Meteor scatter: A fun way to receive FM radio signals

This is the first article in a series I’ll be writing over the next few months introducing new people to various aspects of the DXing hobby.  This article is based on the advice and opinions of myself and is in no way presented as an authority on the hobby.

Credit: stock.xchng

Credit: stock.xchng

Several times a year, stargazers gather in remote locations far from the hustle-and-bustle of city life to look up at the sky.

Armed with binoculars and telescopes they see, if they are lucky, hundreds of shooting stars zoom across the night sky.  But what some may not know is that the same bright light (which is a tail of ionization) that accompanies the meteors they see can act as a mirror and reflect radio signals, allowing DXers to log new radio stations.

To date, I have received 60 stations via meteor scatter from signals largely within the 300-800 mile range.  My furthest signal received by meteor scatter is 92.9 KTGL Beatrice, NE, at 1044 miles away and my closest Ms signal is 92.9 WBUF Buffalo, NY @ 284 miles.  Click here to view my DX log.  Meteor-reflected signals are listed in the log with a blue background.

The best part of this mode of propagation is that it occurs year-round, with several peaks at various times of the year.

101.3 CJCH Halifax, NS @ 812 miles, 2007

Click on the audio player above to hear a clear ID from “101.3 The Bounce” CJCH from Nova Scotia received in Virginia via meteor scatter.

This article will tell you everything you need to know to get the most out of this exciting niche of the DXing hobby.

Why care about meteor scatter?

A few DXers don’t bother with meteor scatter DXing for multiple reasons, some of which includes a lack of time or suitable equipment.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  However, I strongly suggest those wanting to log the most stations to consider DXing meteor scatter.

Of the 60 Ms signals received, only 15 of them were also picked up by other propagation methods (sporadic E) on different days.  Therefore, if I hadn’t partaken in DXing meteor scatter, I would have logged 45 less signals than I have right now.  Meteor scatter can also help ‘fill in the blanks’ in regard to logging stations impossible to receive by tropo or sporadic E due to otherwise prohibitive distances depending on the propagation mode.  Additionally, mountains, oceans and other limiters on common tropo reception have no bearing on meteor scatter, as the meteors are high in the sky above these roadblocks.

How do I get started?

Being a successful meteor scatter DXer may sound harder than it really is, but please bear with me.  The following instructions may sound difficult but it is really easy once you get the hang of it.  Further down, I’ll explain an even easier way to DX this method.

credit: stock.xchng

credit: stock.xchng

The easiest way to start DXing meteor scatter is to find a quiet, empty FM frequency that has no signals present.  All you should hear is static.  Be aware that frequencies adjacent to strong local signals that run IBOC/HD Radio are NOT suitable for meteor scatter DXing as the IBOC sidebands largely prevent distant signals from being heard, even if the frequency sounds otherwise empty.  In urban areas saturated with many local FM signals, every empty frequency may be occupied by IBOC sidebands or strong regional frequencies and meteor scatter DXing may be very difficult, or impossible.

It is okay if the empty frequency you choose has weak signals that occasionally fade in.  At my location in Northern Virginia, there are no frequencies that are completely free of FM signals.  Most frequencies, depending on atmospheric conditions, always have a station within 150 miles coming in loud and clear, or with some degree of static.

The best frequency here is 92.9 FM.

WVBW Suffolk, VA is a common tropo signal received on 92.9 FM at my home.  At 132 miles away, it is too close for meteor scatter propagation.

WVBW Suffolk, VA is a common tropo signal received on 92.9 FM at my home. At 132 miles away, it is too close for meteor scatter propagation.

On this frequency, I typically only get weak fade-ins every hour from 92.9 WVBW Suffolk, VA @ 132 miles.  Otherwise, the frequency is empty.  On occasion, 92.9 WRDX Smyrna, DE @ 98 miles or 92.9 WVHL Farmville, VA @ 117 miles may fade in for a moment or two.  As WRDX and WVHL are weak, they are of no nuisance to my radio dial.  Of course, depending on your locale, the best frequency to utilize for meteor scatter will likely be a totally different frequency than what I use.  Any FM frequency is suitable, but I find those below 100.1 FM to provide the best results.  I also, on occasion, record for meteor scatter from other frequencies, including 98.1, 100.7, 101.7, 104.9 and 106.1.

