Chapter 5 Radiation and Spectra
5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the properties of light
- Explain how astronomers learn the composition of a gas by examining its spectral lines
- Discuss the various types of spectra
Electromagnetic radiation carries a lot of information about the nature of stars and other astronomical objects. To extract this information, however, astronomers must be able to study the amounts of energy we receive at different wavelengths of light in fine detail. Let’s examine how we can do this and what we can learn.
Properties of Light
Light exhibits certain behaviors that are important to the design of telescopes and other instruments. For example, light can be reflected from a surface. If the surface is smooth and shiny, as with a mirror, the direction of the reflected light beam can be calculated accurately from knowledge of the shape of the reflecting surface. Light is also bent, or refracted, when it passes from one kind of transparent material into another—say, from the air into a glass lens.
Here is a PhET simulation to help you understand these concepts:
Reflection and refraction of light are the basic properties that make possible all optical instruments (devices that help us to see things better)—from eyeglasses to giant astronomical telescopes. Such instruments are generally combinations of glass lenses, which bend light according to the principles of refraction, and curved mirrors, which depend on the properties of reflection. Small optical devices, such as eyeglasses or binoculars, generally use lenses, whereas large telescopes depend almost entirely on mirrors for their main optical elements. We will discuss astronomical instruments and their uses more fully in Astronomical Instruments. For now, we turn to another behaviour of light, one that is essential for the decoding of light.
In 1672, in the first paper that he submitted to the Royal Society, Sir Isaac Newton described an experiment in which he permitted sunlight to pass through a small hole and then through a prism. Newton found that sunlight, which looks white to us, is actually made up of a mixture of all the colours of the rainbow as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 shows how light is separated into different colours with a prism—a piece of glass in the shape of a triangle with refracting surfaces. Upon entering one face of the prism, the path of the light is refracted (bent), but not all of the colours are bent by the same amount. The bending of the beam depends on the wavelength of the light as well as the properties of the material, and as a result, different wavelengths (or colours of light) are bent by different amounts and therefore follow slightly different paths through the prism. The violet light is bent more than the red. This phenomenon is called dispersion and explains Newton’s rainbow experiment.
Upon leaving the opposite face of the prism, the light is bent again and further dispersed. If the light leaving the prism is focused on a screen, the different wavelengths or colours that make up white light are lined up side by side just like a rainbow as shown in Figure 2. (In fact, a rainbow is formed by the dispersion of light though raindrops; see The Rainbow feature box.) Because this array of colours is a spectrum of light, the instrument used to disperse the light and form the spectrum is called a spectrometer.
The Value of Stellar Spectra
When Newton described the laws of refraction and dispersion in optics, and observed the solar spectrum, all he could see was a continuous band of colors. If the spectrum of the white light from the Sun and stars were simply a continuous rainbow of colors, astronomers would have little interest in the detailed study of a star’s spectrum once they had learned its average surface temperature. In 1802, however, William Wollaston built an improved spectrometer that included a lens to focus the Sun’s spectrum on a screen. With this device, Wollaston saw that the colors were not spread out uniformly, but instead, some ranges of color were missing, appearing as dark bands in the solar spectrum. He mistakenly attributed these lines to natural boundaries between the colors. In 1815, German physicist Joseph Fraunhofer, upon a more careful examination of the solar spectrum, found about 600 such dark lines (missing colors), which led scientists to rule out the boundary hypothesis as shown in Figure 3.
Later, researchers found that similar dark lines could be produced in the spectra (“spectra” is the plural of “spectrum”) of artificial light sources. They did this by passing their light through various apparently transparent substances—usually containers with just a bit of thin gas in them.
These gases turned out not to be transparent at all colours: they were quite opaque at a few sharply defined wavelengths. Something in each gas had to be absorbing just a few colours of light and no others. All gases did this, but each different element absorbed a different set of colours and thus showed different dark lines. If the gas in a container consisted of two elements, then light passing through it was missing the colours (showing dark lines) for both of the elements. So it became clear that certain lines in the spectrum “go with” certain elements. This discovery was one of the most important steps forward in the history of astronomy.
What would happen if there were no continuous spectrum for our gases to remove light from? What if, instead, we heated the same thin gases until they were hot enough to glow with their own light? When the gases were heated, a spectrometer revealed no continuous spectrum, but several separate bright lines. That is, these hot gases emitted light only at certain specific wavelengths or colours.
When the gas was pure hydrogen, it would emit one pattern of colours; when it was pure sodium, it would emit a different pattern. A mixture of hydrogen and sodium emitted both sets of spectral lines. The colors the gases emitted when they were heated were the very same colours as those they had absorbed when a continuous source of light was behind them. From such experiments, scientists began to see that different substances showed distinctive spectral signatures by which their presence could be detected as shown in Figure 4. Just as your signature allows the bank to identify you, the unique pattern of colours for each type of atom (its spectrum) can help us identify which element or elements are in a gas.
Types of Spectra
In these experiments, then, there were three different types of spectra. A continuous spectrum (formed when a solid or very dense gas gives off radiation) is an array of all wavelengths or colours of the rainbow. A continuous spectrum can serve as a backdrop from which the atoms of much less dense gas can absorb light. A dark line, or absorption spectrum, consists of a series or pattern of dark lines—missing colours—superimposed upon the continuous spectrum of a source. A bright line, or emission spectrum, appears as a pattern or series of bright lines; it consists of light in which only certain discrete wavelengths are present. (Figure 3 shows an absorption spectrum, whereas Figure 4 shows the emission spectrum of a number of common elements along with an example of a continuous spectrum.)
