of a radio wave yields the other. Remember, the formula for wavelength is:




l = wavelength in meters
v = velocity of radio of radio wave (in Hz, kHz, or MHz)
f = frequency of radio wave (in Hz, kHz, or MHz)

The wavelength in meters divided into 300,000,000 yields the frequency of a radio wave in hertz. Likewise, the wavelength divided into 300,000 yields the frequency of a radio wave in kilohertz, and the wavelength divided into 300 yields the frequency in megahertz.

Now, let us apply the formula to determine the frequency to which the receiving equipment must be tuned to receive station CXYZ operating on 240 meters. Radio wave frequencies are normally expressed in kilohertz or megahertz.

To find the frequency in hertz, use the formula:



To find the frequency in kilohertz, use the formula:



To find the frequency in megahertz, use the formula:





For maximum absorption of energy from the electromagnetic fields, the receiving antenna must be located in the plane of polarization. This places the conductor of the antenna at right angles to the magnetic lines of force moving through the antenna and parallel to the electric lines, causing maximum induction.

Normally, the plane of polarization of a radio wave is the plane in which the E field propagates with respect to the Earth. If the E field component of the radiated wave travels in a plane perpendicular to the Earth's surface (vertical), the radiation is said to be vertically polarized, as shown in figure 5, view A. If the E field propagates in a plane parallel to the Earth's surface (horizontal), the radiation is said to be horizontally polarized, as shown in view B.


Figure 2-5. Vertical and Horizontal Polarization


Figure 5. Vertical and Horizontal Polarization


The position of the antenna in space is important because it affects the polarization of the electromagnetic wave. When the transmitting antenna is close to the ground, vertically polarized waves cause greater signal strength along the Earth's surface. On the other hand, antennas high above the ground should be horizontally polarized to get the greatest possible signal strength to the Earth's surface.


The radiated energy from an antenna is in the form of an expanding sphere. Any small section of this sphere is perpendicular to the direction the energy travels and is called a wavefront. All energy on a wavefront is in phase. Usually all points on the wavefront are at equal distances from the antenna. The farther the wavefront is from the antenna, the less spherical the wave appears. At a considerable distance the wavefront can be considered as a plane surface at a right angle to the direction of propagation.

If you know the directions of the E and H components, you can use the "right-hand rule" to determine the direction of wave propagation (see figure 6). This rule states that if the thumb, forefinger, and middle finger of the right hand are extended so they are mutually perpendicular, the middle finger will point in the direction of wave propagation if the thumb points in the direction of the E field and the forefinger points in the direction of the H field. Because both the E and H fields reverse directions simultaneously, propagation of a particular wavefront is always in the same direction (away from the antenna).


Figure 2-6. Right-Hand Rule for Propagation


Figure 6. Right-Hand Rule for Propagation



Within the atmosphere, radio waves can be reflected, refracted, and diffracted in the same manner as light and heat waves.




Radio waves may be reflected from various substances or objects they meet during travel between the transmitting and receiving sites. The amount of reflection depends on the reflecting material. Smooth metal surfaces of good electrical conductivity are efficient reflectors of radio waves. The surface of the Earth itself is a fairly good reflector. The radio wave is not reflected from a single point on the reflector but rather from an area on its surface. The size of the area required for reflection to take place depends on the wavelength of the radio wave and the angle at which the wave strikes the reflecting substance.


When radio waves are reflected from flat surfaces, a phase shift in the alternations of the wave occurs. Figure 7 shows two radio waves being reflected from the Earth'sEarth's surface. Notice that the positive and negative alternations of radio waves (A) and (B) are in phase with each other in their paths toward the Earth'sEarth's surface. After reflection takes place, however, the waves are approximately 180 degrees out of phase. The amount of phase shift that occurs is not constant. It depends on the polarization of the wave and the angle at which the wave strikes the reflecting surface. Radio waves that keep their phase relationships after reflection normally produce a stronger signal at the receiving site. Those that are received out of phase produce a weak or fading signal. The shifting in the phase relationships of reflected radio waves is one of the major reasons for fading. Fading will be discussed in more detail later.


Figure 2-7. Phase Shift of Reflected Radio Waves


Figure 7. Phase Shift of Reflected Radio Waves



Another phenomenon common to most radio waves is the bending of the waves as they move from one medium into another in which the velocity of propagation is different. This bending of the waves is called refraction. For example, suppose you are driving down a smoothly paved road at a constant speed and suddenly one wheel goes off onto the soft shoulder. The car tends to veer off to one side. The change of medium, from hard surface to soft shoulder, causes a change in speed or velocity. The tendency is for the car to change direction. This same principle applies to radio waves as changes occur in the medium through which they are passing. As an example, the radio wave shown in figure 8 is traveling through the Earth's atmosphere at a constant speed. As the wave enters the dense layer of electrically charged ions, the part of the wave that enters the new medium first travels faster than the parts of the wave that have not yet entered the new medium. This abrupt increase in velocity of the upper part of the wave causes the wave to bend back toward the Earth. This bending, or change of direction, is always toward the medium that has the lower velocity of propagation.


Figure 2-8. Radio Wave Refraction


Figure 8. Radio Wave Refraction


Radio waves passing through the atmosphere are affected by certain factors, such as temperature, pressure, humidity, and density. These factors can cause the radio waves to be refracted. This effect will be discussed in greater detail later.




A radio wave that meets an obstacle has a natural tendency to bend around the obstacle, as illustrated in figure 9. The bending, called diffraction, results in a change of direction of part of the wave energy from the normal line-of-sight path. This change makes it possible to receive energy around the edges of an obstacle as shown in figure 9, view A or at some distances below the highest point of an obstruction, as shown in view B. Although diffracted RF energy usually is weak, it can still be detected by a suitable receiver. The principal effect of diffraction extends the radio range beyond the visible horizon. In certain cases, by using high power and very low frequencies, radio waves can be made to encircle the Earth by diffraction.