However, choose your empty frequency wisely.  Although meteor scatter can happen on any frequency from any station, I’ve found the best results on frequencies with a handful of signals over 10kw.  Most meteor scatter signals I’ve picked up are from stations in the 30-100kw range, but other DXers have picked up weaker signals.  To know what stations are in range of you via meteor scatter, I highly suggest you download the FM spreadsheets at DXFM.com.

For a reason unknown to me, I do not receive meteor scatter on frequencies that otherwise appear to be perfect candidates on paper.  For example, 100.7 is a frequency that is relatively empty, save for some occasional fade-ins via tropo from 100.7 WQPO Harrisonburg, VA @ 90 miles.  However, to date I have only received five Ms pings on the frequency–none since 2007.  This is largely unlike 92.9 FM where I get at least 2 meteor scatter pings daily.  I suggest trying out a few empty frequencies and moving on when you don’t find results after 24 hours to maximize exposure to potential meteor scatter.  Then, come back to the previous frequency and try again.  Don’t count out a frequency just because of a lack of results!  I’ve come across some good Ms pings just when I was about to give up on a frequency.

Meteor scatter (music) heard over weak tropo from 92.9 WVBW on 9/4/13.

On some nights, especially those filled with strong tropo, it may be very difficult to choose a good frequency.  Instead of giving up, I’d find the least-occupied frequency or the one with the weakest signals on it.  It is entirely possible to receive meteor scatter over a weak tropo signal, as noted in the above clip.  The weak static is from 92.9 WVBW via tropo, while the meteor scatter ping heard over it was from an unidentified station.

92.9 WBUF Buffalo, NY @ 284 miles is a common visitor at my Virginia home via meteor scatter.

92.9 WBUF Buffalo, NY @ 284 miles is a common visitor at my Virginia home via meteor scatter.

Choosing a suitable frequency is only half of the equation needed to fine-tune your radio for optimal meteor scatter reception.  You also need to aim your antenna properly to get the maximum exposure from meteor-reflected signals.  Failure to do so may mean you could miss out on otherwise very strong signals.  On the east coast of the United States, I’ve found I got the most meteor scatter signals when aimed NW (roughly 320 degrees), however this is largely dependent on your location.  DXers living in other parts of the world may have to aim somewhere else.

To find out where you need to aim, perform the following very easy steps.  Go to this website and, by using the Google Maps feature, find your home.  Click on your home and you will see a “QTH Locator” listed in a pop-up bubble.  Write down the first four characters (for me it is FM18) and then enter that code in the “Your locator” field on this website.  When you do so, you’ll see a circle on the far right of the page that has numbers going clockwise from 0 to 360.  This represents a compass, with ‘0’ being north, ‘180’ being south, and so on.  The yellow lines show the two directions you can choose to aim your antenna (you would aim in one of the two directions where the line ends).  Personally, I see a line running from about 315 degrees to 130 degrees, and another running from 240 degrees to 60 degrees.  The lines should correspond to the directions of active meteor scatter showers noted in the fields below the diagram.  This means I can aim my antenna at either 60, 70, 240 or 315 degrees to get the best-quality meteor scatter signals.

If you are unable to aim an outdoor antenna, or if you are using an indoor antenna, try to aim it to the area where you can receive the most distant signals.  I have received meteor scatter while randomly aiming my antenna.

Get meteor scatter while you sleep!

credit: stock.xchng

credit: stock.xchng

The third step required to receive meteor scatter signals is to simply listen to the empty radio frequency.  This is a major reason why some DXers don’t look for meteor scatter, as you could be listening to static for hours without hearing anything interesting.  But, sometimes you get lucky this way.  One time, while listening to static waiting for sporadic E to bring in a distant signal, a very loud meteor scatter ping belted out of my stereo speakers, causing me to almost jump out of my seat in surprise, as it was unexpected and very loud.  Although meteor signals can come in at any time of the day, most are heard between the 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. hours, based on my experience.

