Electromagnetic Waves

The Electromagnetic Spectrum header  graphic

What are electromagnetic waves?

Electricity can be static, like what holds a balloon to the wall or makes your hair stand on end.

Magnetism can also be static like a refrigerator magnet. But when they change or move together, they make waves - electromagnetic waves.

A child with hair standing up from static  electricity.

A magnet.

Electromagnetic waves are formed when an electric field (shown as blue arrows) couples with a magnetic field (shown as red arrows). The magnetic and electric fields of an electromagnetic wave are perpendicular to each other and to the direction of the wave. James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz are two scientists who studied how electromagnetic waves are formed and how fast they travel.
Animation of electromagnetic waves.D of electromagnetic wave animation

Electromagnetic Waves have different wavelengths

When you listen to the radio, watch TV, or cook dinner in a microwave oven, you are using electromagnetic waves.
A television with antennae.
Radio waves, television waves, and microwaves are all types of electromagnetic waves. They differ from each other in wavelength. Wavelength is the distance between one wave crest to the next.

Diagram showing the top of a wave is a crest, the  bottom is a trough.

Waves in the electromagnetic spectrum vary in size from very long radio waves the size of buildings, to very short gamma-rays smaller than the size of the nucleus of an atom.

Diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum showing the relationship of wavelengths from radio to gamma waves.

Did you know that electromagnetic waves can not only be described by their wavelength, but also by their energy and frequency? All three of these things are related to each other mathematically. This means that it is correct to talk about the energy of an X-ray or the wavelength of a microwave or the frequency of a radio wave. The electromagnetic spectrum includes, from longest wavelength to shortest: radio waves, microwaves, infrared, optical, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma-rays.

Visible Light Waves

The visible spectrum from red (at left) to violet (at right).

Visible light waves are the only electromagnetic waves we can see. We see these waves as the colors of the rainbow. Each color has a different wavelength. Red has the longest wavelength and violet has the shortest wavelength. When all the waves are seen together, they make white light.

When white light shines through a prism, the white light is broken apart into the colors of the visible light spectrum. Water vapor in the atmosphere can also break apart wavelengths creating a rainbow.

Each color in a rainbow corresponds to a different wavelength of electromagnetic spectrum.

How do we "see" using Visible Light?

Cones in our eyes are receivers for these tiny visible light waves. The Sun is a natural source for visible light waves and our eyes see the reflection of this sunlight off the objects around us.

The color of an object that we see is the color of light reflected. All other colors are absorbed.

Light bulbs are another source of visible light waves.

Light bulb
This is an photograph taken from the space shuttle of Phoenix, Arizona.

Space Shuttle image of Phoenix.D

This is a true-color satellite image of Phoenix, Arizona. Can you see a difference between this image and the photo above it?

True-color satellite image D

There are two types of color images that can be made from satellite data - true-color and false-color. To take true-color images, like this one, the satellite that took it used sensors to record data about the red, green, and blue visible light waves that were reflecting off the earth's surface. The data were combined later on a computer. The result is similar to what our eyes see.

Here is a false-color image of Phoenix. How does it compare to the true-color and space shuttle images on this page?

False-color image of Arizona

A false-color image is made when the satellite records data about brightness of the light waves reflecting off the Earth's surface. These brightnesses are represented by numerical values - and these values can then be color-coded. It is just like painting by number! The colors chosen to "paint" the image are arbitrary, but they can be chosen to either make the object look realistic, or to help emphasize a particular feature in the image. Astronomers can even view a region of interest by using software to change the contrast and brightness on the picture, just like the controls on a TV! Can you see a difference in the color palettes selected for the two images below? Both images are of the Crab Nebula, the remains of an exploded star!

Real colors. Rainbow colors

Here's another example - the below pictures show the planet Uranus in true-color (on the left) and false-color (on the right).

True and false-color images of Uranus.

The true-color has been processed to show Uranus as human eyes would see it from the vantage point of the Voyager 2 spacecraft, and is a composite of images taken through blue, green and orange filters. The false color and extreme contrast enhancement in the image on the right, brings out subtle details in the polar region of Uranus. The very slight contrasts visible in true color are greatly exaggerated here, making it easier to studying Uranus' cloud structure. Here, Uranus reveals a dark polar hood surrounded by a series of progressively lighter concentric bands. One possible explanation is that a brownish haze or smog, concentrated over the pole, is arranged into bands by zonal motions of the upper atmosphere.

What does Visible Light show us?