Figure 2-9. Diffraction around an Object


Figure 9. Diffraction around an Object



The discussion of electromagnetic wave propagation is concerned mainly with the properties and effects of the medium located between the transmitting antenna and the receiving antenna. While radio waves traveling in free space have little outside influence affecting them, radio waves traveling within the Earth's atmosphere are affected by varying conditions. The influence exerted on radio waves by the Earth's atmosphere adds many new factors to complicate what at first seems to be a relatively simple problem. These complications are because of a lack of uniformity within the Earth's atmosphere. Atmospheric conditions vary with changes in height, geographical location, and even with changes in time (day, night, season, and year). Knowledge of the composition of the Earth's atmosphere is extremely important for understanding wave propagation.


The Earth's atmosphere is divided into three separate regions, or layers. They are the troposphere, the stratosphere, and the ionosphere. The layers of the atmosphere are illustrated in figure 10.


Figure 2-10. Layers of the Earth''s Atmosphere


Figure 10. Layers of the Earth''s Atmosphere



The troposphere is the portion of the Earth'sEarth's atmosphere that extends from the surface of the Earth to a height of about 3.7 miles (6 km) at the North Pole or the South Pole, and 11.2 miles (18 km) at the equator. Virtually all weather phenomena take place in the troposphere. The temperature in this region decreases rapidly with altitude, clouds form, and there may be much turbulence because of variations in temperature, density, and pressure. These conditions have a great effect on the propagation of radio waves, as explained later.




The stratosphere is located between the troposphere and the ionosphere. The temperature throughout this region is considered to be almost constant and there is little water vapor present. The stratosphere has relatively little effect on radio waves because it is a relatively calm region with little or no temperature changes.




The ionosphere extends upward from about 31.1 miles (50 km) to a height of about 250 miles (402 km). It contains four cloud-like layers of electrically charged ions, which enable radio waves to be propagated to great distances around the Earth. This is the most important region of the atmosphere for long distance point-to-point communications. This region will be is discussed in detail a little later.




There are two principal ways in which electromagnetic (radio) energy travels from a transmitting antenna to a receiving antenna. One way is by ground waves and the other is by sky waves. Ground waves are radio waves that travel near the surface of the Earth (surface and space waves). Sky waves are radio waves that are reflected back to Earth from the ionosphere. (see figure 11)


Figure 2-11. Ground Waves and Sky Waves


Figure 11. Ground Waves and Sky Waves

Ground Waves


The ground wave is actually composed of two separate component waves. These are known as the surface wave and the space wave (figure 11). The determining factor in whether a ground wave component is classified as a space wave or a surface wave is simple. A surface wave travels along the surface of the Earth. A space wave travels over the surface.


Surface wave. The surface wave reaches the receiving site by traveling along the surface of the ground as shown in figure 12. A surface wave can follow the contours of the Earth because of the process of diffraction. When a surface wave meets an object and the dimensions of the object do not exceed its wavelength, the wave tends to curve or bend around the object. The smaller the object, the more pronounced the diffractive action will be.



Figure 2-12. Surface Wave Propagation


Figure 12. Surface Wave Propagation


As a surface wave passes over the ground, the wave induces a voltage in the Earth. The induced voltage takes energy away from the surface wave, thereby weakening, or attenuating, the wave as it moves away from the transmitting antenna. To reduce the attenuation, the amount of induced voltage must be reduced. This is done by using vertically polarized waves that minimize the extent to which the electric field of the wave is in contact with the Earth. When a surface wave is horizontally polarized, the electric field of the wave is parallel with the surface of the Earth and, therefore, is constantly in contact with it. The wave is then completely attenuated within a short distance from the transmitting site. On the other hand, when the surface wave is vertically polarized, the electric field is perpendicular to the Earth and merely dips into and out of the Earth's surface. For this reason, vertical polarization is vastly superior to horizontal polarization for surface wave propagation.

The attenuation that a surface wave undergoes because of induced voltage also depends on the electrical properties of the terrain over which the wave travels. The best type of surface is one that has good electrical conductivity. The better the conductivity, the less the attenuation. Table 2 gives the relative conductivity of various Earth surfaces.


Table 2. Surface Conductivity



Sea water Good
Flat, loamy soil Fair
Large bodies of fresh water Fair
Rocky terrain Poor
Desert Poor
Jungle Unusable


Another major factor in the attenuation of surface waves is frequency. Recall from earlier discussions on wavelength that the higher the frequency of a radio wave, the shorter its wavelength will be. These high frequencies, with their shorter wavelengths, are not normally diffracted but are absorbed by the Earth at points relatively close to the transmitting site. You can assume, therefore, that as the frequency of a surface wave is increased, the more rapidly the surface wave will be absorbed, or attenuated, by the Earth. Because of this loss by attenuation, the surface wave is impractical for long-distance transmissions at frequencies above 2 megahertz. On the other hand, when the frequency of a surface wave is low enough to have a very long wavelength, the Earth appears to be very small, and diffraction is sufficient for propagation well beyond the horizon. In fact, by lowering the transmitting frequency into the very low frequency (VLF) range and using very high-powered transmitters, the surface wave can be propagated great distances.


Space wave. The space wave follows two distinct paths from the transmitting antenna to the receiving antenna—one through the air directly to the receiving antenna, the other reflected from the ground to the receiving antenna. These paths are illustrated in figure 13. The primary or direct path of the space wave is directly from the transmitting antenna to the receiving antenna. So, the receiving antenna must be located within the radio horizon of the transmitting antenna. Because space waves are refracted slightly, even when propagated through the troposphere, the radio horizon is actually about one-third farther than the line-of-sight or natural horizon.


Figure 2-13. Space Wave Propagation


Figure 13. Space Wave Propagation


Although space waves suffer little ground attenuation, they nevertheless are susceptible to fading. This is because space waves actually follow two paths of different lengths (direct path and ground reflected path) to the receiving site and, therefore, may arrive in or out of phase. If these two component waves are received in phase, the result is a reinforced or stronger signal. Likewise, if they are received out of phase, they tend to cancel one another, which results in a weak or fading signal.


Sky Wave


The sky wave, often called the ionospheric wave, is radiated in an upward direction and returned to Earth at some distant location because of refraction from the ionosphere. This form of propagation is relatively unaffected by the Earth's surface and can propagate signals over great distances. Usually the high frequency (HF) band is used for sky wave propagation. The following in-depth study of the ionosphere and its effect on sky waves will help you to better understand the nature of sky wave propagation.




