Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
Astronomy

5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy

Astronomy5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
Buy book
  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

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.

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 behavior 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 colors of the rainbow (Figure 5.9).

A figure showing the action of a prism. Incident white light comes into the prism from the left, and exits the prism on the right as a rainbow colored band of light. Red is labeled at the top of rainbow spectrum labeled “760 nm” and violet is labeled at the bottom of the spectrum labeled “380 nm”.
Figure 5.9 Action of a Prism. When we pass a beam of white sunlight through a prism, we see a rainbow-colored band of light that we call a continuous spectrum.

Figure 5.9 shows how light is separated into different colors 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 colors 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 colors 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 colors that make up white light are lined up side by side just like a rainbow (Figure 5.10). (In fact, a rainbow is formed by the dispersion of light though raindrops; see The Rainbow feature box.) Because this array of colors is a spectrum of light, the instrument used to disperse the light and form the spectrum is called a spectrometer.

Continuous spectrum of visible light. A band of color is shown, from dark blue on the left, continuously changing through green, yellow, orange, red to very dark red on the right. Wavelengths are listed in nanometers (nm), from about 400 on the left (blue), over to about 800 nm on the right (red).
Figure 5.10 Continuous Spectrum. When white light passes through a prism, it is dispersed and forms a continuous spectrum of all the colors. Although it is hard to see in this printed version, in a well-dispersed spectrum, many subtle gradations in color are visible as your eye scans from one end (violet) to the other (red).

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 (Figure 5.11).

Visible spectrum of the sun. This is a complex spectrum with the colors spread both horizontally and vertically. Blue light starts at the upper left and spans several rows before gradually changing to green, which also spans many rows before changing to yellow, and so on culminating in deep red on the bottom right. Each row of color is crossed vertically by many black lines representing the absorption of light by atoms in the Solar atmosphere.
Figure 5.11 Visible Spectrum of the Sun. Our star’s spectrum is crossed by dark lines produced by atoms in the solar atmosphere that absorb light at certain wavelengths. (credit: modification of work by Nigel Sharp, NOAO/National Solar Observatory at Kitt Peak/AURA, and the National Science Foundation)

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 colors: they were quite opaque at a few sharply defined wavelengths. Something in each gas had to be absorbing just a few colors of light and no others. All gases did this, but each different element absorbed a different set of colors and thus showed different dark lines. If the gas in a container consisted of two elements, then light passing through it was missing the colors (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 colors.

When the gas was pure hydrogen, it would emit one pattern of colors; 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 colors 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 (Figure 5.12). Just as your signature allows the bank to identify you, the unique pattern of colors for each type of atom (its spectrum) can help us identify which element or elements are in a gas.

Emission line spectra from different chemical elements. This figure has 5 rows, the first of which is a continuous color spectrum, with a wavelength scale above given in Angstroms, from 4000 to 7400. Below are four spectra, each are black with just a few narrow vertical colored lines corresponding to the colors in the wavelength scale. The first spectrum is that of sodium (Na) with about 8 lines, below that is the spectrum of hydrogen (H) with 4 lines, then calcium (Ca) and lastly mercury (Hg), each with over 10 lines. The more complex the element, the more lines will appear in its spectrum.
Figure 5.12 Continuous Spectrum and Line Spectra from Different Elements. Each type of glowing gas (each element) produces its own unique pattern of lines, so the composition of a gas can be identified by its spectrum. The spectra of sodium, hydrogen, calcium, and mercury gases are shown here.

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 colors 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 colors—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 5.11 shows an absorption spectrum, whereas Figure 5.12 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.

Making Connections

The Rainbow

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 5.13. The raindrops act like little prisms and break white light into the spectrum of colors. 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 colors.

Refraction of sunlight by raindrops to produce a rainbow. There are three portions of this figure. Part (a) depicts an observer looking at a rainbow, with parallel lines of light from the Sun striking the rainbow from the left. These lines are refracted at an angle, theta, back to the observer, who is below and to the left of the rainbow. Part (b) shows a color photograph of a real rainbow in a cloudy sky over a lake. Part (c) shows schematically the refraction of light within a raindrop. Sunlight enters the round droplet from the left. The sunlight is refracted into a spectrum as it crosses from the air into the water, which is then reflected from the back of the droplet (on the right in the diagram) and the spectrum of color then exits the droplet at nearly the same direction from which it entered the drop.
Figure 5.13 Rainbow Refraction. (a) This diagram shows how light from the Sun, which is located behind the observer, can be refracted by raindrops to produce (b) a rainbow. (c) Refraction separates white light into its component colors.

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 5.13. 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. Colors 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.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/astronomy/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/astronomy/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© Oct 13, 2016 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.