Electromagnetic Spectrum

Electromagnetic Spectrum


The electromagnetic spectrum consists of all the frequencies at which electromagnetic waves can occur, ordered from zero to infinity. Radio waves, visible light, and x rays are examples of electromagnetic waves at different frequencies. Every part of the electromagnetic spectrum is exploited for some form of military, security, or espionage activity; the entire spectrum is also key to science and industry.

Basic Physics

Electromagnetic waves have been known since the midnineteenth century, when their behavior was first described by the equations of Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879). Electromagnetic waves, according to Maxwell's equations, are generated whenever an electrical charge (e.g., an electron) is accelerated, that is, changes its direction of motion, its speed, or both. An electromagnetic wave is so named because it consists of an electric and a magnetic field propagating together through space. As the electric field varies with time, it renews the magnetic field; as the magnetic field varies, it renews the electric field. The two components of the wave, which always point at right angles both to each other and to their direction of motion, are thus mutually sustaining, and form a wave which moves forward through empty space indefinitely.

The rate at which energy is periodically exchanged between the electric and magnetic components of a given electromagnetic wave is the frequency, [.nu], of that wave and has units of cycles per second or Hertz (Hz); the linear distance between the wave's peaks is termed its wavelength, [.lambda], and has units of length (e.g., meters). The speed at which a wave travels is the product of its wavelength and its frequency, V = [.nu][.lambda]; in the case of electromagnetic waves, Maxwell's equations require that this velocity equal the speed of light, c (>186,000 miles per second [300,000 km/sec]). Since the velocity of all electromagnetic waves is fixed, the wavelength [.lambda] of an electromagnetic wave always determines its frequency [.nu], or vice versa, by the relationship c = [.nu][.lambda] The higher the frequency (i.e., the shorter the wavelength) of an electromagnetic wave, the higher in the spectrum it is said to be. Since a wave cannot have a frequency less than zero, the spectrum is bound by zero at its lower end. In theory, it has no upper limit.

Electromagnetic waves and matter. All atoms and molecules at temperatures above absolute zero radiate electromagnetic waves at specific frequencies that are determined by the details of their internal structure. In quantum physics, this radiation must often be described as consisting of particles called photons rather than as waves; however, this article will restrict itself to the classical (continuous-wave) treatment of electromagnetic radiation, which is adequate for most technological purposes.

Not only do atoms and molecules radiate electromagnetic waves at certain frequencies, they can absorb them at the same frequencies. All material objects, therefore, are continuously absorbing and radiating electromagnetic waves having various frequencies, thus exchanging energy with other objects, near and far. This makes it possible to observe objects at a distance by detecting the electromagnetic waves that they radiate or reflect, or to affect them in various ways by beaming electromagnetic waves at them. These facts make the manipulation of electromagnetic waves at various frequencies (i.e., from various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum) fundamental to many fields of technology and science, including radio communication, radar, infrared sensing, visible-light imaging, lasers, x rays, astronomy, and more.

The Spectrum

The spectrum has been divided by physicists into a number of frequency ranges or bands denoted by convenient names. The points at which these bands begin and end do not correspond to shifts in the physics of electromagnetic radiation; rather, they reflect the importance of different frequency ranges for human purposes. Below, the various parts of the spectrum are named in order, lowestfrequency to highest-frequency, and their properties described.

Radio. Radio waves are typically produced by time-varying electrical currents in relatively large objects (i.e., at least centimeters across). This category of electromagnetic waves extends from the lowest-frequency, longest-wave-length electromagnetic waves up into the gigahertz (GHz; billions of cycles per second) range. The U.S. government officially allocates sub-bands of the radio frequency spectrum to various military and commercial purposes from 9 × 10 3 Hz to 3 × 10 11 Hz, dividing this part of the spectrum up into over 450 non-overlapping frequency bands. These bands are exploited by different users and technologies: for example, broadcast FM is transmitted using frequencies on the order of 10 6 Hz, while television signals are transmitted using frequencies on the order of 10 8 Hz (about a hundred times higher). In general, higher-frequency signals can be used to transmit lower-frequency information, but not the reverse; thus a voice signal with a maximum frequency content of 20 kHz (kilohertz, thousands of Hertz) can, if desired, be transmitted on a signal centered in the Ghz range, but it is impossible to transmit a television signal over a broadcast FM station. From 10 9 to 3 × 10 11 Hz, radio waves are termed microwaves; these are used for high-speed communications links, heating food, radar, and electromagnetic weapons, that is, devices designed to irritate or injure people or to disable enemy devices. The microwave frequencies used for communications and radar are subdivided still further into frequency bands with special designations, such as "X BAND" and "Y band." Microwave radiation from the Big Bang, the cosmic explosion in which the Universe originated, pervades all of space.

Infrared. Electromagnetic waves from approximately 10 12 to 5 µlt 10 14 Hz are termed infrared radiation. The word infrared means "below red," and is assigned to these waves because their frequencies are just below those of red light, the lowest-frequency light visible to human beings. Infrared radiation is typically produced by molecular vibrations and rotations (i.e., heat) and causes or accelerates such motions in the molecules of objects that absorb it; it is, therefore, perceived by the body through the increased warmth of skin exposed to it. Since all objects above absolute zero emit infrared radiation, electronic devices sensitive to infrared can form images even in the absence of visible light. Because of their ability to "see" at night, imaging devices that electronically create visible images from infrared light are important in security systems, on the battlefield, and in observations of the Earth from space for both scientific and military purposes.