As we stated previously, the ionosphere is the region of the atmosphere that extends from about 31.1 miles (50 km) above the surface of the Earth to about 250 miles (402 km) above the surface. It is appropriately named the ionosphere because it consists of several layers of electrically charged gas atoms called ions. A process called ionization forms the ions.




Ionization occurs when high-energy ultraviolet light waves from the sun enter the ionospheric region of the atmosphere, strike a gas atom, and literally knock an electron free from its parent atom. A normal atom is electrically neutral because it contains equal numbers of positively charged protons in its nucleus and negatively charged electrons that orbit the nucleus. When an electron is knocked free from the atom, the atom becomes positively charged (called a positive ion) and remains in space along with the free electron, which is negatively charged. This process of upsetting electrical neutrality is known as ionization.

The free negative electrons subsequently absorb part of the ultraviolet energy, which initially freed them from their atoms. As the ultraviolet light wave continues to produce positive ions and negative electrons, its intensity decreases because of the absorption of energy by the free electrons, and an ionized layer is formed. The rate at which ionization occurs depends on the density of atoms in the atmosphere and the intensity of the ultraviolet light wave, which varies with the activity of the sun.

Because the atmosphere is bombarded by ultraviolet light waves of different frequencies, several ionized layers are formed at different altitudes. Lower frequency ultraviolet waves penetrate the atmosphere the least; therefore, they produce ionized layers at the higher altitudes. Conversely, ultraviolet waves of higher frequencies penetrate deeper and produce layers at the lower altitudes. An important factor in determining the density of ionized layers is the elevation angle of the sun, which changes frequently. For this reason, the height and thickness of the ionized layers vary, depending on the time of day and even the season of the year.




Recall that the process of ionization involves ultraviolet light waves knocking electrons free from their atoms. A reverse process called recombination occurs when the free electrons and positive ions collide with each other. Because these collisions are inevitable, the positive ions return to their original neutral atom state.

The recombination process also depends on the time of day. Between the hours of early morning and late afternoon, the rate of ionization exceeds the rate of recombination. During this period, the ionized layers reach their greatest density and exert maximum influence on radio waves. During the late afternoon and early evening hours, however, the rate of recombination exceeds the rate of ionization, and the density of the ionized layers begins to decrease. Throughout the night, density continues to decrease, reaching a low point just before sunrise.


Four Distinct Layers


The ionosphere is composed of three layers designated D, E, and F, from lowest level to highest level as shown in figure 14. The F layer is further divided into two layers designated F1 (the lower layer) and F2 (the higher layer). The presence or absence of these layers in the ionosphere and their height above the Earth varies with the position of the sun. At high noon, radiation in the ionosphere directly above a given point is greatest. At night it is minimum. When the radiation is removed, many of the particles that were ionized recombine. The time interval between these conditions finds the position and number of the ionized layers within the ionosphere changing. Because the position of the sun varies daily, monthly, and yearly, with respect to a specified point on the Earth, the exact position and number of layers present are extremely difficult to determine. However, the following general statements can be made:


· The D layer ranges from about 30 to 55 miles. Ionization in the D layer is low because it is the lowest region of the ionosphere. This layer has the ability to refract signals of low frequencies. High frequencies pass right through it and are attenuated. After sunset, the D layer disappears because of the rapid recombination of ions.
· The E layer limits are from about 55 to 90 miles. This layer is also known as the Kennelly-Heaviside layer, because these two men were the first to propose its existence. The rate of ionic recombination in this layer is rather rapid after sunset and the layer is almost gone by midnight. This layer has the ability to refract signals as high as 20 megahertz. For this reason, it is valuable for communications in ranges up to about 1500 miles.
· The F layer exists from about 90 to 240 miles. During the daylight hours, the F layer separates into two layers, the F1 and F2 layers. The ionization level in these layers is quite high and varies widely during the day. At noon, this portion of the atmosphere is closest to the sun and the degree of ionization is maximum. Because the atmosphere is rarefied at these heights, recombination occurs slowly after sunset. Therefore, a fairly constant ionized layer is always present. The F layers are responsible for high frequency, long distance transmission.


Figure 2-14. Layers of the Ionosphere


Figure 14. Layers of the Ionosphere



When a radio wave is transmitted into an ionized layer, refraction, or bending of the wave, occurs. As we discussed earlier, refraction is caused by an abrupt change in the velocity of the upper part of a radio wave as it strikes or enters a new medium. The amount of refraction that occurs depends on three main factors: (1) the density of ionization of the layer, (2) the frequency of the radio wave, and (3) the angle at which the wave enters the layer.


Density of Layer


Figure 15 illustrates the relationship between radio waves and ionization density. Each ionized layer has a central region of relatively dense ionization, which tapers off in intensity both above and below the maximum region. As a radio wave enters a region of increasing ionization, the increase in velocity of the upper part of the wave causes it to be bent back toward the Earth. While the wave is in the highly dense center portion of the layer, however, refraction occurs more slowly because the density of ionization is almost uniform. As the wave enters into the upper part of the layer of decreasing ionization, the velocity of the upper part of the wave decreases, and the wave is bent away from the Earth. If a wave strikes a thin, very highly ionized layer, the wave may be bent back so rapidly that it will appears to have been reflected instead of refracted back to Earth. To reflect a radio wave, the highly ionized layer must be approximately no thicker than one wavelength of the radio wave. Because the ionized layers are often several miles thick, ionospheric reflection is more likely to occur at long wavelengths (low frequencies).


Figure 2-15. Effects of Ionospheric Density on Radio Waves


Figure 15. Effects of Ionospheric Density on Radio Waves



For any given time, each ionospheric layer has a maximum frequency at which radio waves can be transmitted vertically and refracted back to Earth. This frequency is known as the critical frequency. It is a term that you will hear frequently in any discussion of radio wave propagation. Radio waves transmitted at frequencies higher than the critical frequency of a given layer will pass through the layer and be lost in space; but if these same waves enter an upper layer with a higher critical frequency, they will be refracted back to Earth. Radio waves of frequencies lower than the critical frequency will also be refracted back to Earth unless they are absorbed or have been refracted from a lower layer. The lower the frequency of a radio wave, the more rapidly the wave is refracted by a given degree of ionization. Figure 16 shows three separate waves of different frequencies entering an ionospheric layer at the same angle. Notice that the 5-megahertz wave is refracted quite sharply. The 20-megahertz wave is refracted less sharply and returned to Earth at a greater distance. The 100-megahertz wave is obviously greater than the critical frequency for that ionized layer and, therefore, is not refracted but is passed into space.


