Imagine the Universe!
Imagine Home  |   Teachers' Corner   |  

We can think of electromagnetic radiation in several different ways:

  • From a physical science standpoint, all electromagnetic radiation can be thought of as originating from the motions of atomic particles. Gamma-rays occur when atomic nuclei are split or fused. X-rays occur when an electron orbiting close to an atomic nucleus is pushed outward with such force that it escapes the atom; ultraviolet, when an electron is jolted from a near to a far orbit; and visible and infrared, when electrons are jolted a few orbits out. Photons in these three energy ranges (X-ray, UV, and optical) are emitted as one of the outer shell electrons loses enough energy to fall down to the replace the electron missing from the inner shell. Radio waves are generated by any electron movement; even the stream of electrons (electric current) in a common household wire creates radio waves ...albeit with wavelengths of hundreds of kilometers and very weak in amplitude.
  • Electromagnetic radiation can be described in terms of a stream of photons (massless packets of energy), each traveling in a wave-like pattern, moving at the speed of light. The only difference between radio waves, visible light, and gamma-rays is the amount of energy in the photons. Radio waves have photons with low energies, microwaves have a little more energy than radio waves, infrared has still more, then visible, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma-rays. By the equation E=h(nu)=(hc)/lambda, energy dictates a photon's wavelength and frequency.




Back Index Next
Download a pdf version.

Imagine the Universe is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Imagine Team
Acting Project Leader: Dr. Barbara Mattson
All material on this site has been created and updated between 1997-2012.

DVD Table of Contents
Educator's Index