The nearest star is so far away that the fastest spacecraft humans have built would take almost 100,000 years to get there. Yet we very much want to know what material this neighbor star is composed of and how it differs from our own Sun. How can we learn about the chemical makeup of stars that we cannot hope to visit or sample?
In astronomy, most of the objects that we study are completely beyond our reach. The temperature of the Sun is so high that a spacecraft would be fried long before it reached it, and the stars are much too far away to visit in our lifetimes with the technology now available. Even light, which travels at a speed of 300,000 kilometers per second (km/s), takes more than 4 years to reach us from the nearest star. If we want to learn about the Sun and stars, we must rely on techniques that allow us to analyze them from a distance.
- 3.1: The Behavior of Light
- James Clerk Maxwell showed that whenever charged particles change their motion, as they do in every atom and molecule, they give off waves of energy. Light is one form of this electromagnetic radiation. The wavelength of light determines the color of visible radiation. Wavelength (λ) is related to frequency (f) and the speed of light (c) by the equation c = λf. Electromagnetic radiation sometimes behaves like waves, but at other times, it behaves as if it were a particle- called a photon.
- 3.2: The Electromagnetic Spectrum
- The electromagnetic spectrum consists of gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet radiation, visible light, infrared, and radio radiation. Many of these wavelengths cannot penetrate the layers of Earth’s atmosphere and must be observed from space, whereas others—such as visible light, FM radio and TV—can penetrate to Earth’s surface. The emission of electromagnetic radiation is intimately connected to the temperature of the source.
- 3.3: Spectroscopy in Astronomy
- A spectrometer is a device that forms a spectrum, often utilizing the phenomenon of dispersion. The light from an astronomical source can consist of a continuous spectrum, an emission (bright line) spectrum, or an absorption (dark line) spectrum. Because each element leaves its spectral signature in the pattern of lines we observe, spectral analyses reveal the composition of the Sun and stars.
- 3.4: The Structure of the Atom
- Atoms consist of a nucleus containing one or more positively charged protons. All atoms except hydrogen can also contain one or more neutrons in the nucleus. Negatively charged electrons orbit the nucleus. The number of protons defines an element (hydrogen has one proton, helium has two, and so on) of the atom. Nuclei with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons are different isotopes of the same element.
- 3.5: Formation of Spectral Lines
- When electrons move from a higher energy level to a lower one, photons are emitted, and an emission line can be seen in the spectrum. Absorption lines are seen when electrons absorb photons and move to higher energy levels. Since each atom has its own characteristic set of energy levels, each is associated with a unique pattern of spectral lines. This allows astronomers to determine what elements are present in the stars and in the clouds of gas and dust among the stars.
- 3.6: The Doppler Effect
- If an atom is moving toward us when an electron changes orbits and produces a spectral line, we see that line shifted slightly toward the blue of its normal wavelength in a spectrum. If the atom is moving away, we see the line shifted toward the red. This shift is known as the Doppler effect and can be used to measure the radial velocities of distant objects.
- 3.7: Telescopes
- A telescope collects the faint light from astronomical sources and brings it to a focus. Light is then directed to a detector, where a permanent record is made. The light-gathering power of a telescope is determined by the diameter of its aperture, or opening—that is, by the area of its largest or primary lens or mirror. The primary optical element in a telescope is either a convex lens (in a refracting telescope) or a concave mirror (in a reflector) that brings the light to a focus.
- 3.8: Telescopes Today
- New technologies for creating and supporting lightweight mirrors have led to the construction of a number of large telescopes since 1990. The site for an astronomical observatory must be carefully chosen for clear weather, dark skies, low water vapor, and excellent atmospheric seeing (low atmospheric turbulence). The resolution of a visible-light or infrared telescope is degraded by turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere. The technique of adaptive optics can make corrections for this turbulence.
- 3.9: Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
- Visible-light detectors include the human eye, photographic film, and charge-coupled devices (CCDs). Detectors that are sensitive to infrared radiation must be cooled to very low temperatures since everything in and near the telescope gives off infrared waves. A spectrometer disperses the light into a spectrum to be recorded for detailed analysis.
- 3.10: Radio Telescopes
- A radio telescope is basically a radio antenna connected to a receiver. Significantly enhanced resolution can be obtained with interferometers, including interferometer arrays like the 27-element VLA and the 66-element ALMA. Expanding to very long baseline interferometers, radio astronomers can achieve resolutions as precise as 0.0001 arcsecond. Radar astronomy involves transmitting as well as receiving. The largest radar telescope currently in operation is a 305-meter bowl at Arecibo.
- 3.11: Observations outside Earth's Atmosphere
- Infrared observations are made with telescopes aboard aircraft and in space and from ground-based facilities on dry mountain peaks. Ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray observations must be made from above the atmosphere. Orbiting observatories have been flown to observe in these bands of the spectrum. The largest-aperture telescope in space is the Hubble Space telescope, the most significant infrared telescope is Spitzer.
- 3.12: The Future of Large Telescopes
- New and even larger telescopes are on the drawing boards. The James Webb Space Telescope, a 6-meter successor to Hubble, is currently scheduled for launch in 2018. Gamma-ray astronomers are planning to build the CTA to measure very energetic gamma rays. Astronomers are building the LSST to observe with an unprecedented field of view and a new generation of visible-light/infrared telescopes with apertures of 24.5 to 39 meters in diameter.
Thumbnail: This photograph of the Sun was taken at several different wavelengths of ultraviolet, which our eyes cannot see, and then color coded so it reveals activity in our Sun’s atmosphere that cannot be observed in visible light. This is why it is important to observe the Sun and other astronomical objects in wavelengths other than the visible band of the spectrum. This image was taken by a satellite from above Earth’s atmosphere, which is necessary since Earth’s atmosphere absorbs much of the ultraviolet light coming from space. (credit: modification of work by NASA).
Contributors and Attributions
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).