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HF Radio Wave Propagation



Radio wave propagation is an important issue for amateurs. Different frequencies propagate through different modes, and each mode has its own special characteristics. Choosing the proper mode for a particular frequency can mean the difference between making and missing a contact to a particular part of the world. In this article, only propagation of HF radio signals will be considered. The HF region spans 3 to 30 MHz. This includes the 80, 40, 30, 20, 17, 15, 12, and 10 meter bands. The only MF amateur band, 160m, will not be discussed, nor will bands above 10 meters.


Overview of HF Propagation

HF radio propagation exhibits certain distinguishing characteristics. The first is that propagation is possible over thousands of miles. Early experimenters were quite surprised by this, because laboratory experiments had confirmed that radio waves, like light waves, travel in a straight line. The second characteristic of HF propagation is that is highly variable. It has daily and seasonal variation, as well as a much longer 11 year cycle. This stands in contrast to line of sight propagation, which is generally quite constant and predictable (a good example of this is reception of commercial FM broadcasts). HF radio waves may travel by any of the following modes: 1. Ground Wave 2. Direct Wave (line-of-sight) 3. Sky Wave In the HF region, the ground is a poor conductor and the ground wave is quickly attenuated by ground losses. Some ground wave communication is possible on 80m, but at frequencies above 5 MHz, the ground wave is irrelevant. Direct waves follow the line-of-sight path between transmitter and receiver. In order for direct wave communication to occur, antennas at both ends of the path have to have low angles of radiation (so they can see each other). This is difficult to do on the lower bands, and as a result, direct wave communication is normally restricted to bands above 20m. Its range is determined by the height of both antennas and generally less than 20 miles. Sky waves are waves that leave the transmitting antenna in a straight line and are returned to the earth at a considerable distance by an electrically charged layer known as the ionosphere. Communication is possible throughout much of the day to almost anywhere in the world via sky wave. Throughout the remainder of the article, the attention will be on the sky wave and the phenomena that produce it


The Ionosphere

At high altitudes, high energy solar radiation can ionize the atmosphere. This region, known as the ionosphere, is electrically active as a result of the ionization. It can bend and attenuate radio waves that travel through it, causing some to be returned to earth and others simply to disappear. At frequencies above 200 MHz, the ionosphere becomes completely transparent to radio waves and has little effect on them. Below 30 MHz the

ionosphere exerts a profound effect on radio waves, creating many of the propagation phenomena observed at HF, MF, LF and VLF frequencies. The ionosphere generally consists of 4 highly ionized regions, separated by regions of lower ionization: 1. 2. 3. 4. The D layer at a height of 38 55 mi The E layer at a height of 62 75 mi The F1 layer at a height of 125 150 mi (winter) and 160 180 mi (summer) The F2 layer at a height of 150 180 mi (winter) and 240 260 mi (summer)

The density of ionization is greatest in the F layers and least in the D layer. One might expect that since the ionosphere is created by solar radiation, it would disappear shortly after sunset. The ionosphere changes after dark, but does not completely disappear. The D and E layers are located at lower altitudes, where the pressure is higher. The recombination rate for ions is very high at these pressures so the D and E layers disappear very quickly after sunset. The F layers are located in a low pressure region where recombination is very slow. The F1 and F2 layers do not disappear, but merge into a single F layer residing at a distance of 150 250 mi above the earth. The D layer plays only a negative role in HF communications. It acts as an attenuator, absorbing the radio signals, rather than returning them to earth. This absorption is inversely proportional to the square of the frequency, severely restricting communications on the lower HF bands during daylight. The E layer can return lower HF frequencies to the Earth, resulting in daytime short skip on the lower HF bands. It has very little effect on higher frequency HF radio waves, other than to change slightly their direction of travel. The F layers are primarily responsible for long-haul HF communications. Because there is only F layer ionization throughout the hours of darkness, it is carries almost all nighttime communications over intercontinental distances. IV. The Critical Frequency (fc) and Maximum Usable Frequency (MUF)

It has already been noted that the ionosphere can bend radio waves sufficently to send them back in the direction of the earth. The geometry of this hop is shown in the figure below. When radio waves are transmitted straight up towards the ionosphere (vertical incidence), the radio wave will be returned to earth at all frequencies below the critical frequency, (fc) . The critical frequency depends on the degree of ionization of the F layer, as shown in the following equation:

f cr =

Ne 1.24 * 1010

where fcr is the critical frequency and Ne is the electron concentration in the F layer. Daytime electron concentration in the F layer range from 5*10 11 m-3 to 25*1011 m-3 . At night, the values are about 10 times lower.

