particular layer, it may still be refracted by a higher layer if its frequency is lower than the higher layer's critical frequency.
Angle of Incidence and Critical Angle
When a radio wave encounters a layer of the ionosphere, that wave is returned to earth at the same angle (roughly) as its angle of incidence. Figure 1-6 shows three radio waves of the same frequency entering a layer at different incidence angles. The angle at which wave A strikes the layer is too nearly vertical for the wave to be refracted to earth, However, wave B is refracted back to earth. The angle between wave B and the earth is called the critical angle. Any wave, at a given frequency, that leaves the antenna at an incidence angle greater than the critical angle will be lost into space. This is why wave A was not refracted. Wave C leaves the antenna at the smallest angle that will allow it to be refracted and still return to earth. The critical angle for radio waves depends on the layer density and the wavelength of the signal.
Figure 1-6.—Incidence angles of radio waves.
As the frequency of a radio wave is increased, the critical angle must be reduced for refraction to occur. Notice in figure 1-7 that the 2-MHz wave strikes the ionosphere at the critical angle for that frequency and is refracted. Although the 5-MHz line (broken line) strikes the ionosphere at a less critical angle, it still penetrates the layer and is lost As the angle is lowered, a critical angle is finally reached for the 5-MHz wave and it is refracted back to earth.
Figure 1-7.—Effect of frequency on the critical angle.