Types of Radio Waves

Introduction: Light Waves and the Electromagnetic Spectrum

EM radiationLight is a form of electromagnetic (EM) wave. An EM wave is an electric field and a magnetic field that are oscillating together.
 The fields are oriented perpendicular to each other, and the wave travels in a direction perpendicular to both of the fields. These waves can also be thought of as particles called photons: massless packets of energy that travel at the speed of light. In fact, EM radiation behaves as both a particle and a wave at the same time.

wavelengthEM waves can be characterized by any of three properties: wavelength (λ) - the distance between two adjacent crests of the wave, frequency (f) - the number of wave oscillations per second, or the energy (E) of the individual photons in the wave. For all types of EM radiation, the simple relationships between wavelength, frequency, and energy are:

equation where wavelength is measured in units of length such as meters (where 1 cm = 10-2 meters, 1 micrometer = 10-6 meters, etc.), frequency is measured in units of Hertz (Hz), where 1 Hz = 1 wave crest per second (e.g. 1 MHz = 106 Hz, 1 GHz = 109 Hz); c is the speed of light, which is about 3 x 108 meters per second (or 186,000 miles per second); and h is Planck's constant, which is equal to 6.63 x 10-27 ergxs, where an erg is a unit of energy.

Remarkably, all forms of EM radiation (visible light, x-rays, radio waves, etc.) travel at the speed of light, regardless of their energy. Since the energy of an EM wave is directly proportional to its frequency and inversely proportional to its wavelength, the higher the energy of the wave, the higher the frequency, and the shorter the wavelength.

The different wavelengths of EM radiation cause the radiation to react differently with different materials, such as our eyes or detectors in telescopes.


short wavelengthsThlong wavelengthse way visible light of different wavelengths interacts with our eyes gives rise to "colors", with the shorter wavelengths (about 0.0004 mm) appearing as blue light and the longer wavelengths (about 0.0007 mm) appearing as red light. Even shorter wavelengths of EM radiation (such as x-rays) can pass right through tissues in our bodies.

Radiation at longer wavelengths (e.g. infrared) cannot be seen by our eyes, but can be felt as heat. Radio waves are EM waves with the longest wavelengths, from 1 mm - 100 km. The image below shows the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from shorter wavelengths to longer wavelengths.

Just as the EM spectrum is divided up into different regions depending on wavelength, the radio region of the EM spectrum can also be divided up into different regions or "bands". These are the bands in which astronomers use radio telescopes to observe the radio waves emitted by astronomical objects. The most common radio band names and their corresponding wavelengths/frequencies are:

Band Wavelength Frequency
P-band 90 cm 327 MHz
L-band 20 cm 1.4 GHz
C-band 6.0 cm 5.0 GHz
X-band 3.6 cm 8.5 GHz
U-band 2.0 cm 15 GHz
K-band 1.3 cm 23 GHz
Q-band 7 mm 45 GHz

Astronomers must build special telescopes and detectors in order to detect EM radiation of different wavelengths. For example, optical telescopes are designed similar to the human eye, with a lens to focus incoming light onto a detector. Since radio waves have a much longer wavelength than optical light, radio telescopes are designed much differently, although the basic principles are the same.

Electromagnetic radiation is emitted by charged particles such as electrons when they change speed or direction (or accelerate). In the following sections we will see how this basic concept applies to the primary astrophysical processes that emit radiation at radio wavelengths.

In general, electromagnetic radiation is emitted by one of two means, either thermal or non-thermal mechanisms. Thermal emission, which depends only on the temperature of the emitting object, includes blackbody radiation, free-free emission in an ionized gas, and spectral line emission. Non-thermal emission, which does not depend on the temperature of the emitting object, includes synchrotron radiation, gyrosynchrotron emission, and amplified emission from masers in space.

Thermal Emission

Blackbody Radiation

Thermal emission is perhaps the most basic form of emission for EM radiation. Any object or particle that has a temperature above absolute zero emits thermal radiation. The temperature of the object causes the atoms and molecules within the object to move around.