In most real world communications, the radio waves leave the transmitter more or less in the direction of the horizon (0 30 degrees takeoff angle). In this case, the radio wave hits the ionosphere obliquely and less bending is required to return the wave to earth. This means that frequencies above the critical frequency can be returned. For a takeoff angle of 0 degrees, the maximum frequency returned by the ionosphere is called the maximum usable frequency (MUF). The critical frequency and the MUF are related by the following equation:
MUF = f cr R 1 R +h

where R is the earths radius and h is the height of the F (F2) layer. The daytime MUF can range from 15 to over 40 MHz. At night, the MUF drops to 3 to 14 MHz. The longest hop possible on the HF bands is approximately 2500 miles, for a takeoff angle of 0 degrees. Higher takeoff angles yield shorter hops. Longer distances are covered by multiple hop propagation. When the refracted radio wave returns to earth, it is reflected back up towards the ionosphere, which begins another hop. V. Daily Propagation Effects

Earlier, it was noted that HF propagation was extremely variable. The simplest and shortest propagation cycle is the daily cycle. Shortly after sunrise, the D and E layers are formed and the F layer splits into two parts. The D layer acts as a selective absorber, attenuating low frequency signals by the greatest amount. D layer attenuation at 3 MHz can easily be 20 dB more than attenuation at 30 MHz. This makes frequencies below 5 or 6 MHz useless during the day for DX work. The E and F1 layers increase steadily in intensity from sunrise to noon and then decreases thereafter. It is possible to have some short skip propagation via the E or F1 layers when the local time at the ionospheric refraction point is approximately noon. The MUFs for the E and F1 layers are about 5 and 10 MHz respectively. The F2 layer is sufficiently ionized to radically bend (refract) the HF radio waves and return them to earth. As long as the MUF is above 5 - 6 MHz, long distance communications are possible. When the MUF falls below 5 MHz, the frequencies that can be returned by the F layer are completely attenuated by the D layer. During the daylight hours, the best bands to use are 15, 12, and 10m. There is usually some short skip on 17, 20, 30 and 40m, but there will be no sky wave propagation on 80m. Once darkness falls, bands above 17m become quiet as the MUF drops. Worldwide propagation is possible on the 80m, 40m, 30m and 20m bands at night, although high noise levels on 80m can make working across continents very difficult. VI. Seasonal Propagation Effects

HF propagation varies throughout the seasons. During the winter months, the atmosphere is colder and denser. This causes the ionospheric layers to be closer to the earth (see layer data presented in III) and to have a higher electron density. During the brief daytime of the Northern Hemisphere winter, the earth makes its closest approach to the sun, which increases the intensity of the UV radiation striking the ionosphere and the electron density as well. Electron density during the northern hemisphere winter can be 5 times greater than summers. This leads to winter MUFs that are about double the summer daytime value.

At night, the denser F layer undergoes recombination more quickly, causing the MUF to decrease more over the course of the winter evening than in summer. Additionally, the winter evenings are longer, so the F layer has more time to lose ions. Shortly before dawn in the dead of winter, the MUF can fall to extremely low values, perhaps to 2 MHz or lower. The D, E and F1 layers are relatively unaffected by the seasons. The D layer is a strong absorber throughout the year, and the E and F1 layers can be used for short skip single hop communications when the time halfway between the two stations in about 12 noon. During the winter daylight hours, the best bands are 20, 17, 15, 12, and 10m, with some short skip on 40m. At night, 80 and 40m are the best bets. Should the MUF after dark fall below 3.5 MHz, no HF propagation via sky wave will be possible. VII. Geographical Variation

The suns ionizing radiation is most intense in the equatorial regions and least intense in the polar regions. As a result, the daytime MUF of the E and F1 layers is highest in the tropics. Polar region MUFs for these layers can be three times lower. The F2 layer shows a more complex geographical MUF variation. While equatorial F2 MUFs are generally higher that polar F2 MUFs, the highest F2 MUF often occurs somewhere near Japan and the lowest over Scandinavia. VIII. Effects of Sunspots The final major source of variation in HF propagation is sunspots. A sunspot is a cool region on the suns surface that resembles a dark blemish on the sun. The number of sunspots observed on the suns surface follows an 11 year cycle. The cycle starts when the sun is free of spots. From that time about 4 5 years are required for the number of sunspots to reach a maximum. Then the sunspot count begins a slow decline over the next 6 7 years. The cycle is complete after 11 years. Sunspots carry with them intense magnetic fields. These fields energize a region of the sun known as the chromosphere, which lies just above the suns surface. As more sunspots appear on the solar disk, the chromosphere becomes more active, emitting more ultraviolet radiation, which increases the electron density in the earths atmosphere. The additional radiation affects primarily the F2 layer. During periods of peak sunspot activity, such as December 2001 or February 1958 the F2 MUF can rise to more than 50 MHz. During a sunspot maximum, the highly ionized F2 layer acts like a mirror, refracting the higher HF frequencies (above 20 MHz) with almost no loss. This allows amateurs to make contacts on the 15, 12 and 10m bands in excess of 10,000 miles using 10 watts or less. During short summer evenings, the MUF can stay above 14 MHz. The 20 m band stays open to some point in the world around the clock.

