Astronomical spectroscopy

The Star-Spectroscope of the Lick Observatory in 1898. Designed by James Keeler and constructed by John Brashear.

Astronomical spectroscopy is the study of astronomy using the techniques of spectroscopy to measure the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light and radio, which radiates from stars and other celestial objects. A stellar spectrum can reveal many properties of stars, such as their chemical composition, temperature, density, mass, distance, luminosity, and relative motion using Doppler shift measurements. Spectroscopy is also used to study the physical properties of many other types of celestial objects such as planets, nebulae, galaxies, and active galactic nuclei.


Electromagnetic transmittance, or opacity, of the Earth's atmosphere

Astronomical spectroscopy is used to measure three major bands of radiation: visible spectrum, radio, and X-ray. While all spectroscopy looks at specific areas of the spectrum, different methods are required to acquire the signal depending on the frequency. Ozone (O3) and molecular oxygen (O2) absorb light with wavelengths under 300 nm, meaning that X-ray and ultraviolet spectroscopy require the use of a satellite telescope or rocket mounted detectors.[1]:27 Radio signals have much longer wavelengths than optical signals, and require the use of antennas or radio dishes. Infrared light is absorbed by atmospheric water and carbon dioxide, so while the equipment is similar to that used in optical spectroscopy, satellites are required to record much of the infrared spectrum.[2]

Optical spectroscopy

Incident light reflects at the same angle (black lines), but a small portion of the light is refracted as coloured light (red and blue lines).

Physicists have been looking at the solar spectrum since Isaac Newton first used a simple prism to observe the refractive properties of light.[3] In the early 1800s Joseph von Fraunhofer used his skills as a glass maker to create very pure prisms, which allowed him to observe 574 dark lines in a seemingly continuous spectrum.[4] Soon after this, he combined telescope and prism to observe the spectrum of Venus, the Moon, Mars, and various stars such as Betelgeuse; his company continued to manufacture and sell high-quality refracting telescopes based on his original designs until its closure in 1884.[5]:28–29

The resolution of a prism is limited by its size; a larger prism will provide a more detailed spectrum, but the increase in mass makes it unsuitable for highly detailed work.[6] This issue was resolved in the early 1900s with the development of high-quality reflection gratings by J.S. Plaskett at the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa, Canada.[5]:11 Light striking a mirror will reflect at the same angle, however a small portion of the light will be refracted at a different angle; this is dependent upon the indices of refraction of the materials and the wavelength of the light.[7] By creating a "blazed" grating which utilizes a large number of parallel mirrors, the small portion of light can be focused and visualized. These new spectroscopes were more detailed than a prism, required less light, and could be focused on a specific region of the spectrum by tilting the grating.[6]

The limitation to a blazed grating is the width of the mirrors, which can only be ground a finite amount before focus is lost; the maximum is around 1000 lines/mm. In order to overcome this limitation holographic gratings were developed. Volume phase holographic gratings use a thin film of dichromated gelatin on a glass surface, which is subsequently exposed to a wave pattern created by an interferometer. This wave pattern sets up a reflection pattern similar to the blazed gratings but utilizing Bragg diffraction, a process where the angle of reflection is dependent on the arrangement of the atoms in the gelatin. The holographic gratings can have up to 6000 lines/mm and can be up to twice as efficient in collecting light as blazed gratings. Because they are sealed between two sheets of glass, the holographic gratings are very versatile, potentially lasting decades before needing replacement.[8]

Light dispersed by the grating or prism in a spectrograph can be recorded by a detector. Historically, photographic plates were widely used to record spectra until electronic detectors were developed, and today optical spectrographs most often employ charge-coupled devices (CCDs). The wavelength scale of a spectrum can be calibrated by observing the spectrum of emission lines of known wavelength from a gas-discharge lamp. The flux scale of a spectrum can be calibrated as a function of wavelength by comparison with an observation of a standard star with corrections for atmospheric absorption of light; this is known as spectrophotometry.[9]

Radio spectroscopy

Radio astronomy was founded with the work of Karl Jansky in the early 1930s, while working for Bell Labs. He built a radio antenna to look at potential sources of interference for transatlantic radio transmissions. One of the sources of noise discovered came not from Earth, but from the center of the Milky Way, in the constellation Sagittarius.[10] In 1942, JS Hey captured the sun's radio frequency using military radar receivers.[1]:26 Radio spectroscopy started with the discovery of the 21-centimeter H I line in 1951.

Radio interferometry was pioneered in 1946, when Joseph Lade Pawsey, Ruby Payne-Scott and Lindsay McCready used a single antenna atop a sea cliff to observe 200 MHz solar radiation. Two incident beams, one directly from the sun and the other reflected from the sea surface, generated the necessary interference.[11] The first multi-receiver interferometer was built in the same year by Martin Ryle and Vonberg.[12][13] In 1960, Ryle and Antony Hewish published the technique of aperture synthesis to analyze interferometer data.[14] The aperture synthesis process, which involves autocorrelating and discrete Fourier transforming the incoming signal, recovers both the spatial and frequency variation in flux.[15] The result is a 3D image whose third axis is frequency. For this work, Ryle and Hewish were jointly awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics.[16]

X-ray spectroscopy

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