As most people typically sleep during these hours, I offer an easy alternative to sitting by a radio listening to static for hours on end.  If you leave your radio on the empty frequency and record its audio to your computer in hourly files, you can easily go over an entire 24-hour period of reception in 30 minutes or so at your leisure, and you can be away from your radio.  This is a true ‘set it and forget it’ method of logging DX.  Read more about unattended radio recording at this link.  Total Recorder and Wavepad, as described in the link, are highly recommended programs.  All 60 of my meteor scatter signals logged were received via this method, and I was indeed fast asleep while most of these logs were received.

meteors_82813_5am
Click to enlarge.

The picture above shows the 5 a.m. hour of unattended recording in Wavepad from 92.9 FM on 8/28/13.  As you can see in the waveform, I have noted signals received during the hour.  A meteor scatter ping from 92.9 WBUF Buffalo, NY was received at about 5:08 a.m., while tropo from WVBW came in at various other times of the hour.  Five unidentified meteor scatter pings came in at about 5:06, 5:10, 5:12, 5:15 and 5:43, as evidenced by a large uptick in volume within the waveform.  The continuous ‘line’ of content as seen throughout the hour was static.  Utilizing the zooming and copy-and-paste features of Wavepad, you could easily listen to these receptions and hear what was recorded from your radio at any time.  The only downside of using this method is that it is required to leave your computer on all the time and you would have to reserve about 30 minutes daily to go over the unattended recordings.  If you don’t have the time, you can set Total Recorder to record certain hours and utilize other automatic programs to shut down your computer if you prefer it not be on all the time.

An added bonus of recording from your radio 24/7 is that you could positively log anything your radio picks up, be it tropo, sporadic E, or even pirate radio stations.  You never know what your radio may pick up when you aren’t there!

What should I expect from meteor scatter signals?  Are they easy to identify?

I can typically receive at least 1-3 meteor scatter ‘pings’ every night, year-round.  I can get up to 10 to 15 pings an hour during the major annual meteor showers, such as the Perseids in August.  Most of these pings are less than a second long, but some can last up to 30 seconds.

96.5 WZNS Ft. Walton Beach, FL @ 779 miles, 8/12/06

The majority of signals received by meteor scatter are random bits of music, speaking or other content, as heard above.  In most cases, the ping is useless in regard to identifying a station unless you can match the audio to a station’s webstream or list of last played songs, if available.  Be careful not to ID a signal based on music alone unless you are positive there can’t be another signal logged.  IDing a station this way would also be okay, in my opinion, if you receive more than 3 matching pings of music compared to the station’s ‘last played’ list, providing the station isn’t airing syndicated programming, such as Delilah.  I positively logged 96.5 WZNS in the above clip since I had multiple matching pings throughout the night on 8/12/06 to their web playlist.

97.5 WPCV Winter Haven, FL @ 769 miles, 5/28/06

Sometimes, you get a bit of information, such as in the clip above.  A “your hometown country station” slogan is heard in the clip without any other form of station ID heard, such as call letters.  However, a simple Google search shows that the slogan belongs to WPCV, thus making this a positive ID of the signal.

92.9 WAAC Valdosta, GA @ 644 miles 6/4/13

Other times, you can hear other identifying information that can be cross-referenced, with the aid of Google and other resources, to positively identify a station.  In the clip above from 92.9 FM, you hear a DJ identify as ‘Megan Marie.’  A Google search reveals Megan Marie is a DJ at 92.9 WAAC.  This is a positive ID of WAAC.

100.7 KGMO Cape Girardeau, MO @ 673 miles 12/14/06

Or, you may hear a local city name in an ID, such as a mention of “Cape Girardeau” heard from this clip off 100.7 FM.  This would be 100.7 KGMO Cape Girardeau, MO.  The DJ also references the ‘Big Show,’ which would be ‘The Big Show with John Boy & Billy,” which KGMO broadcasted at the time of reception.

