Radio wave facts
A radio wave, like other electromagnetic waves, is similar to an ocean wave or any other type of wave. Both types of wave have a hill and valley shape, repeating over and over. A wavelength is measured as the distance from the top of one crest to the top of its neighboring crest. While the wavelength of visible light is very very small, less than one micrometer and much less than the thickness of a human hair, radio waves can have a wavelength from a couple centimeters to several meters. They also have a radio frequency.
The smallest radio waves are called microwaves. Shortwaves are not quite so small. There are also medium and long waves. Antennas designed to send and receive radio waves are usually similar in size to the wavelength they are to use. Many radio antennas (like those on cars) are made long because they receive signals of FM radio (a few meters, several feet) or AM radio (hundreds of meters, about a thousand feet).
Manmade radio waves have been used for a long time for communication, and to 'see' objects. Radar uses radio waves to 'see' distant objects by bouncing waves off an object and seeing how long it takes for the waves to return. Radar can even be used to find oil or see what chemicals are in soil. Radios also use these waves to send and receive information.
Natural radio waves were first discovered in the 1930s by Karl Guthe Jansky, working for Bell Laboratories. Before his discovery, everyone thought only people could generate radio waves. Bell was detecting static on radio channels, and had Jansky try to figure out where this static, or interference was coming from. Surprisingly, the interference was coming from space! This discovery eventually led astronomers to look at radio waves along with light waves to find things in the sky. These radio astronomers use giant Radio telescopes, shaped like satellite dishes, to gather and study the waves.
Animation of a half-wave dipole antenna radiating radio waves, showing the electric field lines. The antenna in the center is two vertical metal rods, with an alternating current applied at its center from a radio transmitter (not shown). The voltage charges the two sides of the antenna alternately positive (+) and negative (−). Loops of electric field (black lines) leave the antenna and travel away at the speed of light; these are the radio waves. The action is drastically slowed down in this animation.
Radio wave Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.