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The Electromagnetic Spectrum header graphic


The radio range showing the radar bands L,S,C,X,K (from L to R).

Microwaves have wavelengths that can be measured in centimeters! The longer microwaves, those closer to a foot in length, are the waves which heat our food in a microwave oven. Image of child putting a dish in a microwave oven.

Microwaves are good for transmitting information from one place to another because microwave energy can penetrate haze, light rain and snow, clouds, and smoke.

Shorter microwaves are used in remote sensing. These microwaves are used for radar like the doppler radar used in weather forecasts. Microwaves, used for radar, are just a few inches long.

A red tower with round microwave antennae on it.

This microwave tower can transmit information like telephone calls and computer data from one city to another.

How do we "see" using Microwaves?

Radar is an acronym for "radio detection and ranging". Radar was developed to detect objects and determine their range (or position) by transmitting short bursts of microwaves. The strength and origin of "echoes" received from objects that were hit by the microwaves is then recorded.

Because radar senses electromagnetic waves that are a reflection of an active transmission, radar is considered an active remote sensing system. Passive remote sensing refers to the sensing of electromagnetic waves which did not originate from the satellite or sensor itself. The sensor is just a passive observer. Doppler radar weather map.

What do Microwaves show us?

Satellite image of Alaskan shores D Because microwaves can penetrate haze, light rain and snow, clouds and smoke, these waves are good for viewing the Earth from space.

The ERS-1 satellite sends out wavelengths about 5.7 cm long (C-band). This image shows sea ice breaking off the shores of Alaska.

The Amazon River D The JERS satellite uses wavelengths about 20 cm in length (L-band). This is an image of the Amazon River in Brazil.
Salt Lake City, UtahD This is a radar image acquired from the Space Shuttle. It also used a wavelength in the L-band of the microwave spectrum. Here we see a computer enhanced radar image of some mountains on the edge of Salt Lake City, Utah.

In the 1960's a startling discovery was made quite by accident. A pair of scientists at Bell Laboratories detected background noise using a special low noise antenna. The strange thing about the noise was that it was coming from every direction and did not seem to vary in intensity much at all. If this static were from something on our world, like radio transmissions from a nearby airport control tower, it would only come from one direction, not everywhere. The scientists soon realized they had discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation. This radiation, which fills the entire Universe, is believed to be a clue to it's beginning, something known as the Big Bang.

Image of the cosmic microwave background.

The image above is a Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) image of the cosmic microwave background, the pink and blue colors showing the tiny fluctuations in it.

Did you know that if you had a sensitive microwave telescope in your house that you would detect a faint signal leaking out of your microwave oven, and from various other man-made sources, but also a faint signal coming from all directions that you pointed it? This is the Cosmic Microwave Background!



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NASA Official: Ruth Netting
Last Updated: March 27, 2007
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