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 titled ,"Cosmic
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).
[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. As time permits, I will be glad to scan articles for you. 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
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.
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
Mr. Nelson uses solar map to study sunspot activity.
Illustrations 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 in London.
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
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.
Later investigation 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 far-reaching indeed.
Important Relationships. 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 .
(2) The most severe disturbances
occur when Mars, Venus, Mercury and the Earth are in critical relationship near points of the
(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.
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 will occur.
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 are successful!
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.
The implications 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.