HF Ionospheric Radio Signal Propagation

- the basics of HF ionospheric radio propagation and how the ionosphere enables radio communications links to be established over large distances around the globe using what are termed sky waves or skywaves.

As electromagnetic waves, and in this case, radio signals travel, they interact with objects and the media in which they travel. As they do this the radio signals can be reflected, refracted or diffracted. These interactions cause the radio signals to change direction, and to reach areas which would not be possible if the radio signals travelled in a direct line.

HF radio communications is dependent for most of its applications on the use of the ionosphere. This region in the atmosphere enables radio communications signals to be reflected, or more correctly refracted back to earth so that they can travel over great distances around the globe. Ionospheric propagation is normally though of as an HF propagation mode, although, it use can extend above and below the HF portion of the spectrum on many occasions.

The fact that radio communications signals can travel all over the globe on the HF bands is widely used by many by broadcasters, news agencies, maritime, radio hams and many other users. Radio transmitters using relatively low powers can be used to communicate to the other side of the globe. Although radio propagation using the ionosphere may not be not as reliable as that provided by satellites, it nevertheless provides a very cost effective and efficient form of radio communication. To enable the most to be made of ionospheric propagation many radio users make extensive use of HF propagation programmes to predict the areas of the globe to which signals may travel, or the probability of them reaching a given area.

These HF propagation prediction programmes utilise a large amount of data, and many have been developed over many years, along with data about the prevailing conditions. However it is still useful to gain a view of how signals travel when using ionospheric propagation and to understand why signal conditions change. In this way the best use can be made of ionospheric propagation.

Radio communications signals in the medium and short wave bands travel by two basic means. The first is known as a ground wave (covered on a separate page in this section), and the second a sky wave using the ionosphere.


When using ionospheric radio propagation, the radio signals leave the Earth's surface and travel towards the ionosphere where some of these are returned to Earth. These radio signals are termed sky waves for obvious reason. If they are returned to Earth, then the ionosphere may (very simply) be viewed as a vast reflecting surface encompassing the Earth that enables signals to travel over much greater distances than would otherwise be possible. Naturally this is a great over simplification because the frequency, time of day and many other parameters govern the reflection, or more correctly the refraction of signals back to Earth. There are in fact a number of layers, or more correctly regions within the ionosphere, and these act in different ways as described below.

D region

When a sky wave leaves the Earth's surface and travels upwards, the first region of interest that it reaches in the ionosphere is called the D region. This region attenuates the signals as they pass through. The level of attenuation depends on the frequency. Low frequencies are attenuated more than higher ones. In fact it is found that the attenuation varies as the inverse square of the frequency, i.e. doubling the frequency reduces the level of attenuation by a factor of four. This means that low frequency signals are often prevented from reaching the higher regions, except at night when the region disappears.

The D region attenuates signals because the radio signals cause the free electrons in the region to vibrate. As they vibrate the electrons collide with molecules, and at each collision there is a small loss of energy. With countless millions of electrons vibrating, the amount of energy loss becomes noticeable and manifests itself as a reduction in the overall signal level. The amount of signal loss is dependent upon a number of factors: One is the number of gas molecules that are present. The greater the number of gas molecules, the higher the number of collisions and hence the higher the attenuation. The level of ionisation is also very important. The higher the level of ionisation, the greater the number of electrons that vibrate and collide with molecules. The third main factor is the frequency of the signal. As the frequency increases, the wavelength of the vibration shortens, and the number of collisions between the free electrons and gas molecules decreases. As a result signals lower in the radio frequency spectrum are attenuated far more than those which are higher in frequency. Even so high frequency signals still suffer some reduction in signal strength.

E and F Regions

Once a signal passes through the D region, it travels on and reaches first the E, and next the F regions. At the altitude where these regions are found the air density is very much less, and this means that when the free electrons are excited by radio signals and vibrate, far fewer collisions occur. As a result the way in which these regions act is somewhat different. The electrons are again set in motion by the radio signal, but they tend to re-radiate it. As the signal is travelling in an area where the density of electrons is increasing, the further it progresses into the region, the signal is refracted away from the area of higher electron density. In the case of HF signals, this refraction is often sufficient to bend them back to earth. In effect it appears that the region has "reflected" the signal.

The tendency for this "reflection" is dependent upon the frequency and the angle of incidence. As the frequency increases, it is found that the amount of refraction decreases until a frequency is reached where the signals pass through the region and on to the next. Eventually a point is reached where the signal passes through all the regions and on into outer space.

Refraction of a radio signal as it enters the ionosphere

Refraction of a radio signal as it enters an ionised region

Different frequencies

To gain a better idea of the characteristics of HF propagation using the ionosphere, it is worth viewing what happens to a radio communications signal if the frequency is increased across the frequency spectrum. First it starts with a signal in the medium wave broadcast band. During the day signals on these frequencies only propagate using the ground wave. Any signals that reach the D region are absorbed. However at night as the D region disappears signals reach the other regions and may be heard over much greater distances.

If the frequency of the signal is increased, a point is reached where the signal starts to penetrate the D region and signals reach the E region. Here it is reflected and will pass back through the D region and return to earth a considerable distance away from the transmitter.

As the frequency is increased further the signal is refracted less and less by the E region and eventually it passes right through. It then reaches the F1 region and here it may be reflected passing back through the D and E regions to reach the earth again. As the F1 region is higher than the E region the distance reached will be greater than that for an E region reflection.

Finally as the frequency of the radio communications signal rises still further the it will eventually pass through the F1 region and onto the F2 region. This is the highest of the regions in the ionosphere and the distances reached using this are the greatest. As a rough guide the maximum skip distance for the E region is around 2500 km and 5000 km for the F2 region.

Signals reflected by the E and F regions

Multiple hops

Whilst it is possible to reach considerable distances using the F region as already described, on its own this does not explain the fact that radio signals are regularly heard from opposite sides of the globe using HF propagation with the ionosphere. This occurs because the signals are able to undergo several "reflections". Once the signals are returned to earth from the ionosphere, they are reflected back upwards by the earth's surface, and again they are able to undergo another "reflection" by the ionosphere. Naturally the signal is reduced in strength at each "reflection", and it is also found that different areas of the Earth reflect radio signals differently. As might be anticipated the surface of the sea is a very good reflector, whereas desert areas are very poor. This means that signals that are "reflected" back to the ionosphere by the Pacific or Atlantic oceans will be stronger than those that use the Sahara desert or the red centre of Australia.

Multiple ionospheric refractions

Multiple reflections

It is not just the Earth's surface that introduces losses into the signal path. In fact the major cause of loss is the D region, even for frequencies high up into the HF portion of the spectrum. One of the reasons for this is that the signal has to pass through the D region twice for every reflection by the ionosphere. This means that to get the best signal strengths it is necessary signal paths enable the minimum number of hops to be used. This is generally achieved using frequencies close to the maximum frequencies that can support communications using ionospheric propagation, and thereby using the highest regions in the ionosphere. In addition to this the level of attenuation introduced by the D region is also reduced. This means that a radio signal on 20 MHz for example will be stronger than one on 10 MHz if propagation can be supported at both frequencies.

HF propagation using the ionosphere is still a widely used as a form of radio communications. While not as reliable as satellite communications, it is not nearly as expensive, and can provide a useful back-up in case the satellite communications fail. It is also widely used as the primary form of radio communications by many organisations from radio broadcasters to radio amateurs, as well as ship to shore and many other forms of point to point communications. As a result HF propagation using the ionosphere is likely to remain in use indefinitely as a form of radio communications technology.

By Ian Poole

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