What are the properties of electromagnetic radiation?

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Radiation has both electric and magnetic fields and travels in waves. It comes from natural and man-made sources. Electromagnetic radiation can vary in strength from low energy to high energy. It includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, x-rays, and gamma rays.
Chapter 2
The Properties of Electromagnetic Radiation
Objectives: When you have completed this chapter, you will be able to define the term
“electromagnetic spectrum,” explain the relationship between frequency and
wavelength, define amplitude, and give the relationship between energy received
and distance from the source. You will be able to describe the limits of the “S-
band” and “X-band” of the electromagnetic spectrum. You will be able to
describe wave polarization.
What is Electromagnetic Radiation?
Field is a physics term for a region that is under the influence of some force that can act on matter
within that region. For example, the Sun produces a gravitational field that attracts the planets in
the solar system and thus influences their orbits.
Stationary electric charges produce electric fields, whereas moving electric charges produce both
electric and magnetic fields. Regularly repeating changes in these fields produce what we call
electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic radiation transports energy from point to point. This
radiation propagates (moves) through space at 299,792 km per second (about 186,000 miles per
second). That is, it travels at the speed of light. Indeed light is just one form of electromagnetic
Some other forms of electromagnetic radiation are X-rays, microwaves, infrared radiation, AM
and FM radio waves, and ultraviolet radiation. The properties of electromagnetic radiation
depend strongly on its frequency. Frequency is the rate at which the radiating electromagnetic
field is oscillating. Frequencies of electromagnetic radiation are given in Hertz (Hz), named for
Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894), the first person to generate radio waves. One Hertz is one cycle per
Frequency and Wavelength
As the radiation propagates at a given frequency, it has an associated wavelength— that is, the
distance between successive crests or successive troughs. Wavelengths are generally given in
meters (or some decimal fraction of a meter) or Angstroms (Å, 10-10 meter).
Since all electromagnetic radiation travels at the same speed (in a vacuum), the number of crests
(or troughs) passing a given point in space in a given unit of time (say, one second), varies with
the wavelength. For example, 10 waves of wavelength 10 meters will pass by a point in the same
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length of time it would take 1 wave of wavelength 100 meters. Since all forms of electromag-
netic energy travel at the speed of light, the wavelength equals the speed of light divided by the
frequency of oscillation (moving from crest to crest or trough to trough).
In the drawing below, electromagnetic waves are passing point B, moving to the right at the speed
of light (usually represented as c, and given in km/sec). If we measure to the left of B a distance
D equal to the distance light travels in one second (2.997 x 105 km), we arrive at point A along
the wave train that will just pass point B after a period of 1 second (moving left to right). The
frequency f of the wave train—that is, the number of waves between A and B—times the length
of each, λ, equals the distance D traveled in one second.
Relationship of Wavelength and Frequency
of Electromagnetic Waves
Direction of wave
Since we talk about the frequency of electromagnetic radiation in terms of oscillations per
second and the speed of light in terms of distance travelled per second, we can say
Speed of light = Wavelength x Frequency
Wavelength = Speed of light
Frequency = Speed of light
The maximum variation in the strength of an electromagnetic wave in one wavelength is
called its amplitude. In other words, amplitude is the height from the crest to the trough
of the wave.
Inverse-Square Law of Propagation
As electromagnetic radiation leaves its source, it spreads out, traveling in straight lines, as if it
were covering the surface of an ever expanding sphere. This area increases proportionally to the
square of the distance the radiation has traveled. In other words, the area of this expanding
sphere is calculated as 4πR2 , where R is the distance the radiation has travelled, that is, the
radius of the expanding sphere. This relationship is known as the inverse-square law of (electro-
magnetic) propagation. It accounts for loss of signal strength over space, called space loss. For
example, Saturn is approximately 10 times farther from the sun than is Earth. (Earth to sun
distance is defined as one astronomical unit, AU). By the time the sun’s radiation reaches Saturn,
it is spread over 100 times the area it covers at one AU. Thus, Saturn receives only 1/100th the
solar energy flux (that is, energy per unit area) that Earth receives.
Inverse Square Law of Electromagnetic Radiation
The inverse-square law is significant to the exploration of the universe. It means that the concen-
tration of electromagnetic radiation decreases very rapidly with increasing distance from the
emitter. Whether the emitter is a spacecraft with a low-power transmitter, an extremely powerful
star, or a radio galaxy, because of the great distances and the small area that Earth covers on the
huge imaginary sphere formed by the radius of the expanding energy, it will deliver only a small
amount of energy to a detector on Earth.
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The Electromagnetic Spectrum
Light is electromagnetic radiation at those frequencies to which human eyes (and those of most
other sighted species) happen to be sensitive. But the electromagnetic spectrum has no upper or
lower limit of frequencies. It certainly has a much broader range of frequencies than the human
eye can detect. In order of increasing frequency (and decreasing wavelength), the electromagnetic
spectrum includes radio frequency (RF), infrared (IR, meaning “below red”), visible light,
ultraviolet (UV, meaning “above violet”), X-rays, and gamma rays. These designations describe
only different frequencies of the same phenomenon: electromagnetic radiation.
The frequencies shown in the following two diagrams are within range of those generated by
common sources and observable using common detectors. Ranges such as microwaves, infrared,
etc., overlap. They are categorized in spectrum charts by the artificial techniques we use to
produce them.
