Skip to main content
Physics LibreTexts

5: Radiation and Spectra

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.

  • 5.1: 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.
  • 5.2: 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.
  • 5.3: 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.
  • 5.4: 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.
  • 5.5: 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.
  • 5.6: 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.
  • 5.E: Radiation and Spectra (Exercises)

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).