Another way to enjoy meteor showers: HAM radio

Tonight we should see the peak of this year's Geminid meteor shower. I wrote about the weird scientific mystery surrounding this particular meteor shower yesterday, and Miles O'Brien wrote a great feature on it for us today.

In the comments on my post yesterday, reader Clayton Yarbrough mentioned that meteors have an effect on radio signals, and I wanted to follow up on that, because it's a pretty cool phenomenon. Basically, meteors can allow you to send radio signals farther than is normally possible. In the video above, you can watch 7th grader Jeffrey Kelly interview a ham radio operator who explains how this works. But first a little background.

Radio waves travel through the air. You are, of course, aware of this. But there's also a limit to how far they can travel. Partly, this is because the radio waves move in what could be characterized as a straight line, but the planet Earth curves. To get around that bend in the horizon, ham operators frequently bounce their signals off a part of Earth's upper atmosphere, called the ionosphere. What makes the ionosphere special? It's ionized, meaning the particles it's made of are electrically charged. That should give you all the background you need to follow along with the video.

Read more on skywave communications (bouncing signals off the ionosphere), and meteor scatter communications.


  1. Here is a site that uses Air Force RADAR systems to stream the meteor shower over the internet:

    1.  I would like a frequency I can tune to from Tennessee in order to hear these “pings” and “boings” that the meteor radar picks up

  2. The things you can appreciate with ‘obsolete’ technology.

    Wonder what, if any, sort of signal bounce you could get off the shower itself? I mean it’s been Years but can’t you do that?

    1. This technology is not obsolete, it is however limited in effectiveness.  The most common form of communication using meteor burst is that supported by a computer program “WSJT” developed by Nobel laureate (and Ham radio operator) Dr. Joe Taylor.  This program uses DSP techniques to extract signals bearing data from “below the noise floor”.  A related and more reliable technology is tropospheric scatter which uses higher frequencies and more consistent properties of the troposphere to achieve continuous connections.  A company I used to work for used tropo scatter to provide reliable low data rate communications in northern Canada.  The reason these technologies persist is that they provide quick to establish, hard to intercept communications in places it may be difficult to establish satellite links.  And, as indicated in the video, a popular mode for Ham radio.  WSJT is also used by Hams for “moonbounce” communications.

      1. Old ham, long since let my license pass (lack of equipment mostly and lack in skill at building my own.) Forgot the quantifyer ‘obsolete seeming to most of the world.’

        Amazing what you can do with a good setup, or even a not-so-good setup.

  3. Alas, O headline writer, the “ham” in ham radio is not an acronym. For reasons no one understands any more, ham radio is the nickname for amateur radio. But the word doesn’t stand for any phrase or concept. So please give it the same capitalization you would “college radio” or “short wave radio.” Thanks!

    1. Wes, I had to think for a moment…memory from my youth…when my friends and me used a VIC-20 as a teletype…we had to learn Morris-Code for our ham radio test…I haven’t been active in the hobby for quite a while…hopefully this will change.

      Anyway….one of the first things I learned is that ‘ham’ is not an acronym. However, I have written ‘HAM’ because I like the look of the capitalization. One of my characteristics is a tendency towards pedantry, yet, I have written ‘ham’ many times in all-caps…maybe the Headline Writer did this too? (btw, Wes, good point.)

      1. Well, if we’re going to get picky about how to present the term “ham” (and I agree with Matt Grice about the origins of that term but it truly is not known exactly how it came about) let’s not call Morse code “Morris” Code. Continuous wave (Morse code) is my favorite mode.

        1. I wasn’t being picky about the term ham, royaltrux…and I am bemused that I wrote Morris instead of Morse…the irony is not lost on me…I don’t even pronounce the term as ‘morris’, I pronounce it like it’s spelled. 

          You were most justified in calling me on that…I opened myself to justifiable scrutiny if not a bit of ridicule, and I have some friends and acquaintances who would give me a dope-slap for this, much in the same way I might be dope-slapped for mispronouncing cichlid.

          Also…although I had a license 25 years ago as a teen, and passed the test in which Morse was a requirement, I never really used Morse code like true hams such as you. Mastering Morse code for real (and not just for a test) has been on my mind lately.

          1.  Since 2007, knowledge of Morse code has not been required for any class of amateur radio license in the USA. The CW mode remains popular, but it’s strictly voluntary.

          2. Yup, I know…when I learned about this rule change, I thought a bit, and I think it’s an okay change…but on the other hand, Morse is good to know, just in case…which is why I will try to become proficient in it more than I did just to pass the test the first time. 

    2.  Came here to say this.

      BTW, It is believed that it is called “Ham” radio because it’s what professional radio telegraphers used to call us (“Hang on, I’m getting interference from those hams again.”). Much as other maligned groups do, we re appropriated the term for our own use.

      1. Go read ‘200 Meters and Down’ and you’ll get a real interesting snapshot of the early early history of Amateur radio, the attempts to regulate it out of existaince, the transition from unorganized and local ‘paper numbers’ clubs to having a big huge lobbyist group (the ARRL is many things, including a Lobby group) that can and still does speak on behalf of ham interests on the hill.

        Seriously. We’re coming up on or passed the century mark on the anniversary of the act that limited amateurs to the 200 meter band (in an attempt at destroying them due to the thought of the time that it was a useless worthless patch of ‘dirt’ that would fragmitize and marginalize hobbyests leaving the ‘real’ radio operatiors (in the navy primarily) to their peace.

        Amusingly enough by recognizing and giving a framework for amateur radio that act actually saved it from being blown out of the water completely when WW1 rolled around and introduced a general silence on non-essential traffic.

  4. Lots of CBers “shoot skip” all the time.  It is pretty crazy to hear someone from across the country sounding crystal clear and LOUD on your radio.  I imagine that skip will be taking over lots of channels today and tonight. 

  5. Skywave propagation isn’t used just by amateurs in exotic pursuits like meteor scatter communications. Prior to the development of communications satellites, all long-range radio communications relied on it. Shortwave broadcasting relies on it. If you’ve never experienced what skywave propagation can do, there’s a cheap and easy way to try it. Take a regular AM radio (like your car radio) and tune across the band during the day. You’ll hear your local stations plus a few weak ones plus lots of empty spots filled with static. Then do the same thing at night, and you’ll find the band is now jammed with radio stations, many from hundreds of miles away. That’s skywave propagation at work. The AM band frequencies get absorbed by a layer in the ionosphere (the D layer) during the day, but at night that layer disappears and those same signals can then reach another layer (the F layer) which doesn’t absorb them but instead refracts them back to earth hundreds or even thousands of miles away. 

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