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Radio propagation is the behavior of radio waves when they are transmitted, or propagated from one point on the Earth to another, or into various parts of the atmosphere. As a form of electromagnetic radiation, like light waves, radio waves are affected by the phenomena of reflection, refraction, diffraction, absorption, polarization and scattering.
Radio propagation is affected by the daily changes of water vapor in the troposphere and ionization in the upper atmosphere, due to the Sun. Understanding the effects of varying conditions on radio propagation has many practical applications, from choosing frequencies for international shortwave broadcasters, to designing reliable mobile telephone systems, to radio navigation, to operation of radar systems.
Radio propagation is also affected by several other factors determined by its path from point to point. This path can be a direct line of sight path or an over-the-horizon path aided by refraction in the ionosphere, which is a region between approximately 60 and 600 km. Factors influencing ionospheric radio signal propagation can include sporadic-E, spread-F, solar flares, geomagnetic storms, ionospheric layer tilts, and solar proton events.
Radio waves at different frequencies propagate in different ways. At extra low frequencies (ELF) and very low frequencies the wavelength is very much larger than the separation between the earth's surface and the D layer of the ionosphere, so electromagnetic waves may propagate in this region as a waveguide. Indeed, for frequencies below 20 kHz, the wave propagates as a single waveguide mode with a horizontal magnetic field and vertical electric field. The interaction of radio waves with the ionized regions of the atmosphere makes radio propagation more complex to predict and analyze than in free space. Ionospheric radio propagation has a strong connection to space weather. A sudden ionospheric disturbance or shortwave fadeout is observed when the x-rays associated with a solar flare ionize the ionospheric D-region. Enhanced ionization in that region increases the absorption of radio signals passing through it. During the strongest solar x-ray flares, complete absorption of virtually all ionospherically propagated radio signals in the sunlit hemisphere can occur. These solar flares can disrupt HF radio propagation and affect GPS accuracy.
Since radio propagation is not fully predictable, such services as emergency locator transmitters, in-flight communication with ocean-crossing aircraft, and some television broadcasting have been moved to communications satellites. A satellite link, though expensive, can offer highly predictable and stable line of sight coverage of a given area.
In free space, all electromagnetic waves (radio, light, X-rays, etc.) obey the inverse-square law which states that the power density of an electromagnetic wave is proportional to the inverse of the square of the distance from a point source or:
Doubling the distance from a transmitter means that the power density of the radiated wave at that new location is reduced to one-quarter of its previous value.
The power density per surface unit is proportional to the product of the electric and magnetic field strengths. Thus, doubling the propagation path distance from the transmitter reduces each of their received field strengths over a free-space path by one-half.
|ELF||Extremely Low Frequency||3–30 Hz||10,000-100,000 km|
|SLF||Super Low Frequency||30–300 Hz||10,000-1,000 km|
|ULF||Ultra Low Frequency||0.3–3 kHz||1,000-100 km|
|VLF||Very Low Frequency||3–30 kHz||100–10 km||Guided between the earth and the ionosphere.|
|LF||Low Frequency||30–300 kHz||10–1 km||Guided between the earth and the D layer of the ionosphere.|
|MF||Medium Frequency||300–3000 kHz||1000–100 m||Surface waves. |
E, F layer ionospheric refraction at night, when D layer absorption weakens.
|HF||High Frequency (Short Wave)||3–30 MHz||100–10 m||E layer ionospheric refraction. |
F1, F2 layer ionospheric refraction.
|VHF||Very High Frequency||30–300 MHz||10–1 m||Infrequent E ionospheric (Es) refraction. Uncommonly F2 layer ionospheric refraction during high sunspot activity up to 50 MHz and rarely to 80 MHz. Generally direct wave. Sometimes tropospheric ducting.|
|UHF||Ultra High Frequency||300–3000 MHz||100–10 cm||Direct wave. Sometimes tropospheric ducting.|
|SHF||Super High Frequency||3–30 GHz||10–1 cm||Direct wave.|
|EHF||Extremely High Frequency||30–300 GHz||10–1 mm||Direct wave limited by absorption.|
|THF||Tremendously High frequency||0.3–3 THz||1–0.1 mm|
Lower frequencies (between 30 and 3,000 kHz) have the property of following the curvature of the earth via groundwave propagation in the majority of occurrences.