Figure 2-16. Frequency Versus Refraction and Distance


Figure 16. Frequency Versus Refraction and Distance

Angle of Incidence


The rate at which a wave of a given frequency is refracted by an ionized layer depends on the angle at which the wave enters the layer. Figure 17 shows three radio waves of the same frequency entering a layer at different angles. The angle at which wave A strikes the layer is too nearly vertical for the wave to be refracted to Earth. As the wave enters the layer, it is bent slightly but passes through the layer and is lost. When the wave is reduced to an angle that is less than vertical (wave B), it strikes the layer and is refracted back to Earth. The angle made by wave B is called the critical angle for that particular frequency. Any wave that leaves the antenna at an angle greater than the critical angle will penetrate the ionospheric layer for that frequency and then be lost in space. Wave C strikes the ionosphere at the smallest angle at which the wave can be refracted and still return to Earth. At any smaller angle, the wave will be refracted but will not return to Earth.


Figure 2-17. Different Incident Angles of Radio Waves


Figure 17. Different Incident Angles of Radio Waves


As the frequency of the radio wave is increased, the critical angle must be reduced for refraction to occur. This point is illustrated in figure 18. The 2-megahertz wave strikes the layer at the critical angle for that frequency and is refracted back to Earth. Although the 5-megahertz wave (broken line) strikes the ionosphere at a lesser angle, it nevertheless penetrates the layer and is lost. As the angle is lowered from the vertical, however, a critical angle for the 5-megahertz wave is reached, and the wave is then refracted to Earth.


Figure 2-18. Effects of Frequency on the Critical Angle


Figure 18. Effects of Frequency on the Critical Angle

Skip Distance/Skip Zone


In figure 19, note the relationship between the sky wave skip distance, the skip zone, and the ground wave coverage. The skip distance is the distance from the transmitter to the point where the sky wave is first returned to Earth. The size of the skip distance depends on the frequency of the wave, the angle of incidence, and the degree of ionization present.

The skip zone is a zone of silence between the point where the ground wave becomes too weak for reception and the point where at which the sky wave is first returned to Earth. The size of the skip zone depends on the extent of the ground wave coverage and the skip distance. When the ground wave coverage is great enough or the skip distance is short enough that no zone of silence occurs, there is no skip zone.

Occasionally, the first sky wave will return to Earth within the range of the ground wave. If the sky wave and ground wave are nearly of equal intensity, the sky wave alternately reinforces and cancels the ground wave, causing severe fading. This fading is caused by the phase difference between the two waves, a result of the longer path traveled by the sky wave.


Figure 2-19. Relationship between Skip Zone, Skip Distance, and Ground Wave


Figure 19. Relationship between Skip Zone, Skip Distance, and Ground Wave

Propagation Paths


The path that a refracted wave follows to the receiver depends on the angle at which the wave strikes the ionosphere. You should remember, however, that the RF energy radiated by a transmitting antenna spreads out with distance. The energy therefore strikes the ionosphere at many different angles rather than a single angle.

After the RF energy of a given frequency enters an ionospheric region, the paths that this energy might follow are many. It may reach the receiving antenna via two or more paths through a single layer. It may also, reach the receiving antenna over a path involving more than one layer, by multiple hops between the ionosphere and Earth, or by any combination of these paths.

Figure 20 shows how radio waves may reach a receiver via several paths through one layer. The various angles at which RF energy strikes the layer are represented by dark lines and designated as rays 1 through 6.


Figure 2-20. Ray Paths for a Fixed Frequency with Varying Angles of Incidence


Figure 20. Ray Paths for a Fixed Frequency with Varying Angles of Incidence


When the angle is relatively low with respect to the horizon (ray 1), there is only slight penetration of the layer and the propagation path is long. When the angle of incidence is increased (rays 2 and 3), the rays penetrate deeper into the layer but the range of these rays' decreases. When a certain angle is reached (ray 3), the penetration of the layer and rate of refraction are such that the ray is first returned to Earth at a minimal distance from the transmitter. Notice, however, that ray 3 still manages to reach the receiving site on its second refraction (called a hop) from the ionospheric layer.

As the angle is increased still more (rays 4 and 5), the RF energy penetrates the central area of maximum ionization of the layer. These rays are refracted rather slowly and are eventually returned to Earth at great distances. As the angle approaches vertical incidence (ray 6), the ray is not returned at all, but passes on through the layer.




Many factors affect a radio wave in its path between the transmitting and receiving sites. The factor that has the greatest adverse effect on radio waves is absorption. Absorption results in the loss of energy of a radio wave and has a pronounced effect on both the strength of received signals and the ability to communicate over long distances.


You learned as discussed previously earlier in section three on ground waves, that surface waves suffer most of their absorption losses because of ground-induced voltage. Sky waves, on the other hand, suffer most of their absorption losses because of conditions in the ionosphere. Note that some absorption of sky waves may also occur at lower atmospheric levels because of the presence of water and water vapour. However, this becomes important only at frequencies above 10,000 megahertz.

Most ionospheric absorption occurs in the lower regions of the ionosphere where ionization density is greatest. As a radio wave passes into the ionosphere, it loses some of its energy to the free electrons and ions. If these high-energy free electrons and ions do not collide with gas molecules of low energy, most of the energy lost by the radio wave is reconverted into electromagnetic energy, and the wave continues to be propagated with little change in intensity. However, if the high-energy free electrons and ions do collide with other particles, much of this energy is lost, resulting in absorption of the energy from the wave. Because absorption of energy depends on collision of the particles, the greater the density of the ionized layer, the greater the probability of collisions; therefore, the greater the absorption. The highly dense D and E layers provide the greatest absorption of radio waves.

Because the amount of absorption of the sky wave depends on the density of the ionosphere, which varies with seasonal and daily conditions, it is impossible to express a fixed relationship between distance and signal strength for ionospheric propagation. Under certain conditions, the absorption of energy is so great that communicating over any distance beyond the line of sight is difficult.