Visible. Visible light consists of elecromagnetic waves with frequencies in the 4.3 × 10 14 to 7.5 × 10 14 Hz range. Waves in this narrow band are typically produced by rearrangements (orbital shifts) in the outer electrons of atoms. Most of the energy in the sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface consists of electromagnetic waves in this narrow frequency range; our eyes have therefore evolved to be sensitive to this band of the electromagnetic spectrum. Photovoltaic cells—electronic devices which turn incident electromagnetic radiation into electricity—are also designed to work primarily in this band, and for the same reason. Because half the Earth is liberally illuminated by visible light at all times, this band of the spectrum, though narrow (less than an octave), is essential to thousands of applications, including all forms of natural and many forms of mechanical vision.

Ultraviolet. Ultraviolet light consists of electromagnetic waves with frequencies in the 7.5 × 10 14 to 10 16 Hz range. It is typically produced by rearrangements in the outer and intermediate electrons of atoms. Ultraviolet light is invisible, but can cause chemical changes in many substances: for living things, consequences of these chemical changes can include skin burns, blindness, or cancer. Ultraviolet light can also cause some substances to give off visible light (flouresce), a property useful for mineral detection, art-forgery detection, and other applications. Various industrial processes employ ultraviolet light, including photolithography, in which patterned chemical changes are produced rapidly over an entire film or surface by projecting patterned ultraviolet light onto it. Most ultraviolet light from the sun is absorbed by a thin layer of ozone (O 3 in the stratosphere, making the Earth's surface much more hospitable to life than it would be otherwise; some chemicals produced by human industry (e.g., chlorfluorocarbons) destroy ozone, threatening this protective layer.

X rays. Electromagnetic waves with frequences from about 10 16 to 10 19 Hz are termed x rays. x rays are typically produced by rearrangements of electrons in the innermost orbitals of atoms. When absorbed, they are capable of ejecting electrons entirely from atoms and thus ionizing them (i.e., causing them to have a net positive electric charge). Ionization is destructive to living tissues because ions may abandon their original molecular bonds and form new ones, altering the structure of a DNA molecule or some other aspect of cell chemistry. However, x rays are useful in medical diagnosis and in security systems (e.g., airline luggage scanners) because they can pass entirely through many solid objects; both traditional contrast images of internal structure (often termed "x RAYS" for short) and modern computerized axial tomography images, which give much more information, depend on the penetrating power of x rays. x rays are produced in large quantities by nuclear explosions (as are electromagnetic waves at all other frequencies above the radio band), and have been proposed for use in a space-based ballistic-missile defense system as follows: X-rays emitted by an orbital nuclear explosion would stimulate coherent, highly-directional x-ray emission (x-ray lasing) in special fibers placed next to the warhead that had been pre-aimed at ballistic warheads arcing through space. The resulting xray laser bursts would disable the warheads or knock them off course. There are, however, many technical and political problems with such a scheme, and its feasibility has never been demonstrated.

Gamma rays. All electromagnetic waves above about 3 × 10 19 Hz are termed gamma rays ([.gamma] rays). Gamma rays are typically produced by rearrangements of particles in atomic nuclei. A nuclear explosion produces large quantities of gamma radiation, which is both directly and indirectly destructive of life. By interacting with the Earth's magnetic field, gamma rays from a high-altitude nuclear explosion can cause an intense pulse of radio waves termed an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). EMP may be powerful enough to burn out unprotected electronics on the ground over a wide area; most military hardware is therefore "hardened" against EMP to some degree, although hardening standards vary from one sector of the military to another.

Radio-frequency spectrum allocation. Radio waves present a unique regulatory problem, for only one broadcaster at a particular frequency can function in a given area. (Signals from overlapping same-frequency broadcasts would be received simultaneously by antennas, interfering with each other.) Throughout the world, therefore, governments regulate the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, a process termed spectrum allocation. In the U.S., since the passage of the Communications Act of 1934, the radio spectrum has been deemed a public resource. Individual private broadcasters are given licenses allowing them to use specific portions of this resource, that is, specific sub-bands of the radio spectrum. The United States Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and FCC (Federal Communications Commission) oversee the spectrum allocation process, which is subject to intense lobbying by various telecommunications stakeholders.

Military and security significance of the electromagnetic spectrum. Virtually all forms of military, espionage, and security activity exploit some portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The transmission, reception, and interception of radio messages are perhaps the most obvious examples, second to the use of light in the visible spectrum for ordinary vision and most technical imaging. More exotic direct applications of electromagnetic radiation are also under development, including the direct use of electromagnetic waves (e.g., laser light) as a destructive weapon, and for various other methods of electronic warfare, defined by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff as "any military action involving the use of electromagnetic and directed energy to control the electromagnetic spectrum or to attack the enemy." Jamming of enemy transmissions and protection of friendly forces against enemy jamming attempts are typical forms of electronic warfare.

In summary, it can be said that the manipulation of every level of the electromagnetic spectrum is of urgent technological interest, but most work is being done in the radio through the visible portions of the spectrum (below 7.5 × 10 14 Hz), where communications, radar, and imaging can be accomplished.



"Electromagnetic Spectrum Use in Joint Military Operations." Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction. May 1, 2000. < http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/cjcsd/cjcsi/3320_01.pdf > (Jan. 30, 2003).

Schroeder, Norbert. "Radio Frequency Spectrum Allocations in the United States." National Telecommunications and Information Administration. July 1, 2000. < http://www.ntia.doc.gov/osmhome/chart_00.htm > (Jan. 30, 2003).


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