In this mode the radio wave propagates by interacting with the semi-conductive surface of the earth. The wave "clings" to the surface and thus follows the curvature of the earth. Vertical polarization is used to alleviate short circuiting the electric field through the conductivity of the ground. Since the ground is not a perfect electrical conductor, ground waves are attenuated rapidly as they follow the earth’s surface. Attenuation is proportional to the frequency making this mode mainly useful for LF and VLF frequencies (see also Earth-ionosphere waveguide).
Today LF and VLF are mostly used for time signals, and for military communications, especially one-way transmissions to ships and submarines, although radio amateurs have an allocation at 137 kHz in some parts of the world. Radio broadcasting using surface wave propagation uses the higher portion of the LF range in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Early commercial and professional radio services relied exclusively on long wave, low frequencies and ground-wave propagation. To prevent interference with these services, amateur and experimental transmitters were restricted to the higher (HF) frequencies, felt to be useless since their ground-wave range was limited. Upon discovery of the other propagation modes possible at medium wave and short wave frequencies, the advantages of HF for commercial and military purposes became apparent. Amateur experimentation was then confined only to authorized frequency segments in that range.
Line-of-sight is the direct propagation of radio waves between antennas that are visible to each other. This is probably the most common of the radio propagation modes at VHF and higher frequencies. Because radio signals can travel through many non-metallic objects, radio can be picked up through walls. This is still line-of-sight propagation. Examples would include propagation between a satellite and a ground antenna or reception of television signals from a local TV transmitter.
Ground plane reflection effects are an important factor in VHF line of sight propagation. The interference between the direct beam line-of-sight and the ground reflected beam often leads to an effective inverse-fourth-power i.e. (1/distance)^4 law for ground-plane limited radiation. [Need reference to inverse-fourth-power law + ground plane. Drawings may clarify]
Skywave propagation, also referred to as skip, is any of the modes that rely on refraction of radio waves in the ionosphere, which is made up of one or more ionized layers in the upper atmosphere. F2-layer is the most important ionospheric layer for long-distance, multiple-hop HF propagation, though F1, E, and D-layers also play significant roles. The D-layer, when present during sunlight periods, causes significant amount of signal loss, as does the E-layer whose maximum usable frequency can rise to 4 MHz and above and thus block higher frequency signals from reaching the F2-layer. The layers, or more appropriately "regions", are directly affected by the sun on a daily diurnal cycle, a seasonal cycle and the 11-year sunspot cycle and determine the utility of these modes. During solar maxima, or sunspot highs and peaks, the whole HF range up to 30 MHz can be used usually around the clock and F2 propagation up to 50 MHz is observed frequently depending upon daily solar flux 10.7cm radiation values. During solar minima, or minimum sunspot counts down to zero, propagation of frequencies above 15 MHz is generally unavailable.
Although the claim is commonly made that two-way HF propagation along a given path is reciprocal, that is, if the signal from location A reaches location B at a good strength, the signal from location B will be similar at station A because the same path is traversed in both directions. However, the ionosphere is far too complex and constantly changing to support the reciprocity theorem. The path is never exactly the same in both directions. In brief, conditions at the two terminii of a path generally cause dissimilar polarization shifts, dissimilar splits into ordinary rays and extraordinary or Pedersen rays which are erratic and impossibly identical or similar due to variations in ionization density, shifting zenith angles, effects of the earth's magnetic DIPOLE contours, antenna radiation patterns, ground conditions and other variables.
Forecasting of skywave modes is of considerable interest to amateur radio operators and commercial marine and aircraft communications, and also to shortwave broadcasters. Real-time propagation can be assessed by listening for transmissions from specific beacon transmitters.