92.9 WBUF Buffalo, NY @ 284 miles 8/28/13

On occasion, you may get slam-dunk ID from a station, as heard here from “92.9 Jack FM” WBUF Buffalo, NY.  Unfortunately, these aren’t as common as a DXer would hope!

Meteor scatter and RDS/HD Radio

The Denon TU-1500RD can display RDS text from capable signals, as seen here from 96.9 WWUZ Bowling Green, VA.

The Denon TU-1500RD can display RDS text from capable signals, as seen here from 96.9 WWUZ Bowling Green, VA.

I utilize the Denon TU-1500RD and Sony XDR-F1HD radios, both of which have RDS capabilities (the latter radio can also receive HD Radio broadcasts).  Both methods are possible to receive via meteor scatter with a strong meteor-reflected signal.  However, I’ve never received either via meteor scatter, at least from what I could tell.  The Denon tuner will display RDS on its screen indefinitely until powered off, its frequency is changed, or another RDS signal decodes.  I’ve read elsewhere of other DXers leaving the Denon radio on overnight and waking up to an unfamiliar callsign on-screen from a strong meteor scatter ping.  Although it is possible, it is unlikely, as many RDS-capable radios need a few seconds before decoding RDS.  Most meteor scatter signals aren’t in long enough for a decode.

Call letters from HD Radio signals appear on-screen when received on the Sony XDR-F1HD, resulting in a slam-dunk, positive ID.

Call letters from HD Radio signals appear on-screen when received on the Sony XDR-F1HD, resulting in a slam-dunk, positive ID.

The HD Radio decode capability on the Sony XDR-F1HD radio (as its RDS display) only appears on-screen when a qualifiying signal is being received.  Once the signal is gone, so is all evidence of an RDS or IBOC decode.  Although I don’t have personal experience using one, some DXers have achieved positive results utilizing a webcam with motion-activated software to capture RDS or HD Radio decodes while away.  When the webcam detects movement (the appearance of RDS/HD text on-screen), it snaps a picture to serve as proof of reception.

There is hope for RDS decodes from meteor scatter.  I’ve read on hobbyist forums that several DXers have received several positive, full RDS decodes by utilizing computer-based software that can hook up to most radios.

Extra-long meteor scatter is possible, too

As you may have read earlier, FM signals can reflect off the ionization tail of a meteor.  Often, during strong meteor showers, a radio may pick up ionization reflections from multiple, concurrent meteors in the sky, resulting in a jumbled ‘mess’ of multiple signals.  This most frequently happens during major meteor showers, such as the Perseids.  Strangely, from what I’ve experienced, these pings are most often heard during the day, such as at 1 p.m., not during the typical peak of meteor scatter in the early morning hours.

Mismatch of signals on 92.9 FM, 8/12/13, 1:33 p.m.

In the clip above, I picked up a 2-minute, 15-second Ms burst from at least 4 signals.  There were no IDs heard during the ‘ripper’ signal, but it was fun to hear.

Could it be airplane scatter instead?

credit: stock.xchng

credit: stock.xchng

Airplanes have the ability to reflect FM signals much like meteor scatter.  From what I’ve read elsewhere, reception below 400 miles that sounds like meteor scatter could in fact be propagated by airplanes instead.  This is especially true if the signal is very strong and fades out kind of like tropo (like the 92.9 WBUF clip above).  With that said, there is really no way of knowing if it is meteor scatter or airplane scatter.

If it is a signal that is within the meteor scatter range and sounds like meteor scatter, I log it as that.  But it is good to know that other things can reflect signals in similar ways to shooting stars.

Conclusion

Although patience and persistence pays off with anything in life, this rings especially true for meteor scatter DXing.  The sheer randomness of signals reflected by shooting stars makes it an interesting way to receive radio stations.  Best of all, it can be done for free (with the right equipment) and by utilizing unattended recordings, you can exponentially increase the amount of new logs you receive on your radio.

Advertisements