Microwave and radio waves are light waves of different lengths on the same end of the electromagnetic spectrum. The other types of waves are infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays. Microwave and radio waves are not visible to the naked eye and are used for everyday and scientific purposes. The attributes and uses of each wavelength are quite different—microwaves for cooking food and providing radar and radio waves being used for common information transmission.
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Radio waves are emitted from objects in the solar system, the largest source being the sun. Since the discovery of radio waves in 1932, researchers have been trying to find ways to capture images of these wavelengths. German physicist Heinrich Hertz was the first person to broadcast and receive radio waves after much experimentation. Microwaves, on the other hand, were discovered by accident in the 1960s when two scientists heard background noise while working on another experiment.
Radio waves are the longest in the light spectrum. Some radio waves are as short as a few inches while others are miles long and all can be used to transmit information. Microwaves are behind radio waves in length on the electromagnetic scale, although they are much shorter, from a few centimetres to about a foot in length. The most well-known type of microwave is the longer wave, which is used in microwave ovens.
Radio waves can carry sound for devices such as radio and cell phones, and they carry images and information for televisions, telescopes and satellites. Microwaves are most commonly known for microwave ovens in most homes, where the short light waves actually cook food. Microwaves are also used for information transmission, typically in scientific and military operations, such as phone calls and transferring data from one computer to another. Microwaves also power radar transmissions.
Microwaves travel better through varying weather conditions, such as rain, clouds and haze and have broader uses than radio waves. One of these uses was the development and further use of radar. Radar uses "short bursts of microwaves" that create "echoes" from the objects they hit, according to NASA. Radio is harder to filter because the wavelengths are large and need to be “caught” in satellites or groups of satellites. Radio waves do not travel as well as microwaves through clouds and haze, which is why the radio in your home can break up during poor weather.
Microwaves and radio waves are both regulated in the United States but by two different agencies. The Federal Communications Commission regulates how radio waves are used and who is allowed to use them. Radio and television stations must get a license to broadcast over the air and are assigned certain frequencies, according to the FCC. This agency regulates FM (frequency modulated) and AM (amplitude modulated) radio and over-the-air television. The United States Health and Human Services Administration sets standards for microwave use and regulates allowable leakage from microwave ovens for home and commercial use because of health concerns from microwave exposure.
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