During periods of high activity it is also possible to have backscatter propagation either from the ionosphere or the auroral regions. Backscatter communication is unique in that the stations in contact do not point their antennas at each other, but instead at the region of high ionization in the ionosphere or towards the north (or south in the other hemisphere) magnetic pole. The figure below shows the location of the north auroral zone. During periods of high solar activity, this doughnut shaped region may expand to the south, approaching the US-Canadian border in North America, and covering Scandinavia in Europe.

During a sunspot minimum, the chromosphere is very quiet and its UV emissions are very low. This leads to a major decrease in the ionization of the F2 layer and its MUF is reduced accordingly. The MUF rarely rises to 20 MHz under these conditions and most long distance communications must be carried out on the lower HF bands. During periods of high sunspot activity, the best daytime bands are 12 and 10m. During the evening hours, the best are 20, 17 and 15m. At the low end of the cycle, only 30 and 20m will provide long distance communications during daylight. After dark, 40m will open for at least the early part of the evening. By the early morning hours, only 80m will support worldwide communications. IX. Propagation Disturbances

Because HF propagation is so closely tied to solar activity, sudden changes in the sun can have a profound effect how the ionosphere refracts radio waves. Besides sunspots, which are to some degree predictable, there are other phenomena, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that can happen without warning. A solar flare is a plume of very hot gas ejected from the suns surface. It rises through the chromosphere into the corona, disturbing both regions. X-ray emission from the corona may increase and large numbers of charged particles are thrown out into space at high velocity. The x-rays reach Earth in less than 9 minutes. If they are intense enough, the ionospheres electron density will become so great that all HF signals are absorbed by it and worldwide HF communications are blacked out. The charged particles, which require 2 3 days to reach Earth, are trapped by the terrestrial magnetic field. The particles spiral along the magnetic field lines toward the magnetic poles, creating large auroral displays. Signals traveling through the auroral zone are severely distorted, in some cases to the point of unintelligibility (auroral distortion is what makes SMs, LAs, OHs and UA9s sound watery) . If the influx of charged particles is great enough, the ionosphere itself is affected. The ionization density of the layers increases dramatically, resulting in an HF communications blackout. Generally speaking, ionospheric disturbances affect the lowest HF bands most severely. Occasionally communications on 10m may be possible, but more often than not, one must turn off the radio and wait for the disturbance to pass. X. Propagation Indices

Physicists use a variety of indices to quantify solar and geomagnetic. The most important are: K index a local index of geomagnetic activity computed every three hours at a variety of points on Earth. The K scale is shown below K Index 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Geomagnetic Condition Inactive Very Quiet Quiet Unsettled Active Minor Storm Major Storm Severe Storm Very Severe Storm Extremely Severe Storm

The best HF propagation occurs when K is less than 5. A K index less than 3 is usually a good indicator of quiet conditions on 80 and 40m.

Ap index - a daily average planetary geomagnetic activity index based on local K indices. The A scale is shown below: Ap Index 0-7 8-15 16-29 30-49 50-99 100-400 Geomagnetic Condition Quiet Unsettled Active Minor Storm Major Storm Severe Storm

Good HF propagation is likely when A is less than 15, particularly on the lower HF bands. When A exceeds 50 , ionospheric backscatter propagation is possible on 12 and 10m. When A exceeds 100, auroral backscatter may be possible on 10m. These two geomagnetic indices are related to one another as follows: K Index 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Ap Index 0 3 7 15 27 48 80 140 240 400

Solar Flux This index is a measure of 10.7 cm microwave energy emitted by the sun. A flux of 63.75 corresponds to a spot free, quiet sun. As the flux number increases, the solar activity increases. Single hop HF propagation is normally possible on bands below 20m when the flux is greater than 70. Multi-hop propagation is possible on 80 20m when the flux exceeds 120. Openings on 15 and 10 meters are common when the flux exceeds 180. Should the flux exceed 230, multi-hop propagation is possible up into the VHF region. Sunspot Number (Wolf Number) This is the oldest measure of sunspot activity, with continuous records stretching back into the 19th century. The sunspot number is computed multiplying the number of sunspot groups observed by 10 and adding this to the number of individual spots observed. Because the sun rotates and different areas of the sun are visible each day, it is common to use 90 day or annual average sunspot numbers. The lowest possible sunspot number is 0. The largest annual average value recorded to date

was 190.2 in 1957. As with solar flux, higher sunspot numbers equate to more solar activity. The chart below shows flux, sunspot numbers and A index for the past 80 days.

This chart shows the solar flux for the past 15 years (September 1986 March 2002): Actual monthly sunspot number Smoothed Sunspot Number



This is meant to be a brief overview of HF propagation. There have been many books written on this subject and a there are many computer resources available, particularly for propagation forecasting. The Radio Society of Great Britain has an interesting website devoted to propagation,