3.3 The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Posted by Andri Fadillah Martin on Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Figure 3.9 plots the entire range of electromagnetic radiation, illustrating the relationships among the different "types" of electromagnetic radiation listed earlier. We see that the only characteristic distinguishing one from another is wavelength, or frequency. To the low-frequency, long-wavelength side of visible light lie radio and infrared radiation. Radio frequencies include radar, microwave radiation, and the familiar AM, FM, and TV bands. We perceive infrared radiation as heat. At higher frequencies (shorter wavelengths) are the domains of ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray radiation. Ultraviolet radiation, lying just beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum, is responsible for suntans and sunburns. X rays are perhaps best known for their ability to penetrate human tissue and reveal the state of our insides without resorting to surgery. Gamma rays are the shortest-wavelength radiation. They are often associated with radioactivity and are invariably damaging to living cells they encounter.

All these spectral regions, including the visible spectrum, collectively make up the electromagnetic spectrum. Remember that, despite their greatly differing wavelengths and the different roles they play in everyday life on Earth, all are basically the same phenomenon, and all move at the same speed—the speed of light, c.

Figure 3.9 Electromagnetic Spectrum The entire electromagnetic spectrum, running from long-wavelength, low-frequency radio waves, to short-wavelength, high-frequency gamma rays.

Figure 3.9 is worth studying carefully, as it contains a great deal of information. Note that wave frequency (in hertz) increases from left to right, and wavelength (in meters) increases from right to left. Scientists often disagree on the "correct" way to display wavelengths and frequencies in diagrams of this type. When picturing wavelengths and frequencies, this book consistently adheres to the convention that frequency increases toward the right.

Notice also that the wavelength and frequency scales in Figure 3.9 do not increase by equal increments of 10. Instead, successive values marked on the horizontal axis differ by factors of 10—each is 10 times greater than its neighbor. This type of scale, called a logarithmic scale, is often used in science to condense a large range of some quantity into a manageable size. Had we used a linear scale for the wavelength range shown in Figure 3.9, the figure would have been many light-years long! Throughout the text we will often find it convenient to use a logarithmic scale to compress a wide range of some quantity onto a single, easy-to-view plot.

Figure 3.9 shows that wavelengths extend from the size of mountains for radio radiation to the size of an atomic nucleus for gamma-ray radiation. The box at the upper right emphasizes how small the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is. Most objects in the universe emit large amounts of invisible radiation. Indeed, many of them emit only a tiny fraction of their total energy in the visible range. A wealth of extra knowledge can be gained by studying the invisible regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. To remind you of this important fact and to identify the region of the electromagnetic spectrum in which a particular observation was made, we have attached a spectrum icon—an idealized version of the wavelength scale in Figure 3.9—to every astronomical image presented in this text.

Only a small fraction of the radiation produced by astronomical objects actually reaches Earth's surface because of the opacity of our planet's atmosphere. Opacity is the extent to which radiation is blocked by the material through which it is passing—in this case, air. The more opaque an object is, the less radiation gets through it: Opacity is just the opposite of transparency. Earth's atmospheric opacity is plotted along the wavelength and frequency scales at the bottom of Figure 3.9. The extent of shading is proportional to the opacity. Where the shading is greatest, no radiation can get in or out. Where there is no shading at all, the atmosphere is almost completely transparent.

What causes opacity to vary along the spectrum? Certain atmospheric gases absorb radiation very efficiently at some wavelengths. For example, water vapor (H2O) and oxygen (O2) absorb radio waves having wavelengths less than about a centimeter, while water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2) are strong absorbers of infrared radiation. Ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray radiation are completely blocked by the ozone layer (O3) high in Earth's atmosphere (see Section 7.3). A passing but unpredictable source of atmospheric opacity in the visible part of the spectrum is the blockage of light by atmospheric clouds.

In addition, the interaction between the Sun's ultraviolet radiation and the upper atmosphere produces a thin, electrically conducting layer at an altitude of about 100 km. The ionosphere, as this layer is known, reflects long-wavelength radio waves (wavelengths greater than about 10 m) as well as a mirror reflects visible light. In this way, extraterrestrial waves are kept out, and terrestrial waves—such as those produced by AM radio stations—are kept in. (That's why it is possible to transmit some radio frequencies beyond the horizon—the broadcast waves bounce off the ionosphere.)

The effect of atmospheric opacity is that there are only a few spectral windows, at well-defined locations in the electromagnetic spectrum, where Earth's atmosphere is transparent. In much of the radio and in the visible portions of the spectrum, the opacity is low and we can study the universe at those wavelengths from ground level. In parts of the infrared range, the atmosphere is partially transparent, so we can make certain infrared observations from the ground. Moving to the tops of mountains, above as much of the atmosphere as possible, improves observations. In the rest of the spectrum, however, the atmosphere is opaque. Ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray observations can be made only from above the atmosphere, from orbiting satellites.

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