Radio Waves, Sunspots, and Planets
June 1959 Popular Electronics
did a little research on this article about John H. Nelson's work on
how the positions of planets affect magnetic storms on Earth. It looked
a little more like astrology than science, but as it turns out, Nelson's
findings gained support in both the astronomical and meteorological
fields. Naturally, the astrology crowd claimed him as part of their
goofiness, but that wasn't Nelson's fault. He published a book in 1974
Connections." Yeah, even that sound like an astrology title - poor
choice (or maybe he was trying to fool the contemporary Pharisees in
to buying his book).
June 1959 Popular Electronics
[Table of Contents]People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about
and learning some of the history of early electronics. Popular Electronics was published from October 1954 through April 1985. All copyrights (if any) are hereby acknowledged.
The book is out of print now, and I could
not find any contemporary work that leverages Nelson's work. My guess
is that due to the relatively short time that observations were made,
the sun had not even gone through a full sunspot cycle. Each sunspot
cycle, while occurring on average even eleven years or so, can vary
widely both in intensity and duration from one period to the next. What
might have produce the claimed 85% accuracy for that particular
sunspot cycle likely never provided enough correlation in subsequent
cycles to solidify the theory.
See all articles from
Radio Waves, Sunspots, and Planets
New techniques aid in predicting radio weather
By Saunder Harris, W1NXL
mornings each week, in the center of New York's financial district,
the roof of a small structure located atop the RCA Communications building
swings open. A hovering helicopter could then see Mr. John H. Nelson,
a serious-looking man with thinning hair, assume his place behind a
six-inch refracting telescope. Mr. Nelson, an expert in electronics
and astronomy, has one of the most specialized and unusual jobs in the
world; he is a propagation analyst.
What, exactly, does a propagation
analyst do? Well, Mr. Nelson forecasts the radio weather, or, in more
scientific terms, he predicts the magnetic condition of the ionosphere,
a major factor in the propagation of radio waves over long distances.
To demonstrate the practical value of knowing what the radio weather
will be, let's take a typical example.
Transatlantic Message. Suppose we want to send a message
from New York to London. Normally, this message would be transmitted
from the RCA station at Rocky Point, N. Y., directly to London. But
today, let's say, Mr. Nelson has predicted that conditions will be bad
over the direct New York - London route.
Propagation analyst John H. Nelson is shown at his observatory in
the heart of New York City's financial district.
Mr. Nelson uses solar map to study sunspot activity.
courtesy of RCA Communications
Fig. 1. Radio waves are reflected back to Earth by the action of
the ionosphere, thus making possible long-distance radio communications.
Fig. 2. When Saturn, Jupiter, and the Earth are at 90° to each other,
magnetic storms appear on Earth and radio reception is poor. Drawing
at top is artist's conception of this relationship.
So, after consulting
one of Mr. Nelson's charts, we decide to reroute the message over an
alternate path which is free of ionospheric disturbances. Instead of
taking the direct route, we send the message through traffic relay points
at Paramaribo on the northern coast of South America, or at Tangier
in North Africa. From these points the message is relayed to its destination
This rerouting takes advantage of normally ideal
north and south transmitting conditions. Thus, rather than being chopped
up and garbled because of unfavorable ionospheric conditions, thanks
to Mr. Nelson's advance warning, our message gets to London clearly,
accurately, and on time.
To appreciate the importance of knowing the condition of the ionosphere
in predicting radio weather, it is necessary to understand how a radio
wave is propagated through space and what part the ionosphere plays
in this process. The ionosphere extends from about 40 to 200 miles above
the Earth and is composed of a fantastic number of "free" electrons
which have been knocked loose from their atoms by ultraviolet rays,
cosmic rays, and solar radiation. This gigantic electron sea floats
high in our atmosphere, and, like its watery counterparts on Earth,
it has tides, storms, and currents.
If conditions within the
ionosphere are right, when a radio wave from a transmitter strikes it,
the wave will be bounced back in much the same manner that light rays
are reflected by a mirror. Thus, the radio wave can be returned to the
Earth at a considerable distance from its point of origin (see Fig.
1). Long-distance radio communication would be impossible without this
reflecting action of the ionosphere.
The next question is: how
does a propagation analyst know when the ionosphere is going to reflect
the radio wave properly?
Charting the Planets.
Amazing as it may seem, Mr. Nelson predicts the condition of the ionosphere,
and thus, the radio weather, by charting the positions of the planets.
He first began to study radio wave propagation in 1946, at which time
he was able to achieve 80% accuracy on 24-hour forecasts by basing predictions
on sunspot observation. In spite of the apparent success of the sunspot
prediction method, however, he felt that the condition of the ionosphere
was determined not only by sunspots, but also by the relative positions
of the planets as they circle around the sun.
proved this theory to be correct. As a result of studying planetary
positions in addition to sunspot activity, Mr. Nelson's forecasts are
now 90% accurate for 30-hour periods. His long-range forecasts, covering
periods of 36 days, are 80% accurate.
Pluto's angular relationship
with the other planets is exceptionally significant in its effect on
the radio weather, according to Mr. Nelson. During the International
Geophysical Year, which began on July 1, 1957, and ran through December
31, 1958, there were, six very severe magnetic storms and radio disturbances.
Analyzing his data, Mr. Nelson found that the positioning of Pluto at
a critical zero angle - three times with Venus and once with Mercury
- showed up on four of the six disturbances. Since Pluto's mean distance
from the sun is 3,671,000,000 miles, its influence would seem to be
The results of Mr. Nelson's plottings of the planetary positions over
more than ten years of research have brought to light six important
facts about the relationships of the planets and radio conditions on
Earth. These are the significant relationships which he uses in making
forecasts, and may be summed up as follows:
(1) Best radio reception
periods occur when Saturn and Jupiter are 120° apart .
most severe disturbances occur when Mars, Venus, Mercury and the Earth
are in critical relationship near points of the Saturn-Jupiter configuration.
(3) When two or more planets are at right angles to each other,
or in line on the same side of the Sun, or in line with the Sun between
them, magnetic disturbances occur more frequently on the Earth's surface.
(See Fig. 2.)
(4) When the planets have moved away from their
critical relationship, there is a corresponding decline in the severity
of the magnetic weather.
(5) Three planets equally spaced at
15°, 30°,60°, or 120° have a tendency to produce disturbed radio signals
if two of the planets are fast-moving and one is a slow-moving planet,
or if all three are fast-moving planets.
(6) Three planets equally
spaced at 60° and four planets equally spaced at 60° will disturb radio
signals if at least two or more of the planets are fast-moving. If three
or more of the planets in this arrangement are slow planets, no disturbance
Successful Predictions. Mr. Nelson
does not attempt to explain why these things happen as they do. What
he has learned from his study is that they do happen. Proof? His predictions
In making a forecast, Mr. Nelson starts by calculating
the positions of the planets with respect to each other. When a significant
combination of angles is indicated, he then calculates the positions
to plus or minus 6 minutes of arc for each hour of the day. It is this
data which allows him to make the forecast.
of John Nelson's work with the planets and radio waves leaves one with
the impression that planetary positions might be important in other
phases of our lives. Perhaps the ancients' superstitious study of the
heavens deserves reevaluation by those of us interested in modern science.