During the past few years there has been a large increase in the available data on the spectra of radio sources, particularly at short wavelengths, where a number of sources have shown unexpectedly large time variations, with time-scales of 1 year or less.
The simple power-law spectrum, which is a straight line on a log-log plot of flux density against frequency, is shown by about 30% of sources. Most sources have a spectrum with negative curvature, which steepens at high frequencies. Many have a sharp cut-off, which is almost certainly due to synchrotron self-absorption, at low frequencies. In several of these sources, such as 3C 48, 3C 147 and 3C 295, the spectrum begins to flatten at a considerably higher frequency than the cut-off frequency. This flattening is too sharp to be caused by a change in the energy distribution of the electrons and is probably due to parts of the source becoming optically thick at higher frequencies. Some sources have components which are optically thick even at centimetre wavelengths. These must have angular sizes of 10−3″ or less. The energy density in relativistic electrons in these compact sources is much larger than the magnetic-energy density, so that the source cannot be stable and variations in the flux density are to be expected.