Signal propagation for satellites

- the effects of the atmosphere on satellite signals

Satellites are widely used these days for everything from navigation, in the case of GPS, satellite television broadcasting, communications, mobile phone technology, Internet broadband weather monitoring and much more.

Satellites normally use frequencies that are in excess of 500 MHz where the signals are not unduly affected by the ionosphere or troposphere. However some effects can be noticed and are important, especially when planning, installing or setting up a satellite system.

Ground to satellite paths

When signals travel from the ground up to the satellite they pass through four main regions. These are the troposphere, above which is region that is often termed inner free space which is above the troposphere and below the ionosphere. The next region is the ionosphere, and finally there is the outer free space.

There are a number of different of effects that are introduced by these regions. Transmission in free space has unity refractive index and is loss-less (apart from the spreading effect that reduces the signal power over a fixed area with distance away from the source, but no power is actually lost).

The troposphere and ionosphere have refractive indices that differ from unity. The troposphere is greater than unity and the ionosphere is less than unity and as a result refraction and absorption occur. The inner free space region also has little effect.

Faraday rotation

A further effect that is introduced by the ionosphere is known as Faraday rotation which results from the fact that the ionosphere is a magneto-ionic region. The Faraday rotation of a signal causes different elements of a signal to travel in different ways, particularly rotating the plane of polarisation. This can create some problems with reception. A linearly polarised signal can be considered as two contra-rotating circularly polarised signals. The phase velocities of these two signals vary in a magnetic medium such as the ionosphere and as a result the polarisation of the signal changes. The degree of change is dependent upon the state of the ionosphere and it follows the same pattern as that experienced for HF ionospheric communications changing over the course of the day, with the seasons and over the sunspot cycle.

Ionospheric scintillations

Another of the effects introduced by the ionosphere is termed "ionospheric scintillations." These scintillations manifest themselves as a variety of variations of amplitude, phase, and polarisation angle. They can also change the angle of arrival of the signals. These variations change over a period of between one to fifteen seconds, and they can affect signals well into the microwave region.

The variations are caused primarily by the variations in electron density arising in the E region, often as a result of sporadic E but also in the F layer where a spreading effect is the cause. The level of scintillation is dependent upon a number of factors including the location of the earth station and the state of the ionosphere, as a result of the location, the sunspot cycle, the level of geomagnetic activity, latitude, and local time of day.

The scintillations are more intense in equatorial regions, falling with increasing latitude away from the equator but then rising at high latitudes, i.e. in the auroral zone or the region where auroras take place. The effects are also found to decrease with increasing frequency, and generally not noticeable above frequencies of 1 - 2 GHz. As such they are not applicable to many direct broadcast television signals, although they may affect GPS, and some communications satellites.

Tropospheric effects

There are a number of effects that the troposphere introduces including signal bending as a result of refraction, scintillation, and attenuation.

The signal refraction in the troposphere is in the opposite sense to that in the ionosphere. This is because the refractive index in the troposphere is greater than unity, and it is also frequency independent. The signal refraction gives them a greater range than would be expected as a result of the direct geometric line of sight. Tropospheric ducting and extended range effects that are experienced by terrestrial VHF and UHF communications may also be experienced when low angles of elevation are used.

Scintillations induced by the troposphere are often greater than those seen as a result of the ionosphere. They occur as a result of the turbulence in the atmosphere where areas of differing refractive index move around as a result of the wind or convection currents. The degree to which the scintillations occur is dependent upon the angle of inclination, and above angles of around 15 degrees the effect can normally be ignored. At angles between 5 and 10 degrees the changes can often be around 6 dB at frequencies of around 5 GHz.

Doppler shift

Frequency changes as a result of the Doppler shift principle may be in evidence with signals from some satellites. Satellites in Low Earth Orbits move very quickly, and as a result a Doppler frequency shift is apparent in many cases. With the satellite moving towards the earth station the frequency appears higher than nominal, and then as it moves away the apparent frequency falls. The degree of shift is dependent upon a number of factors including the speed of the satellite (more correctly its speed relative to the earth station) and the frequencies in use. Shifts of the order of 10 kHz may be experienced. As most satellites operate in a cross mode configuration, the Doppler shift is not just applicable to the band on which the signal is received, but to the cumulative effect of the uplink and downlink transmissions. In many instances the effects will subtract because of the way the satellite mixing process is configured.


Although satellites generally operate at frequencies that may be thought to be immune from tropospheric and ionospheric disturbance, these regions still have a significant effect and this needs to be taken into account when designing satellite systems.

By Ian Poole

Read more radio propagation tutorials . . . . .

Overview Path loss Multipath propagation Ionospheric
Path loss Tropospheric Groundwave Meteor burst

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Gladys West - Pioneer of GPS
GPS and GNSS positioning technology is such an integral part of our lives today that we rarely stop to think about where it all came from. When we do, we usually picture men in white shirts and dark glasses hunched over calculators and slide rules. In fact, one of the early pioneers behind GPS and GNSS technology was Gladys West - a black woman. is operated and owned by Adrio Communications Ltd and edited by Ian Poole. All information is © Adrio Communications Ltd and may not be copied except for individual personal use. This includes copying material in whatever form into website pages. While every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of the information on, no liability is accepted for any consequences of using it. This site uses cookies. By using this site, these terms including the use of cookies are accepted. More explanation can be found in our Privacy Policy