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Ionosphere, influence on satellite and radio communication

The ionosphere is the upper layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. This area of the atmosphere consists of several conductive layers that reflect radio waves, a characteristic which is of interest for scientists and engineers, for example for radio detection of meteors, but specially in the telecommunications industry.

The ionosphere of the Earth constantly varies, depending on:

  • time of day
  • season
  • geographical position
  • level of solar activity

Ionosphere influences propagation of radio waves

The condition of the ionosphere affects the quality of traditional radio communication. The high variability of the ionosphere greatly influences the propagation of radio waves.

Thus, intense solar activity can disrupt certain radio transmissions and sometimes even lead to a real "blackout" of communications. A solar flare can cause a sudden increase in the electron concentration.

Ionosphere effect on satellite communication

The ionosphere, for instance, (strongly) affects the signals that satellites communicate. Understanding and predicting the turbulent regions of the ionosphere and their effects on satellite communications has important applications for:

  • military operations in remote locations
  • planned networks of mobile communications satellites
  • high-precision applications of global navigation satellite systems (American GPS, Russian GLONASS, European Galileo and Chinese BEIDOU)

Only imagine what the consequences would be, if the data from such a positioning system was badly affected by the evolution in the ionosphere’s condition and was not corrected.

Therefore it is vital that we continuously track the ionized layers in our upper atmosphere.

Artist's view of a Galileo Full Operational Capability (FOC) satellite. Credits ESA–Pierre Carril, 2015.
Positioning system Galileo. Credits: ESA - J. Huart