Meteor scattering relies on reflecting radio waves off the intensely ionized columns of air generated by meteors. While this mode is very short duration, often only from a fraction of second to couple of seconds per event, digital Meteor burst communications allows remote stations to communicate to a station that may be hundreds of miles up to over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away, without the expense required for a satellite link. This mode is most generally useful on VHF frequencies between 30 and 250 MHz.
Intense columns of Auroral ionization at 100 km altitudes within the auroral oval backscatter radio waves, perhaps most notably on HF and VHF. Backscatter is angle-sensitive—incident ray vs. magnetic field line of the column must be very close to right-angle. Random motions of electrons spiraling around the field lines create a Doppler-spread that broadens the spectra of the emission to more or less noise-like—depending on how high radio frequency is used. The radio-auroras are observed mostly at high latitudes and rarely extend down to middle latitudes. The occurrence of radio-auroras depends on solar activity (flares, coronal holes, CMEs) and annually the events are more numerous during solar cycle maxima. Radio aurora includes the so-called afternoon radio aurora which produces stronger but more distorted signals and after the Harang-minima, the late-night radio aurora (sub-storming phase) returns with variable signal strength and lesser doppler spread. The propagation range for this predominantly back-scatter mode extends up to about 2000 km in east-west plane, but strongest signals are observed most frequently from the north at nearby sites on same latitudes.
Rarely, a strong radio-aurora is followed by Auroral-E, which resembles both propagation types in some ways.
Sporadic E (Es) propagation can be observed on HF and VHF bands. It must not be confused with ordinary HF E-layer propagation. Sporadic-E at mid-latitudes occurs mostly during summer season, from May to August in the northern hemisphere and from November to February in the southern hemisphere. There is no single cause for this mysterious propagation mode. The reflection takes place in a thin sheet of ionisation around 90 km height. The ionisation patches drift westwards at speeds of few hundred km per hour. There is a weak periodicity noted during the season and typically Es is observed on 1 to 3 successive days and remains absent for a few days to reoccur again. Es do not occur during small hours; the events usually begin at dawn, and there is a peak in the afternoon and a second peak in the evening. Es propagation is usually gone by local midnight.
Observation of radio propagation beacons operating around 28.2 MHz, 50 MHz and 70 MHz, indicates that maximum observed frequency (MOF) for Es is found to be lurking around 30 MHz on most days during the summer season, but sometimes MOF may shoot up to 100 MHz or even more in ten minutes to decline slowly during the next few hours. The peak-phase includes oscillation of MOF with periodicity of approximately 5...10 minutes. The propagation range for Es single-hop is typically 1000 to 2000 km, but with multi-hop, double range is observed. The signals are very strong but also with slow deep fading.
At VHF and higher frequencies, small variations (turbulence) in the density of the atmosphere at a height of around 6 miles (10 km) can scatter some of the normally line-of-sight beam of radio frequency energy back toward the ground, allowing over-the-horizon communication between stations as far as 500 miles (800 km) apart. The military developed the White Alice Communications System covering all of Alaska, using this tropospheric scattering principle.
Sudden changes in the atmosphere's vertical moisture content and temperature profiles can on random occasions make microwave and UHF & VHF signals propagate hundreds of kilometers up to about 2,000 kilometers (1,300 mi)—and for ducting mode even farther—beyond the normal radio-horizon. The inversion layer is mostly observed over high pressure regions, but there are several tropospheric weather conditions which create these randomly occurring propagation modes. Inversion layer's altitude for non-ducting is typically found between 100 meters (300 ft) to about 1 kilometer (3,000 ft) and for ducting about 500 meters to 3 kilometers (1,600 to 10,000 ft), and the duration of the events are typically from several hours up to several days. Higher frequencies experience the most dramatic increase of signal strengths, while on low-VHF and HF the effect is negligible. Propagation path attenuation may be below free-space loss. Some of the lesser inversion types related to warm ground and cooler air moisture content occur regularly at certain times of the year and time of day. A typical example could be the late summer, early morning tropospheric enhancements that bring in signals from distances up to few hundred kilometers for a couple of hours, until undone by the Sun's warming effect.