For example, the molecules of a gas, as in a planet's atmosphere, spin around and bump into one another. When the molecules bump into each other, they change direction. A change in direction is equivalent to acceleration. As stated above, when charged particles accelerate, they emit electromagnetic radiation. So each time a molecule changes direction, it emits radiation across the spectrum, just not equally. As a result, the amount of motion within an object is directly related to its temperature.

You can explore this for yourself by placing a cast-iron pan on a stove, heating it for a few minutes, and then placing it to the side. It is hot enough to be emitting a noticeable amount of infrared radiation (or heat), which you can detect by placing your hands near it. If you were to put more heat into the iron, it would eventually emit higher and higher energy wavelengths, until it would glow on its own, emitting visible light as well as infrared radiation.

Scientists call this blackbody radiation. A blackbody is a hypothetical object that completely absorbs all of the radiation that hits it, and reflects nothing. The object reaches an equilibrium temperature and re-radiates energy in a characteristic pattern (or spectrum). The spectrum peaks at a wavelength that depends only on the object's temperature. All objects in the universe behave this way. lightThis image shows blackbody spectra for objects at three different temperatures: 5000 K, 4000 K, and 3000 K. It is apparent from the image that objects at lower temperatures emit more radiation at longer wavelengths. The objects in the image emit at or near the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum; in order for an object to emit thermal radiation at radio wavelengths, it must be much colder than these objects.

The unit of temperature that astronomers typically use is called the Kelvin, and its symbol is K (no degree symbol is used). To convert from degrees Celsius to Kelvin, add 273 to the temperature in Celsius. So, if an object has a temperature of 100° C, its temperature in Kelvin is 100+273 = 373 K.

Objects that are cooler than about 1000 K emit more infrared than visible light, such as the Earth or brown dwarfs (dim, cool objects too massive to be planets but not massive enough to be stars). Hotter objects, like stars, emit mostly optical light. Very hot objects emit mostly ultraviolet radiation, such as white dwarfs (dying stars that have burned up all of the hydrogen in their cores). The major difference in the type of energy emitted by these objects is their temperature.

The Sun and other stars are, for all intents and purposes, considered blackbody radiators. By looking at the frequency or "color" of the radiation they emit, scientists can learn about the temperature of these bodies. For example, cooler stars appear red and hotter stars appear bluish-white.

One of the most famous examples of a "perfect" blackbody is known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation. This is the radiation permeating the entire Universe that was released during the Big Bang explosion and has been cooling for the last 15 billion years.

Today the CMB radiation is so cold (only 2.725 K, or -270° C), that most of the radiation is emitted at radio wavelengths of a few centimeters (also called "microwave" radiation; see image at right). Astronomers were able to obtain the spectrum of the microwave background using a specially designed satellite called the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE).


The blackbody nature of the microwave background spectrum matches the predictions of the Big Bang theory extremely accurately, thus confirming the theory that the microwave background radiation was created in the Big Bang explosion. The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), launched in 2001, has observed the microwave background to an even higher level of sensitivity, giving astronomers greater insights into the origin and evolution of the Universe.

Free-Free Emission

Another form of thermal emission comes from gas which has been ionized. Atoms in the gas become ionized when their electrons become stripped or dislodged. This results in charged particles moving around in an ionized gas or "plasma", which is a fourth state of matter, after solid, liquid, and gas.
As this happens, the electrons are accelerated by the charged particles, and the gas cloud emits radiation continuously. This type of radiation is called "free-free" emission or "bremsstrahlung".

brems animThis animation shows the emission of a photon when a negatively charged electron (green particle) changes direction or accelerates due to the presence of a nearby positively charged ion (red particle). Some sources of free-free emission in the radio region of the EM spectrum include ionized gas near star-forming regions or Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN).

