Hurricane Claudette's eye-wall making landfall
This Doppler-radar image seen on TV weather news uses microwaves for local weather forecasting. Shown here is Hurricane Claudette's eye-wall making landfall. Credit: NOAA


You may be familiar with microwave images as they are used on TV weather news and you can even use microwaves to cook your food. Microwave ovens work by using microwave about 12 centimeters in length to force water and fat molecules in food to rotate. The interaction of these molecules undergoing forced rotation creates heat, and the food is cooked.


Microwaves are a portion or "band" found at the higher frequency end of the radio spectrum, but they are commonly distinguished from radio waves because of the technologies used to access them. Different wavelengths of microwaves (grouped into "sub-bands") provide different information to scientists. Medium-length (C-band) microwaves penetrate through clouds, dust, smoke, snow, and rain to reveal the Earth's surface. L-band microwaves, like those used by a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver in your car, can also penetrate the canopy cover of forests to measure the soil moisture of rain forests. Most communication satellites use C-, X-, and Ku-bands to send signals to a ground station.

sea ice breaking off the shores of Alaska. the Amazon River in Brazil. a computer enhanced radar image of some mountains on the edge of Salt Lake City, Utah.
LEFT: 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.CENTER: The JERS satellite uses wavelengths about 20 cm in length (L-band).This is an image of the Amazon River in Brazil.RIGHT: This is a radar image acquired from the Space Shuttle. It also used awavelengthin the L-band of the microwave spectrum. Here we see a computerenhanced radarimage of some mountains on the edge of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Microwaves that penetrate haze, light rain and snow, clouds, and smoke are beneficial for satellite communication and studying the Earth from space. The SeaWinds instrument onboard the Quick Scatterometer (QuikSCAT) satellite uses radar pulses in the Ku-band of the microwave spectrum. This scatterometer measures changes in the energy of the microwave pulses and can determine speed and direction of wind near the ocean surface. The ability of microwaves to pass through clouds enables scientists to monitor conditions underneath a hurricane.

An image of the hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico. Colors show higher winds of 40 – 50 knots on the sea surface close to the center of the hurricane and 20 knots at the edges. Small white arrows indicate the direction of the wind, primarily counter clockwise following the hurricane.
Credit: NASA image courtesy the QuikSCAT Science Team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Arctic Sea Ice from AMSR-E
The Japanese Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer for EOS (AMSR-E) instrument onboard NASA's Aqua satellite can acquire high-resolution microwave measurements of the entire polar region every day, even through clouds and snowfall. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio


Radar technology is considered an active remote sensing system because it actively sends a microwave pulse and senses the energy reflected back. Doppler Radar, Scatterometers, and Radar Altimeters are examples of active remote sensing instruments that use microwave frequencies.

The radar altimeter onboard the joint NASA/CNES (French space agency) Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM)/Jason-2 satellite can determine the height of the sea surface. This radar altimeter beams microwaves at two different frequencies (13.6 and 5.3 GHz) at the sea surface and measures the time it takes the pulses to return to the spacecraft. Combining data from other instruments that calculate the spacecraft's precise altitude and correct for the effect of water vapor on the pulse can determine the sea surface height within just a few centimeters!

An image of the Earth centered at the equator in the Pacific Ocean. The colors represent the height of the sea surface from about minus 6 inches to plus 6 inches. The image shows a large raised area of sea surface along the equator in the Pacific stretching all the way to South America.
Scientists monitor the changes in sea surface height around the world to help measurethe amount of heat stored in the ocean and predict global weather and climate eventssuch as El Niño. Since warm water is less dense than cold water, areas with a highersea surface tend to be warmer than lower areas. The sea surface height image(page 12) shows an area of warm water in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean thatis about 10 to 18 centimeters higher than normal. Such conditions can signify anEl Niño.Credit: NASA/JPL Ocean Surface Topography Team.


Passive remote sensing refers to the sensing of electromagnetic waves that did not originate from the satellite or instrument itself. The sensor is merely a passive observer collecting electromagnetic radiation. Passive remote sensing instruments onboard satellites have revolutionized weather forecasting by providing a global view of weather patterns and surface temperatures. A microwave imager onboard NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) can capture data from underneath storm clouds to reveal the underlying rain structure.

A 3-D view of the hurricane showing the distribution of rain intensity. The color-coding indicates the average rain per hour with 2.0 inches of rain per hour at the center of the storm.
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio


In 1965, using long, L-band microwaves, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, scientists at Bell Labs, made an incredible discovery quite by accident: they 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 planet, such as radio transmissions from a nearby airport control tower, it would come only from one direction, not everywhere. The Bell Lab scientists soon realized that they had serendipitously discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation. This radiation, which fills the entire universe, is a clue to its beginning, known as the Big Bang.

The image below from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) shows a detailed, all-sky picture of the infant universe at 380,000 years of age. This light, emitted 13.7 billon-years ago, is ∼2.7 Kelvin today. The observed +/-200 microKelvin temperature fluctuations, shown as color differences in the image, are the seeds that grew to become clusters of galaxies.

A grainy view of the night sky color coded by temperature. Dark blue represents cold area of the universe negative 200 degrees Kelvin. Small areas of concentrated red color indicates 200 degrees Kelvin.
Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Science Mission Directorate. (2010). Microwaves. Retrieved [insert date - e.g. August 10, 2016], from NASA Science website: http://science.nasa.gov/ems/06_microwaves


Science Mission Directorate. "Microwaves" NASA Science. 2010. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. [insert date - e.g. 10 Aug. 2016] http://science.nasa.gov/ems/06_microwaves

Keep Exploring

Discover More Topics From NASA