Electromagnetic Spectrum

Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Other forms of electromagnetic radiation include radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, ultraviolet rays, X-rays, and gamma rays. All of these, known collectively as the electromagnetic spectrum, are fundamentally similar in that they move at 300,000 km per second, the speed of light. The only difference between them is their wavelength, which is directly related to the amount of energy the waves carry. The shorter the wavelength of the radiation, the higher the energy.

The rainbow of colors that we see in visible light represents only a very small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are radio waves with wavelengths billions of times longer than those of visible light. On the other end of the spectrum are gamma rays. These have wavelengths millions of times smaller than those of visible light. The following are the basic categories of the electromagnetic spectrum, from longest to shortest wavelength:

Radio waves are used to transmit radio and television signals. Radio waves have wavelengths that range from less than a centimeter to tens or even hundreds of meters. FM radio waves are shorter than AM radio waves. For example, an FM radio station at 100 on the radio dial (100 megahertz) would have a wavelength of about three meters. An AM station at 750 on the dial (750 kilohertz) uses a wavelength of about 400 meters. Radio waves can also be used to create images. Radio waves with wavelengths of a few centimeters can be transmitted from a satellite or airplane antenna. The reflected waves can be used to form an image of the ground in complete darkness or through clouds.

Microwave wavelengths range from approximately one millimeter (the thickness of a pencil lead) to thirty centimeters (about twelve inches). In a microwave oven, the radio waves generated are tuned to frequencies that can be absorbed by the food. The food absorbs the energy and gets warmer. The dish holding the food doesn't absorb a significant amount of energy and stays much cooler. Microwaves are emitted from the Earth, from objects such as cars and planes, and from the atmosphere. These microwaves can be detected to give information, such as the temperature of the object that emitted the microwaves.

Infrared is the region of the electromagnetic spectrum that extends from the visible region to about one millimeter (in wavelength). Infrared waves include thermal radiation. For example, burning charcoal may not give off light, but it does emit infrared radiation which is felt as heat. Infrared radiation can be measured using electronic detectors and has applications in medicine and in finding heat leaks from houses. Infrared images obtained by sensors in satellites and airplanes can yield important information on the health of crops and can help us see forest fires even when they are enveloped in an opaque curtain of smoke.

The rainbow of colors we know as visible light is the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum with wavelengths between 400 and 700 billionths of a meter (400 to 700 nanometers). It is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we see, and coincides with the wavelength of greatest intensity of sunlight. Visible waves have great utility for the remote sensing of vegetation and for the identification of different objects by their visible colors.

Ultraviolet radiation has a range of wavelengths from 400 billionths of a meter to about 10 billionths of a meter. Sunlight contains ultraviolet waves which can burn your skin. Most of these are blocked by ozone in the Earth's upper atmosphere. A small dose of ultraviolet radiation is beneficial to humans, but larger doses cause skin cancer and cataracts. Ultraviolet wavelengths are used extensively in astronomical observatories. Some remote sensing observations of the Earth are also concerned with the measurement of ozone.

X-rays are high energy waves which have great penetrating power and are used extensively in medical applications and in inspecting welds. X-ray images of our Sun can yield important clues to solar flares and other changes on our Sun that can affect space weather. The wavelength range is from about ten billionths of a meter to about 10 trillionths of a meter.

Gamma rays have wavelengths of less than about ten trillionths of a meter. They are more penetrating than X-rays. Gamma rays are generated by radioactive atoms and in nuclear explosions, and are used in many medical applications. Images of our universe taken in gamma rays have yielded important information on the life and death of stars, and other violent processes in the universe.