Electromagnetic Spectrum:
Visible light only a fraction of the spectrum
10-4 nm
Gamma rays
10-2 nm
X-rays 400 nm
1 nm (violet)
102 nm
Wavelength (nanometers)
Visible light
104 nm
1 mm = 106 nm 700 nm
10 cm = 108 nm
Radio waves
10 m = 1010 nm
1 km = 1012 nm
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The Electromagnetic Spectrum:
Wavelength/frequency chart
Examples Frequency Wavelength Examples
3 kilohertz (103 Hz) 100 kilometers (103 m)
Long Radio Waves 30 kilohertz (103 Hz) 10
Radio Frequencies (RF)
AM 300 kilohertz (103 Hz) 1
Longer Wavelengths
Short Waves
3 Megahertz (106 Hz) 100 Meters
Football Field
Lower Frequencies
30 Megahertz (106 Hz) 10
300 Megahertz (106 Hz) 1
X-band 3 Gigahertz (109 Hz) 100 millimeters (10-3 m)
30 Gigahertz (109 Hz) 10
300 Gigahertz (109 Hz) 1
Grains of Sand
Infrared Radiation
3 Terahertz (1012 Hz) 100 micrometers (10 -6 m)
30 Terahertz (1012 Hz) 10 Bacterium
Visible Light
300 Terahertz (1012 Hz) 1
Ultraviolet Radiation 3 Petahertz (1015 Hz)
100 nanometers (10-9 m)
30 Petahertz (1015 Hz) 10
300 Petahertz (1015 Hz) 1
X-rays Shorter Wavelengths
3 Exahertz (1018 Hz) 100 picometers (10 -12 m)
Higher Frequencies
30 Exahertz (10 18 Hz) 10
Gamma Rays 300 Exahertz (1018 Hz) 1
3 X 1021 Hz 100 femtometers (10-15 m)
30 X 1021 Hz 10
300 X 1021 Hz 1
3 X 1024 Hz 100 attometers (10-18 m) Atomic
30 X 1024 Hz 10
300 X 1024 Hz 1
Electromagnetic radiation with frequencies between about 5 kHz and 300 GHz is referred to as
radio frequency (RF) radiation. Radio frequencies are divided into ranges called “bands,” such as
“S-band,” “X-band,” etc. Radio telescopes can be tuned to listen for frequencies within certain
Range of
Band Wavelengths (cm) Frequency (GHz)
L 30 -15 1-2
S 15 - 7.5 2-4
C 7.5 - 3.75 4-8
X 3.75 - 2.4 8 - 12
K 2.4 - 0.75 12 - 40
Note: Band definitions vary slightly among different sources. These are ballpark
The GAVRT can observe S-band and X-band frequencies. Much of radio astronomy involves
studies of radiation well above these frequencies.
Wave Polarization
If electromagnetic waves meet no barriers as they travel through an idealized empty space, they
travel in straight lines. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, stationary electric charges
produce electric fields, and moving electric charges produce magnetic fields. Thus, there are two
components to an electromagnetic wave—the electric field and the magnetic field. In free space,
the directions of the fields are at right angles to the direction of the propagation of the wave.
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x Electric and Magnetic Fields at Right Angles
Plane of Magnetic Field
of E
Dire z
n of
e Pr
The drawing below shows part of a wavefront as it would appear to an observer at the point
indicated in the drawing. The wave is moving directly out of the page. One-half a period later,
the observer will see a similar field pattern, except that the directions of both the electric and the
magnetic fields will be reversed.
Instantaneous View of Electromagnetic Wave
(wave is moving directly out of the page)
Magnetic field
(black lines)
Electric field
(white lines)
The magnetic field is called the magnetic vector, and the electric field is called the electric vector.
A vector field has both a magnitude and a direction at any given point in space. The polarization
of electromagnetic waves is defined as the direction of the electric vector. If the electric vector
moves at a constant angle with respect to the horizon, the waves are said to be linearly polarized.
In radio wave transmission, if the polarization is parallel to Earth’s surface, the wave is said to be
horizontally polarized. If the wave is radiated in a vertical plane, it is said to be vertically polar-
ized. Waves may also be circularly polarized, whereby the angle of the electric (or magnetic)
vector rotates around an (imaginary) line traveling in the direction of the propagation of the wave.
The rotation may be either to the right or left.
Circular Polarization
(see text)
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Radio frequency radiation from extraterrestrial sources may be linearly or circularly polarized, or
anything in between, or unpolarized. The polarization of the waves gives astronomers additional
information about their source.
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1. Electromagnetic radiation is produced by regularly repeating changes in ___________ and
_____________ fields.
2. _______________ is the distance between two successive wave crests.
3. _______________ is the distance between the crest and the trough of a single wave.
4. The shorter the wavelength, the ___________ the frequency.
5. The amount of energy propagated from a source decreases proportionally to the ___________
of the distance from the source.
6. The range of frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum that are just below (lower in
frequency than) the visible range is called ____________.
7. Radio wavelengths are in the (longest/shortest) ___________ range of the electromagnetic
8. In the visible light range, the __________ end of the spectrum has higher frequencies than the
________ end of the spectrum.
9. The linear polarization of an electromagnetic wave is defined by the direction of its
______________ vector.
10. The GAVRT can observe S- and X-band radio waves, which includes frequencies of ____ to
____ and ____ to _____ GHz, respectively.
1. electric, magnetic 2. Wavelength 3. Amplicate 4 higher 5. square 6. infrared
7. longest 8 blue, red 9. electric 10. 2-4, 8-12
For Further Study
• Nature of electromagnetic radiation: Kaufmann, 80-84.
• Inverse-square law of electromagnetic propagation: Kaufmann, 342-343.
• Polarization of electromagnetic waves: Wynn-Williams, 68, 74, 105-109.