The most troublesome and frustrating problem in receiving radio signals is variations in signal strength, most commonly known as fading. There are several conditions that can produce fading. When a radio wave is refracted by the ionosphere or reflected from the Earth's surface, random changes in the polarization of the wave may occur. Vertically and horizontally mounted receiving antennas are designed to receive vertically and horizontally polarized waves, respectively. Therefore, changes in polarization cause changes in the received signal level because of the inability of the antenna to adjust to the polarization changes.

Fading also results from absorption of the RF energy in the ionosphere. Absorption fading occurs for a longer period than other types of fading, because absorption takes place slowly. Usually, however, fading on ionospheric circuits is mainly a result of multi-path propagation.


Multipath Fading


Multipath is simply a term used to describe the multiple paths a radio wave may follow between transmitter and receiver. Such propagation paths include the ground wave, ionospheric refraction, and re-radiation by the ionospheric layers, reflection from the Earth's surface or from more than one ionospheric layer, and others. Figure 21 shows a few of the paths that a signal can travel between two sites in a typical circuit. One path, XYZ, is the basic ground wave. Another path, XEA, refracts the wave at the E layer and passes it on to the receiver at A. Still another path, XFZFA, results from a greater angle of incidence and two refractions from the F layer. At point Z, the received signal is a combination of the ground wave and the sky wave. These two signals having traveled different paths arrive at point Z at different times. Thus, the arriving waves may or may not be in phase with each other. Radio waves that are received in phase reinforce each other and produce a stronger signal at the receiving site. Conversely, those that are received out of phase produce a weak or fading signal. Small alternations in the transmission path may change the phase relationship of the two signals, causing periodic fading. This condition occurs at point A. At this point, the double-hop F layer signal may be in or out of phase with the signal arriving from the E layer.


Figure 2-21. Multipath Transmission


Figure 21. Multipath Transmission


Multipath fading may be minimized by practices called space diversity and frequency diversity. In space diversity, two or more receiving antennas are spaced some distance apart. Fading does not occur simultaneously at both antennas; therefore, enough output is almost always available from one of the antennas to provide a useful signal. In frequency diversity, two transmitters and two receivers are used, each pair tuned to a different frequency, with the same information being transmitted simultaneously over both frequencies. One of the two receivers will almost always provide a useful signal.


Selective Fading


Fading resulting from multipath propagation varies by frequency because each frequency arrives at the receiving point via a different radio path. When a wide band of frequencies is transmitted simultaneously, each frequency will vary in the amount of fading. This variation is called selective fading. When selective fading occurs, all frequencies of the transmitted signal do not retain their original phases and relative amplitudes. This fading causes severe distortion of the signal and limits the total signal transmitted.




All radio waves propagated over ionospheric paths undergo energy losses before arriving at the receiving site. As we discussed earlier absorption in the ionosphere and lower atmospheric levels account for a large part of these energy losses. There are two other types of losses that also significantly affect the ionospheric propagation of radio waves. These losses are known as ground reflection loss and free space loss. The combined effects of absorption, ground reflection loss, and frees pace loss account for most of the energy losses of radio transmissions propagated by the ionosphere.


Ground Reflection Loss


When propagation is accomplished via multi-hop refraction, RF energy is lost each time the radio wave is reflected from the Earth's surface. The amount of energy lost depends on the frequency of the wave, the angle of incidence, ground irregularities, and the electrical conductivity of the point of reflection.


Freespace Loss


Normally, the major loss of energy is because of the spreading out of the wavefront as it travels away from the transmitter. As the distance increases, the area of the wavefront spreads out, much like the beam of a flashlight. This means the amount of energy contained within any unit of area on the wavefront will decreases as distance increases. By the time the energy arrives at the receiving antenna, the wavefront is so spread out that the receiving antenna extends into only a very small fraction of the wavefront, as. This is illustrated in figure 22.


Figure 2-22. Freespace Loss Principle


Figure 22. Freespace Loss Principle



The transmission losses just discussed are not the only factors that interfere with communications. An additional factor that can interfere with radio communications is the presence of electromagnetic interference (EMI). This interference can result in annoying or impossible operating conditions. Sources of EMI are both man-made and natural.


Man-Made Interference


Man-made interference may come from several sources. Some of these sources, such as oscillators, communications transmitters, and radio transmitters, may be specifically designed to generate radio frequency energy. Some electrical devices also generate radio frequency energy, although they are not specifically designed for this purpose. Examples are ignition systems, generators, motors, switches, relays, and voltage regulators. The intensity of man-made interference may vary throughout the day and drop off to a low level at night when many of these sources are not being used. Man-made interference may be a critical limiting factor at radio receiving sites located near industrial areas.


Natural Interference


Natural interference refers to the static that you often hear when listening to a radio. This interference is generated by natural phenomena, such as thunderstorms, snowstorms, cosmic sources, and the sun. The energy released by these sources is transmitted to the receiving site in roughly the same manner as radio waves. As a result, when ionospheric conditions are favourable for the long distance propagation of radio waves, they are likewise favourable for the propagation of natural interference. Natural interference is very erratic, particularly in the HF band, but generally will decreases as the operating frequency is increased and wider bandwidths are used. There is little natural interference above 30 megahertz.


Control of EMI


Electromagnetic interference can be reduced or eliminated by using various suppression techniques. The amount of EMI that is produced by a radio transmitter can be controlled by cutting transmitting antennas to the correct frequency, limiting bandwidth, and using electronic filtering networks and metallic shielding.

Radiated EMI during transmission can be controlled by the physical separation of the transmitting and receiving antennas, the use of directional antennas, and limiting antenna bandwidth.




Because the existence of the ionosphere is directly related to radiations emitted from the sun, the movement of the Earth about the sun or changes in the sun''s activity will result in variations in the ionosphere. These variations are of two general types:

  • Those that are more or less regular and occur in cycles and, therefore, can be predicted in advance with reasonable accuracy.
  • Those that are irregular as a result of abnormal behaviour of the sun and, therefore, cannot be predicted in advance. Both regular and irregular variations have important effects on radio wave propagation.

    Regular Variations


    The regular variations that affect the extent of ionization in the ionosphere can be divided into four main classes: daily, seasonal, 11-year, and 27-day variations.