Spectral Line Emission

Spectral line emission involves the transition of electrons in atoms from a higher energy level to lower energy level. When this happens, a photon is emitted with the same energy as the energy difference between the two levels. The emission of this photon at a certain discrete energy shows up as a discrete "line" or wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum.

spinFlip animAn important spectral line that radio astronomers study is the 21-cm line of neutral hydrogen. This line is emitted by the following transition: the hydrogen atom consists of one electron orbiting one proton in the nucleus. Both the electron and the proton have a "spin". In the lowest energy state, or "ground" state, the spins of both particles are in opposite directions.

When the atom becomes excited, either by absorbing a photon of energy, or by bumping into other atoms, the electron absorbs a small amount of energy, and the spin of the electron "flips," so that the spins of both particles are in the same direction. When the atom reverts back to its natural state, it loses this energy by emitting a photon with a wavelength of 21 cm, in the radio region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Non-thermal Emission

Synchrotron Emission

Non-thermal emission does not have the characteristic signature curve of blackbody radiation. In fact, it is quite the opposite, with emission increasing at longer wavelengths.The most common form of non-thermal emission found in astrophysics is called synchrotron emission. Basically, synchrotron emission arises by the acceleration of charged particles within a magnetic field. Most commonly, the charged particles are electrons. Compared to protons, electrons have relatively little mass and are easier to accelerate and can therefore more easily respond to magnetic fields.

synch animAs the energetic electrons encounter a magnetic field, they spiral around it rather than move across it. Since the spiral is continuously changing the direction of the electron, it is in effect accelerating, and emitting radiation. The frequency of the emission is directly related to how fast the electron is traveling. This can be related to the initial velocity of the electron, or it can be due to the strength of the magnetic field. A stronger field creates a tighter spiral and therefore greater acceleration.

For this emission to be strong enough to have any astronomical value, the electrons must be traveling at nearly the speed of light when they encounter a magnetic field; these are known as "relativistic" electrons. (Lower-speed interactions do happen, and are called cyclotron emission, but they are of considerably lower power, and are virtually non-detectable astronomically).

As the electron travels around the magnetic field, it gives up energy as it emits photons. The longer it is in the magnetic field, the more energy it loses. As a result, the electron makes a wider spiral around the magnetic field, and emits EM radiation at a longer wavelength. To maintain synchrotron radiation, a continual supply of relativistic electrons is necessary. Typically, these are supplied by very powerful energy sources such as supernova remnants, quasars, or other forms of active galactic nuclei (AGN).

It is important to note that, unlike thermal emission, synchrotron emission is polarized. As the emitting electron is viewed side-on in its spiral motion, it appears to move back-and-forth in straight lines. Its synchrotron emission has its waves aligned in more or less the same plane. At visible wavelengths this phenomenon can be viewed with polarized lenses (as in certain sunglasses, and in modern 3-D movie systems).


Another form of non-thermal emission comes from masers. A maser, which stands for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation", is similar to a laser (which amplifies radiation at or near visible wavelengths). Masers are usually associated with molecules, and in space masers occur naturally in molecular clouds and in the envelopes of old stars. Maser action amplifies otherwise faint emission lines at a specific frequency. In some cases the luminosity from a given source in a single maser line can equal the entire energy output of the Sun from its whole spectrum.

maser animMasers require that a group of molecules be pumped to an energized state (labeled E2 in the diagram at right), like compressed springs ready to uncoil. When the energized molecules are exposed to a small amount of radiation at just the right frequency, they uncoil, dropping to a lower energy level (labeled E1 in the diagram), and emit a radio photon. The process entices other nearby molecules to do the same, and an avalanche of emission ensues, resulting in the bright, monochromatic maser line. Masers rely on an external energy source, such as a nearby, hot star, to pump the molecules back into their excited state (E2), and then the whole process starts again.

The first masers to be discovered came from the hydroxl radical (OH), silicon oxide (SiO), and water (H2O). Other masers have been discovered from molecules such as methanol (CH3OH), ammonia (NH3), and formaldehyde (H2CO).

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.