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Radio Waves

Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light. Like all other electromagnetic waves, they travel at the speed of light. Naturally-occurring radio waves are made by lightning, or by astronomical objects. Artificially-generated radio waves are used for fixed and mobile radio communication, broadcasting, radar and other navigation systems, satellite communication, computer networks and innumerable other applications. Different frequencies of radio waves have different propagation characteristics in the Earth's atmosphere; long waves may cover a part of the Earth very consistently, shorter waves can reflect off the ionosphere and travel around the world, and much shorter wavelengths bend or reflect very little and travel on a line of sight.

Short wavelength
High frequency
High energy

Long wavelength
Low frequency
Low energy



Radio waves have the longest wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum. These waves can be longer than a football field or as short as a football. Radio waves do more than just bring music to your radio. They also carry signals for your television and cellular phones.

The antennae on your television set receive the signal, in the form of electromagnetic waves, that is broadcasted from the television station. It is displayed on your television screen.

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


Cable companies have antennae or dishes which receive waves broadcasted from your local TV stations. The signal is then sent through a cable to your house.

How Radio Communication Works

Sound and radio waves are different phenomena. Sound consists of pressure variations in matter, such as air or water. Sound will not travel through a vacuum. Radio waves, like visible light, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays, are electromagnetic waves that do travel through a vacuum. When you turn on a radio you hear sounds because the transmitter at the radio station has converted the sound waves into electromagnetic waves, which are then encoded onto an electromagnetic wave in the radio frequency range (generally in the range of 500-1600 kHz for AM stations, or 86-107 MHz for FM stations). Radio electromagnetic waves are used because they can travel very large distances through the atmosphere without being greatly attenuated due to scattering or absorption. Your radio receives the radio waves, decodes this information, and uses a speaker to change it back into a sound wave. An animated illustration of this process is given below (mouse-over the images for animations).

A sound wave is produced with a frequency of 5 Hz - 20 kHz. Notes
The sound wave is equivalent to a pressure wave traveling through the air. Wave
A microphone converts the sound wave into an electrical signal. Microphone
The electrical wave traveling through the microphone wire is analogous to the original sound wave. Wave
The electrical wave is used to encode or modulate a high-frequency "carrier" radio wave. The carrier wave itself does not include any of the sound information until it has been modulated. Wave
The carrier wave can either be amplitude modulated (AM, top) by the electrical signal, or frequency modulated (FM, bottom). AM
The signal is transmitted by a radio broadcast tower. Tower
Your radio contains an antenna to detect the transmitted signal, a tuner to pick out the desired frequency, a demodulator to extract the original sound wave from the transmitted signal, and an amplifier which sends the signal to the speakers. The speakers convert the electrical signal into physical vibrations (sound). RadioNotes


Credit:NASA, ESA, The National Radio Astronomy Observatory