# How far would a radio signal propagate in free space as compared to Earth's atmosphere?

A curiosity question.

Radio Propagation within Earth's atmosphere is via atmosphere. Broadly speaking a signal loses strength between bouncing off the ionized layer, and absorption by various earthy elements.

If an identical signal were to be produced in free space, how far would it travel as compared to it's range within Earth's atmosphere?

EDIT: A commercial FM transmitter on Earth probably has a range no more than 25 miles where the listener uses a broadcast receiver. For the purpose of elaboration assume the the receiver being placed in static orbit - how far out could the same signal be generated, and still be intelligible?

• I wonder how information is conveyed to satellites.(THIS is an answer to your question)
– Nix
Jul 9, 2013 at 12:12
• Another thing to think about: The spacecraft 'Voyager 1' was launched in 1977. It is now at a distance of $1.866 × 10^{10}$km, and it communicates to the earth by means of radio signals. Jul 9, 2013 at 12:36
• The question is ill-posed. You don't specify noise conditions, receiver sensitivity, and initial signal's ERP to get a sensible answer as to the maximum ranges at which both signals will be detected. Jul 9, 2013 at 12:42
• The main problem in radio communications is being able to recover the transmitted signal from the received, noisy signal; and it is mainly a channel coding problem. also, because the distances between spacecrafts (or stations, etc.)in space are very large, the transmission power is not too important and the successful communication depends on error-correction methods used. Jul 9, 2013 at 12:47
• @mikhailcazi: The Voyagers use the Deep Space Network; apparently using PSK. My query is about the range of a system in space relative to the range of the same system on Earth. Jul 10, 2013 at 1:28

First, no, "radio propagation" is not "via atmosphere". Different wavelengths get absorbed, reflected, or simply passed by different parts of the atmosphere. There is no one general rule. Many of our radio communications within the atmosphere are pretty much like they would be in free space, for example.

Second, all radio waves propagate infinitely in free space. There is no finite end to the propagation. What does matter in a practical sense is signal to noise ratio. Below some signal to noise ratio for whatever information encoding scheme is used, that information can't be recovered. Or more accurately, the error rate goes up as the signal to noise ratio goes down. At some point the errors in the information make is useless or "unreceivable" in a practical sense.