    Daily. Daily variations in the ionosphere are a result of the 24-hour rotation of the Earth about its axis. Daily variations of the different layers (figure 14) are summarized as follows:

  • The D layer reflects VLF waves, is important for long range VLF communications, refracts LF and MF waves for short-range communications, absorbs HF waves, has little effect on VHF and above, and disappears at night.
  • In the E layer, ionization depends on the angle of the sun. The E layer refracts HF waves during the day up to 20 megahertz to distances of about 1200 miles. Ionization is greatly reduced at night.
  • The structure and density of the F region depend on the time of day and the angle of the sun. This region consists of one layer during the night and splits into two layers during daylight hours.
  • Ionization density of the F1 layer depends on the angle of the sun. Its main effect is to absorb HF waves passing through to the F2 layer.
    The F2 layer is the most important layer for long distance HF communications. It is a particularly variable layer and its height and density change with time of day, season, and sunspot activity.
  • Seasonal. Seasonal variations are the result of the Earth revolving around the sun; the relative position of the sun moves from one hemisphere to the other with changes in seasons. Seasonal variations of the D, E, and F1 layers correspond to the highest angle of the sun; thus the ionization density of these layers is greatest during the summer. The F2 layer, however, does not follow this pattern; its ionization is greatest in winter and least in summer, the reverse of what might be expected. As a result, operating frequencies for F2 layer propagation are higher in the winter than in the summer.

    Eleven-year sunspot cycle. One of the most notable phenomena on the surface of the sun is the appearance and disappearance of dark, irregularly shaped areas known as sunspots. The exact nature of sunspots is not known, but scientists believe they are caused by violent eruptions on the sun and are characterized by unusually strong magnetic fields. These sunspots are responsible for variations in the ionization level of the ionosphere. Sunspots can, of course, occur unexpectedly, and the life span of individual sunspots is variable; however, a regular cycle of sunspot activity has also been observed. This cycle has both a minimum and maximum level of sunspot activity that occurs approximately every 11 years.

    During periods of maximum sunspot activity, the ionization density of all layers increases. Because of this, absorption in the D layer increases and the critical frequencies for the E, F1, and F2 layers are higher. At these times, higher operating frequencies must be used for long distance communications.

    27-Day sunspot cycle. The number of sunspots in existence at any one time is continually subject to change as some disappear and new ones emerge. As the sun rotates on its own axis, these sunspots are visible at 27-day intervals, the approximate period required for the sun to make one complete rotation.

    The 27-day sunspot cycle causes variations in the ionization density of the layers on a day-to-day basis. The fluctuations in the F2 layer are greater than for any other layer. For this reason, precise predictions on a day-to-day basis of the critical frequency of the F2 layer are not possible. In calculating frequencies for long-distance communications, one must make allowances for the fluctuations of the F2 layer.


    Irregular Variations


    Irregular variations in ionospheric conditions also have an important effect on radio wave propagation. Because these variations are irregular and unpredictable, they can drastically affect communications capabilities without any warning. The more common irregular variations are sporadic E, sudden ionospheric disturbances, and ionospheric storms.


    Sporadic E. Irregular cloud-like patches of unusually high ionization, called sporadic E, often form at heights near the normal E layer. Exactly what causes this phenomenon is not known, nor can its occurrence be predicted. It is known to vary significantly with latitude, and in the northern latitudes, it appears to be closely related to the aurora borealis or northern lights.

    At times the sporadic E is so thin that radio waves penetrate it easily and are returned to Earth by the upper layers. At other times, it extends up to several hundred miles and is heavily ionized.

    These characteristics may be either harmful or helpful to radio wave propagation. For example, sporadic E may blank out the use of higher, more favourable ionospheric layers or cause additional absorption of the radio wave at some frequencies. Also, it can cause additional multi-path problems and delay the arrival times of the rays of RF energy.

    On the other hand, the critical frequency of the sporadic E is very high and can be greater than double the critical frequency of the normal ionospheric layers. This condition may permit the long distance transmission of signals at unusually high frequencies. It may also permit short distance communications to locations that would normally be in the skip zone.

    The sporadic E can form and disappear in a short time during either the day or night. However, it usually does not occur at the same time at all transmitting or receiving stations.

    Sudden ionospheric disturbances. The most startling of the ionospheric irregularities is known as a sudden ionospheric disturbance (SID). These disturbances may occur without warning and may prevail for any length of time, from a few minutes to several hours. When SID occurs, long distance propagation of HF radio waves is almost totally "blanked out." The immediate effect is that radio operators listening on normal frequencies are inclined to believe that their receivers have gone dead.

    When SID has occurred, examination of the sun has revealed a bright solar eruption. All stations lying wholly, or in part, on the sunward side of the Earth are affected. The solar eruption produces an unusually intense burst of ultraviolet light, which is not absorbed by the F2, F1, and E layers, but instead causes a sudden abnormal increase in the ionization density of the D layer. As a result, frequencies above 1 or 2 megahertz are unable to penetrate the D layer and are usually completely absorbed by the layer.

    Ionospheric storms. Ionospheric storms are disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field. They are associated, in a manner not fully understood, with both solar eruptions and the 27-day intervals, thus corresponding to the rotation of the sun.

    Scientists believe that ionospheric storms result from particle radiation from the sun. Particles radiated from a solar eruption have a slower velocity than ultraviolet light waves produced by the eruption. This would account for the 18-hour or so time difference between a SID and an ionospheric storm. An ionospheric storm that is associated with sunspot activity may begin anytime from 2 days before an active sunspot crosses the central meridian of the sun until four days after it passes the central meridian. At times, however, active sunspots have crossed the central region of the sun without any ionospheric storms occurring. Conversely, ionospheric storms have occurred when there were no visible spots on the sun and no preceding SID. As you can see, some correlation between ionospheric storms, SID, and sunspot activity is possible, but there are no hard and fast rules. Ionospheric storms can occur suddenly without warning.

    The most prominent effects of ionospheric storms are a turbulent ionosphere and very erratic sky wave propagation. Critical frequencies are lower than normal, particularly for the F2 layer. Ionospheric storms affect the higher F2 layer first, reducing its ion density. Lower layers are not appreciably affected by the storms unless the disturbance is great. The practical effect of ionospheric storms is that the range of frequencies that can be used for communications on a given circuit is much smaller than normal and communications are possible only at the lower working frequencies.




