Categories: Astronomy

Radio Waves

Radio waves are electromagnetic waves, or electromagnetic radiation, with wavelengths of about a centimeter or longer (the boundary is rather fuzzy; microwaves and terahertz radiation are sometimes considered to be radio waves; these have wavelengths as short as a tenth of a millimeter or so). In other words, radio waves are electromagnetic radiation at the lowest energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Radio waves were predicted two decades or so before they were generated and detected; in fact, the historical story is one of the great triumphs of modern science.

Many years – centuries even – of work on electrical and magnetic phenomena, by many scientists, culminated in the work of James Clerk Maxwell. In 1865 he published a set of equations which describe everything known about electricity and magnetism (electromagnetism) up till that time (the next major advance was the work of Planck and Einstein – among others – some four decades or so later, involving the discovery of photons, or quantized electromagnetic radiation). Maxwell’s equations, as they are now called, predicted that there should be a kind of wave of interacting electrical and magnetic fields, which is self-propagating, and which travels at the speed of light.

In 1887, Heinrich Hertz created radio waves in his lab, and detected them after they’d travelled a short distance … exactly as Maxwell had predicted! It wasn’t long before practical applications of this discovery were developed, leading to satellite TV, cell phones, GPS, radar, wireless home networks, and much, much, more.

For Universe Today readers, the discovery of radio waves lead to radio astronomy. Interestingly, theory again preceded observation … several scientists – Planck among them – predicted that the Sun should emit radio waves (be a source of radio waves), but the Sun’s radio emission was not detected until 1942 (by Hey, in England), nearly a decade after celestial radio waves were detected and studied, by Jansky (and Reber, among others).

Here are some other webpages, or websites, with more on radio waves: Radio Waves (NASA), How Radio Waves Are Produced (National Radio Astronomy Observatory), and Radio Waves & Electromagnetic Fields (an interactive simulation from the University of Colorado).

Universe Today stories on radio waves? Sure! Device Makes Radio Waves Travel Faster Than Light, Magnetar Crackles with Radio Waves, and All-Sky Radio Image in 60 Seconds, No Moving Parts. And that’s just a sample.

Astronomy Cast episodes covering radio waves? Sure! Radio Astronomy, and Across the Electromagnetic Spectrum are two particularly good ones.


Jean Tate

Hi! When I was only six (or so), I went out one clear but windy night with my uncle and peered through the eyepiece of his home-made 6" Newtonian reflector. The dazzling, shimmering, perfect globe-and-ring of Saturn entranced me, and I was hooked on astronomy, for life. Today I'm a freelance writer, and began writing for Universe Today in late 2009. Like Tammy, I do like my coffee, European strength please. Contact me:

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