Rain scattering is purely a microwave propagation mode and is best observed around 10 GHz, but extends down to a few gigahertz—the limit being the size of the scattering particle size vs. wavelength. This mode scatters signals mostly forwards and backwards when using horizontal polarization and side-scattering with vertical polarization. Forward-scattering typically yields propagation ranges of 800 km. Scattering from snowflakes and ice pellets also occurs, but scattering from ice without watery surface is less effective. The most common application for this phenomenon is microwave rain radar, but rain scatter propagation can be a nuisance causing unwanted signals to intermittently propagate where they are not anticipated or desired. Similar reflections may also occur from insects though at lower altitudes and shorter range. Rain also causes attenuation of point-to-point and satellite microwave links. Attenuation values up to 30 dB have been observed on 30 GHz during heavy tropical rain.
Airplane scattering (or most often reflection) is observed on VHF through microwaves and, besides back-scattering, yields momentary propagation up to 500 km even in mountainous terrain. The most common back-scatter applications are air-traffic radar, bistatic forward-scatter guided-missile and airplane-detecting trip-wire radar, and the US space radar.
Lightning scattering has sometimes been observed on VHF and UHF over distance of about 500 km. The hot lightning channel scatters radio-waves for a fraction of a second. The RF noise burst from the lightning makes the initial part of the open channel unusable and the ionization disappears soon because of combination at low altitude high atmospheric pressure. Although the hot lightning channel is briefly observable with microwave radar, no practical use for this mode has been found in communications.
Knife-Edge diffraction is the propagation mode where radio waves are bent around sharp edges. For example, this mode is used to send radio signals over a mountain range when a line-of-sight path is not available. However, the angle cannot be too sharp or the signal will not diffract. The diffraction mode requires increased signal strength, so higher power or better antennas will be needed than for an equivalent line-of-sight path.
Diffraction depends on the relationship between the wavelength and the size of the obstacle. In other words, the size of the obstacle in wavelengths. Lower frequencies diffract around large smooth obstacles such as hills more easily. For example, in many cases where VHF (or higher frequency) communication is not possible due to shadowing by a hill, one finds that it is still possible to communicate using the upper part of the HF band where the surface wave is of little use.
Diffraction phenomena by small obstacles are also important at high frequencies. Signals for urban cellular telephony tend to be dominated by ground-plane effects as they travel over the rooftops of the urban environment. They then diffract over roof edges into the street, where multipath propagation, absorption and diffraction phenomena dominate.
Low-frequency radio waves travel easily through brick and stone and VLF even penetrates sea-water. As the frequency rises, absorption effects become more important. At microwave or higher frequencies, absorption by molecular resonance in the atmosphere (mostly water, H2O and oxygen, O2) is a major factor in radio propagation. For example, in the 58–60 GHz band, there is a major absorption peak which makes this band useless for long-distance use. This phenomenon was first discovered during radar research in World War II. Beyond around 400 GHz, the Earth's atmosphere blocks some segments of spectra while still passes some—this is true up to UV light, which is blocked by ozone, but visible light and some of the near-infrared is transmitted.
Heavy rain and snow also affect microwave reception.
HF propagation conditions can be simulated using radio propagation models, such as the Voice of America Coverage Analysis Program, and realtime measurements can be done using chirp transmitters. For radio amateurs the WSPR mode provides maps with real time propagation conditions between a network of transmitters and receivers. As of today even without special beacons the realtime propagation conditions can be measured: a worldwide network of receivers decodes morse code signals on amateur radio frequencies in realtime and provides sophisticated search functions and propagation maps for every station received.
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The following external references provide practical examples of radio propagation concepts as demonstrated using software built on the VOACAP model.