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Ionosphere, influence on satellite communication like GPS

The ionosphere is the upper layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere is partly ionised by solar UV-light, and such ionisation can persist at high altitude: the ionosphere starts at about 80 km altitude and reaches up to more than 1000 km. The ionosphere of the Earth constantly varies, depending on:

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

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 condition of the ionosphere affects the quality of traditional radio communication. In our space era of satellites, we may wonder whether this ancient way of communicating and the study of the ionosphere are still “current topics”. The answer is definitely yes! The ionosphere, for instance, (strongly) affects the signals that satellites communicate.

Ionosphere effect on satellite communication

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 (U.S. GPS, Russian GLONASS and European Galileo)

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