The Atmosphere

Layers of the Atmosphere

How is the ionosphere important in the transmission of radio waves?

When ultraviolet light enters the atmosphere, it ionizes atoms in the ionosphere through a process called photoionization, which releases free electrons into this region of the atmosphere. It is these free electrons that make radio wave transmissions possible. Depending on the frequency of the radio waves, transmissions travel for shorter or longer distances. Lower-frequency waves bounce off the ionosphere at a lower elevation and thus travel a shorter distance than higher frequency waves. Very high frequency waves are used when communicating with satellites or anything out in space because they can completely escape the atmosphere.

British physicist Oliver Heviside (1850–1925) and American electrical engineer Arthur Edwin Kennelly (1861–1939) independently theorized the existence of an ionosphere and that certain wave frequencies would bounce off it and be reflected back to Earth. It was radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937) who first took advantage of this theory to conduct the first transmission from Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland in 1901. The waves became known as radio waves, and Marconi is credited as the inventor of the radio. The E region of the ionosphere was named after Kennelly and Heviside to honor their work.


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