When we have a hot, thin gas, each particular chemical element or compound produces its own characteristic pattern of spectral lines—its spectral signature. No two types of atoms or molecules give the same patterns. In other words, each particular gas can absorb or emit only certain wavelengths of the light peculiar to that gas. In contrast, absorption spectra occur when passing white light through a cool, thin gas. The temperature and other conditions determine whether the lines are bright or dark (whether light is absorbed or emitted), but the wavelengths of the lines for any element are the same in either case. It is the precise pattern of wavelengths that makes the signature of each element unique. Liquids and solids can also generate spectral lines or bands, but they are broader and less well defined—and hence, more difficult to interpret. Spectral analysis, however, can be quite useful. It can, for example, be applied to light reflected off the surface of a nearby asteroid as well as to light from a distant galaxy.
The dark lines in the solar spectrum thus give evidence of certain chemical elements between us and the Sun absorbing those wavelengths of sunlight. Because the space between us and the Sun is pretty empty, astronomers realized that the atoms doing the absorbing must be in a thin atmosphere of cooler gas around the Sun. This outer atmosphere is not all that different from the rest of the Sun, just thinner and cooler. Thus, we can use what we learn about its composition as an indicator of what the whole Sun is made of. Similarly, we can use the presence of absorption and emission lines to analyze the composition of other stars and clouds of gas in space.
Such analysis of spectra is the key to modern astronomy. Only in this way can we “sample” the stars, which are too far away for us to visit. Encoded in the electromagnetic radiation from celestial objects is clear information about the chemical makeup of these objects. Only by understanding what the stars were made of could astronomers begin to form theories about what made them shine and how they evolved.
In 1860, German physicist Gustav Kirchhoff became the first person to use spectroscopy to identify an element in the Sun when he found the spectral signature of sodium gas. In the years that followed, astronomers found many other chemical elements in the Sun and stars. In fact, the element helium was found first in the Sun from its spectrum and only later identified on Earth. (The word “helium” comes from helios, the Greek name for the Sun.)
Why are there specific lines for each element? The answer to that question was not found until the twentieth century; it required the development of a model for the atom. We therefore turn next to a closer examination of the atoms that make up all matter.
Here is an interactive simulation of the spectra for many atoms.
Rainbows are an excellent illustration of the dispersion of sunlight. You have a good chance of seeing a rainbow any time you are between the Sun and a rain shower, as illustrated in Figure 5. The raindrops act like little prisms and break white light into the spectrum of colours. Suppose a ray of sunlight encounters a raindrop and passes into it. The light changes direction—is refracted—when it passes from air to water; the blue and violet light are refracted more than the red. Some of the light is then reflected at the backside of the drop and reemerges from the front, where it is again refracted. As a result, the white light is spread out into a rainbow of colours.
Note that violet light lies above the red light after it emerges from the raindrop. When you look at a rainbow, however, the red light is higher in the sky. Why? Look again at Figure 5. If the observer looks at a raindrop that is high in the sky, the violet light passes over her head and the red light enters her eye. Similarly, if the observer looks at a raindrop that is low in the sky, the violet light reaches her eye and the drop appears violet, whereas the red light from that same drop strikes the ground and is not seen. Colours of intermediate wavelengths are refracted to the eye by drops that are intermediate in altitude between the drops that appear violet and the ones that appear red. Thus, a single rainbow always has red on the outside and violet on the inside.
Canadians in Astronomy
The spectroscopy techniques used in astronomy blur the lines between physics and chemistry. One of the most influential Canadian astronomers was the late Gerhard Herzberg, a physicist who specialized in molecular spectroscopy. His research on detection and examination of free radicals won him the 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Born in Hamburg during the early twentieth century, Gerhard wanted to become an astronomer but was advised against the plan. He instead studied physics at the Darmstadt Institute of Technology and received a doctoral degree in physical engineering in 1928. After completing two postdoctoral degrees, Gerhard fled Nazi Germany in 1935. Three months later, he was teaching as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and soon made his first scientific discovery; identification of the CH+ molecule (a free radical) in interstellar clouds.
Dr. Herzberg wrote multiple scientific articles, six books on atomic and molecular spectroscopy, and perfected methods of studying comets and planetary atmospheres that became standards world wide. He assembled research teams in the fields of theoretical and solid state physics for the National Research Council Canada. He was the first to discover water in comets and hydrogen in planetary atmospheres. With accolades piled high, Gerhard left a scientific legacy as the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics shows.
Key Concepts and Summary
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.
- absorption spectrum
- a series or pattern of dark lines superimposed on a continuous spectrum
- continuous spectrum
- a spectrum of light composed of radiation of a continuous range of wavelengths or colors, rather than only certain discrete wavelengths
- separation of different wavelengths of white light through refraction of different amounts
- emission spectrum
- a series or pattern of bright lines superimposed on a continuous spectrum
- an instrument for obtaining a spectrum; in astronomy, usually attached to a telescope to record the spectrum of a star, galaxy, or other astronomical object