    Up to this point, we have covered various factors that control the propagation of radio waves through the ionosphere, such as the structure of the ionosphere, the incidence angle of radio waves, and operating frequencies. There is a very good reason for studying radio wave propagation. OneYou must have a thorough knowledge of radio wave propagation to exercise good judgment when you selecting transmitting and receiving antennas and operating frequencies. Selection of a suitable operating frequency (within the bounds of frequency allocations and availability) is of prime importance in maintaining reliable communications.


    Note. For successful communications between any two specified locations at any given time of the day, there is a maximum frequency, a lowest frequency, and an optimum frequency that can be used.

    Maximum Usable Frequency


    As we discussed earlier, the higher the frequency of a radio wave, the lower the rate of refraction by an ionized layer. Therefore, for a given angle of incidence and time of day, there is a maximum frequency that can be used for communications between two given locations. This frequency is known as the maximum usable frequency (MUF).


    Waves at frequencies above the MUF are normally refracted so slowly that they return to Earth beyond the desired location, or pass on through the ionosphere and are lost. You should understand, however, that use of an established MUF certainly does not guarantee successful communications between a transmitting site and a receiving site. Variations in the ionosphere may occur at any time and consequently raise or lower the predetermined MUF. This is particularly true for radio waves being refracted by the highly variable F2 layer. The MUF is highest around noon when ultraviolet light waves from the sun are the most intense. It then drops rather sharply as recombination begins to take place.


    Lowest Usable Frequency


    As there is a maximum operating frequency that can be used for communications between two points, there is also a minimum operating frequency. This is known as the lowest usable frequency (LUF). As the frequency of a radio wave is lowered, the rate of refraction increases. So a wave whose frequency is below the established LUF is refracted back to Earth at a shorter distance than desired, as shown in figure 23.


    Figure 2-23. Refraction of Frequency below the Lowest Usable Frequency (LUF)


    Figure 23. Refraction of Frequency below the Lowest Usable Frequency (LUF)


    The transmission path that results from the rate of refraction is not the only factor that determines the LUF. As a frequency is lowered, absorption of the radio wave increases. A wave whose frequency is too low is absorbed to such an extent that it is too weak for reception. Likewise, atmospheric noise is greater at lower frequencies; thus, a low-frequency radio wave may have an unacceptable signal-to-noise ratio.

    For a given angle of incidence and set of ionospheric conditions, the LUF for successful communications between two locations depends on the refraction properties of the ionosphere, absorption considerations, and the amount of atmospheric noise present.


    Optimum Working Frequency


    Neither the MUF nor the LUF is a practical operating frequency. While radio waves at the LUF can be refracted back to Earth at the desired location, the signal-to-noise ratio is still much lower than at the higher frequencies, and the probability of multi-path propagation is much greater. Operating at or near the MUF can result in frequent signal fading and dropouts when ionospheric variations alter the length of the transmission path.


    The most practical operating frequency is one that you can rely on with the least amount of problems. It should be high enough to avoid the problems of multi-path propagation, absorption, and noise encountered at the lower frequencies; but not so high as to result in the adverse effects of rapid changes in the ionosphere.

    A frequency that meets the above criteria has been established and is known as the optimum working frequency. It is abbreviated "FOT" from the initial letters of the French words for optimum working frequency, "frequence optimum de travail." The FOT is roughly about 85 percent of the MUF but the actual percentage varies and may be either considerably more or less than 85 percent.




    Weather is an additional factor that affects the propagation of radio waves. In this section, we will explain how and to what extent the various weather phenomena affect wave propagation.


    Wind, air temperature, and the water content of the atmosphere can combine in many ways. Certain combinations can cause radio signals to be heard hundreds of miles beyond the ordinary range of radio communications. Conversely, a different combination of factors can cause such attenuation of the signal that it may not be heard even over a normally satisfactory path. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules on the effects of weather on radio transmissions because the weather is extremely complex and subject to frequent change. We will limit our discussion on the effects of weather on radio waves to general terms.


    Precipitation Attenuation


    Calculating the effect of weather on radio wave propagation would be comparatively simple if there were no water or water vapour in the atmosphere. However, some form of water (vapour, liquid, or solid) is always present and must be considered in all calculations. Before we begin discussing the specific effects that individual forms of precipitation (rain, snow, and fog) have on radio waves, you should understand that attenuation because of precipitation is generally proportionate to the frequency and wavelength of the radio wave. For example, rain has a pronounced effect on waves at microwave frequencies. However, rain hardly affects waves with long wavelengths (HF range and below.). You can assume, then, that as the wavelength becomes shorter with increases in frequency, precipitation has an increasingly important attenuation effect on radio waves. Conversely, you can assume that as the wavelength becomes longer with decreases in frequency, precipitation has little attenuation effect.

    Rain. Attenuation because of raindrops is greater than attenuation because of other forms of precipitation. Attenuation may be caused by absorption, in which the raindrop, acting as a poor dielectric, absorbs power from the radio wave and dissipates the power by heat loss or by scattering (figure 24). Raindrops cause greater attenuation by scattering than by absorption at frequencies above 100 megahertz. At frequencies above 6 gigahertz, attenuation by raindrop scatter is even greater.


    Figure 2-24. RF Energy Losses from Scattering


    Figure 24. RF Energy Losses from Scattering


    Fog. In the discussion of attenuation, fog may be considered as another form of rain. Because fog remains suspended in the atmosphere, the attenuation is determined by the quantity of water per unit volume and by the size of the droplets. Attenuation because of fog is of minor importance at frequencies lower than 2 gigahertz. However, fog can cause serious attenuation by absorption at frequencies above 2 gigahertz.

    Snow. The scattering effect because of snow is difficult to compute because of irregular sizes and shapes of the flakes. While information on the attenuating effect of snow is limited, scientists assume that attenuation from snow is less than from rain falling at an equal rate. This assumption is borne out by the fact that the density of rain is eight times the density of snow. As a result, rain falling at 1 inch per hour would have more water per cubic inch than snow falling at the same rate.

    Hail. Attenuation by hail is determined by the size of the stones and their density. Attenuation of radio waves by scattering because of hailstones is considerably less than by rain.