It is true that we are blind to many wavelengths of light. This makes it important to use instruments that can detect different wavelengths of light to help us to study the Earth and the Universe. However, since visible light is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes can see, our whole world is oriented around it. And many instruments that detect visible light can see father and more clearly than our eyes could alone. That is why we use satellites to look at the Earth, and telescopes to look at the Sky!

GOES satellite image - visible light.

This is a visible light image of Phoenix, Arizona, taken from the GOES satellite. We often use visible light images to see clouds and to help predict the weather.

False color image of Jupiter.

We not only look at the Earth from space but we can also look at other planets from space. This is a visible light image of the planet Jupiter. It is in false color - the colors were chosen to emphasize the cloud structure on this banded planet - Jupiter would not look like this to your eyes.

Ultraviolet Waves

Ultraviolet range of the spectrum.

Ultraviolet (UV) light has shorter wavelengths than visible light. Though these waves are invisible to the human eye, some insects, like bumblebees, can see them! (Image of the bumblebee is courtesty of Mark Cassino.)

An image of a bumblebee.

Scientists have divided the ultraviolet part of the spectrum into three regions: the near ultraviolet, the far ultraviolet, and the extreme ultraviolet. The three regions are distinguished by how energetic the ultraviolet radiation is, and by the "wavelength" of the ultraviolet light, which is related to energy.

The near ultraviolet, abbreviated NUV, is the light closest to optical or visible light. The extreme ultraviolet, abbreviated EUV, is the ultraviolet light closest to X-rays, and is the most energetic of the three types. The far ultraviolet, abbreviated FUV, lies between the near and extreme ultraviolet regions. It is the least explored of the three regions.

The Extreme Ultraviolet Sun.

Our Sun emits light at all the different wavelengths in electromagnetic spectrum, but it is ultraviolet waves that are responsible for causing our sunburns. To the left is an image of the Sun taken at an Extreme Ultraviolet wavelength - 171 Angstroms to be exact. (An Angstrom is a unit length equal to 10-10 meters.) This image was taken by a satellite named SOHO and it shows what the Sun looked like on April 24, 2000.

Though some ultraviolet waves from the Sun penetrate Earth's atmosphere, most of them are blocked from entering by various gases like Ozone. Some days, more ultraviolet waves get through our atmosphere. Scientists have developed a UV index to help people protect themselves from these harmful ultraviolet waves.

How do we "see" using Ultraviolet light?

It is good for humans that we are protected from getting too much ultraviolet radiation, but it is bad for scientists! Astronomers have to put ultraviolet telescopes on satellites to measure the ultraviolet light from stars and galaxies - and even closer things like the Sun!

There are many different satellites that help us study ultraviolet astronomy. Many of them only detect a small portion of UV light. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope observes stars and galaxies mostly in near ultraviolet light. NASA's Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer satellite is currently exploring the extreme ultraviolet universe. The International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) satellite has observed in the far and near ultraviolet regions for over 17 years.

The International Ultraviolet Explorer

What does Ultraviolet light show us?

We can study stars and galaxies by studying the UV light they give off - but did you know we can even study the Earth? Below is an unusual image - it is a picture of Earth taken from a lunar observatory! This false-color picture shows how the Earth glows in ultraviolet (UV) light.

The Far UV Camera/Spectrograph deployed and left on the Moon by the crew of Apollo 16 took this picture. The part of the Earth facing the Sun reflects much UV light. Even more interesting is the side facing away from the Sun. Here, bands of UV emission are also apparent. These bands are the result of aurora caused by charged particles given off by the Sun. They spiral towards the Earth along Earth's magnetic field lines.

The UV Earth D

Many scientists are interested in studying the invisible universe of ultraviolet light, since the hottest and the most active objects in the cosmos give off large amounts of ultraviolet energy.

The image below shows three different galaxies taken in visible light (bottom three images) and ultraviolet light (top row) taken by NASA's Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (UIT) on the Astro-2 mission.

UV and Visible images of 3 galaxiesD

The difference in how the galaxies appear is due to which type of stars shine brightest in the optical and ultraviolet wavelengths. Pictures of galaxies like the ones below show mainly clouds of gas containing newly formed stars many times more massive than the sun, which glow strongly in ultraviolet light. In contrast, visible light pictures of galaxies show mostly the yellow and red light of older stars. By comparing these types of data, astronomers can learn about the structure and evolution of galaxies.

The Maxwell Equations

In 1865, James Clerk Maxwell assembled all the known ``Laws'' of classical electrodynamics in their most compact, elegant (differential) form, shown here in SI units:


The first four of these basic equations are known collectively as the Maxwell equations; they are considered by most Physicists to be a beautifully concise summary of electromagnetic phenomenology.



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