    Temperature Inversion


    Under normal atmospheric conditions, the warmest air is found near the surface of the Earth. The air gradually becomes cooler as altitude increases. At times, however, an unusual situation develops in which layers of warm air are formed above layers of cool air. This condition is known as temperature inversion. These temperature inversions cause channels, or ducts, of cool air to be sandwiched between the surface of the Earth and a layer of warm air, or between two layers of warm air.

    If a transmitting antenna extends into such a duct of cool air, or if the radio wave enters the duct at a very low angle of incidence, VHF and UHF transmissions may be propagated far beyond normal line-of-sight distances. When ducts are present as a result of temperature inversions, good reception of VHF and UHF television signals from a station located hundreds of miles away is not unusual. These long distances are possible because of the different densities and refractive qualities of warm and cool air. The sudden change in density when a radio wave enters the warm air above a duct causes the wave to be refracted back toward Earth. When the wave strikes the Earth or a warm layer below the duct, it is again reflected or refracted upward and proceeds on through the duct with a multiple-hop type of action. An example of the propagation of radio waves by ducting is shown in figure 25.


    Figure 2-25. Duct Effect Caused by Temperature Inversion


    Figure 25. Duct Effect Caused by Temperature Inversion



    As the lowest region of the Earth's atmosphere, the troposphere extends from the Earth's surface to a height of slightly over 7 miles. Virtually all weather phenomena occur in this region. Generally, the troposphere is characterized by a steady decrease in both temperature and pressure as height is increased. However, the many changes in weather phenomena cause variations in humidity and an uneven heating of the Earth's surface. As a result, the air in the troposphere is in constant motion. This motion causes small turbulences, or eddies, to be formed, as shown by the bouncing of aircraft entering turbulent areas of the atmosphere. These turbulences are most intense near the Earth's surface and gradually diminish with height. They have a refractive quality that permits the refracting or scattering of radio waves with short wavelengths. This scattering provides enhanced communications at higher frequencies.


    Recall that in the relationship between frequency and wavelength, wavelength decreases as frequency increases and vice versa. Radio waves of frequencies below 30 megahertz normally have wavelengths longer than the size of weather turbulences. These radio waves are, therefore, affected very little by the turbulences. On the other hand, as the frequency increases into the VHF range and above, the wavelengths decrease in size, to the point that they become subject to tropospheric scattering. The usable frequency range for tropospheric scattering is from about 100 megahertz to 10 gigahertz.


    Tropospheric Scattering


    When a radio wave passing through the troposphere meets turbulence, it makes an abrupt change in velocity. This causes a small amount of the energy to be scattered in a forward direction and returned to Earth at distances beyond the horizon. This phenomenon is repeated as the radio wave meets other turbulences in its path. The total received signal is an accumulation of the energy received from each of the turbulences.


    This scattering mode of propagation enables VHF and UHF signals to be transmitted far beyond the normal line-of-sight. To understand how these signals are transmitted over greater distances, you must first consider the propagation characteristics of the space wave used in VHF and UHF line-of-sight communications. When the space wave is transmitted, it undergoes very little attenuation within the line-of-sight horizon. When it reaches the horizon, the wave is diffracted and follows the Earth's curvature. Beyond the horizon, the rate of attenuation increases very rapidly and signals soon become very weak and unusable.

    Tropospheric scattering, on the other hand, provides a usable signal at distances beyond the point where the diffracted space wave drops to an unusable level. This is because of the height at which scattering takes place. The turbulence that causes the scattering can be visualized as a relay station located above the horizon; it receives the transmitted energy and then reradiates it in a forward direction to some point beyond the line-of-sight distance. A high gain-receiving antenna aimed toward this scattered energy can then capture it.

    The magnitude of the received signal depends on the number of turbulences causing scatter in the desired direction and the gain of the receiving antenna. The scatter area used for tropospheric scatter is known as the scatter volume. The angle at which the receiving antenna must be aimed to capture the scattered energy is called the scatter angle. The scatter volume and scatter angles are shown in figure 26.


    Figure 2-26. Tropospheric Scattering Propagation


    Figure 26. Tropospheric Scattering Propagation


    The signal take-off angle (transmitting antenna's angle of radiation) determines the height of the scatter volume and the size of the scatter angle. A low signal take-off angle produces a low scatter volume, which in turn permits a receiving antenna that is aimed at a low angle to the scatter volume to capture the scattered energy.


    As the signal take-off angle is increased, the height of the scatter volume is increased. When this occurs, the amount of received energy decreases. There are two reasons for this: (1) the scatter angle increases as the height of the scatter volume is increased; (2) the amount of turbulence decreases with height. As the distance between the transmitting and receiving antennas is increased, the height of the scatter volume must also be increased. The received signal level, therefore, decreases as circuit distance is increased.

    The tropospheric region that contributes most strongly to tropospheric scatter propagation lies near the midpoint between the transmitting and receiving antennas and just above the radio horizon of the antennas.

    Because tropospheric scatter depends on turbulence in the atmosphere, changes in atmospheric conditions have an effect on the strength of the received signal. Both daily and seasonal variations in signal strength occur as a result of changes in the atmosphere. These variations are called long-term fading.

    In addition to long-term fading, the tropospheric scatter signal often is characterized by very rapid fading because of multi-path propagation. Because the turbulent condition is constantly changing, the path lengths and individual signal levels are also changing, resulting in a rapidly changing signal. Although the signal level of the received signal is constantly changing, the average signal level is stable; therefore, no complete fade- out occurs.

    Another characteristic of a tropospheric scatter signal is its relatively low power level. Because very little of the scattered energy is reradiated toward the receiver, the efficiency is very low and the signal level at the final receiver point is low. Initial input power must be high to compensate for the low efficiency in the scatter volume. This is accomplished by using high-power transmitters and high-gain antennas, which concentrate the transmitted power into a beam, thus increasing the intensity of energy of each turbulence in the volume. The receiver must also be very sensitive to detect the low-level signals.


    Application of Tropospheric Scattering


    Tropospheric scatter propagation is used for point-to-point communications. A correctly designed tropospheric scatter circuit will provide highly reliable service for distances ranging from 50 miles to 500 miles. Tropospheric scatter systems may be particularly useful for communications to locations in rugged terrain that are difficult to reach with other methods of propagation. One reason for this is that the tropospheric scatter circuit is not affected by ionospheric and auroral disturbances.