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Astronomy

6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments

Astronomy6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
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  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 difference between photographic plates and charge-coupled devices
  • Describe the unique difficulties associated with infrared observations and their solutions
  • Describe how a spectrometer works

After a telescope collects radiation from an astronomical source, the radiation must be detected and measured. The first detector used for astronomical observations was the human eye, but it suffers from being connected to an imperfect recording and retrieving device—the human brain. Photography and modern electronic detectors have eliminated the quirks of human memory by making a permanent record of the information from the cosmos.

The eye also suffers from having a very short integration time; it takes only a fraction of a second to add light energy together before sending the image to the brain. One important advantage of modern detectors is that the light from astronomical objects can be collected by the detector over longer periods of time; this technique is called “taking a long exposure.” Exposures of several hours are required to detect very faint objects in the cosmos.

Before the light reaches the detector, astronomers today normally use some type of instrument to sort the light according to wavelength. The instrument may be as simple as colored filters, which transmit light within a specified range of wavelengths. A red transparent plastic is an everyday example of a filter that transmits only the red light and blocks the other colors. After the light passes through a filter, it forms an image that astronomers can then use to measure the apparent brightness and color of objects. We will show you many examples of such images in the later chapters of this book, and we will describe what we can learn from them.

Alternatively, the instrument between telescope and detector may be one of several devices that spread the light out into its full rainbow of colors so that astronomers can measure individual lines in the spectrum. Such an instrument (which you learned about in the chapter on Radiation and Spectra) is called a spectrometer because it allows astronomers to measure (to meter) the spectrum of a source of radiation. Whether a filter or a spectrometer, both types of wavelength-sorting instruments still have to use detectors to record and measure the properties of light.

Photographic and Electronic Detectors

Throughout most of the twentieth century, photographic film or glass plates served as the prime astronomical detectors, whether for photographing spectra or direct images of celestial objects. In a photographic plate, a light-sensitive chemical coating is applied to a piece of glass that, when developed, provides a lasting record of the image. At observatories around the world, vast collections of photographs preserve what the sky has looked like during the past 100 years. Photography represents a huge improvement over the human eye, but it still has limitations. Photographic films are inefficient: only about 1% of the light that actually falls on the film contributes to the chemical change that makes the image; the rest is wasted.

Astronomers today have much more efficient electronic detectors to record astronomical images. Most often, these are charge-coupled devices (CCDs), which are similar to the detectors used in video camcorders or in digital cameras (like the one more and more students have on their cell phones) (see Figure 6.14). In a CCD, photons of radiation hitting any part of the detector generate a stream of charged particles (electrons) that are stored and counted at the end of the exposure. Each place where the radiation is counted is called a pixel (picture element), and modern detectors can count the photons in millions of pixels (megapixels, or MPs).

(a) A photograph shows a hand holding a technical device in tweezers; the device has flat metallic-appearing rectangles with colorful images. (b) A photograph shows a technician touching and observing a square object with 21 metallic-appearing squares.
Figure 6.14 Charge-Coupled Devices (CCDs). (a) This CCD is a mere 300-micrometers thick (thinner than a human hair) yet holds more than 21 million pixels. (b) This matrix of 42 CCDs serves the Kepler telescope. (credit a: modification of work by US Department of Energy; credit b: modification of work by NASA and Ball Aerospace)

Because CCDs typically record as much as 60–70% of all the photons that strike them, and the best silicon and infrared CCDs exceed 90% sensitivity, we can detect much fainter objects. Among these are many small moons around the outer planets, icy dwarf planets beyond Pluto, and dwarf galaxies of stars. CCDs also provide more accurate measurements of the brightness of astronomical objects than photography, and their output is digital—in the form of numbers that can go directly into a computer for analysis.

Infrared Observations

Observing the universe in the infrared band of the spectrum presents some additional challenges. The infrared region extends from wavelengths near 1 micrometer (µm), which is about the long wavelength sensitivity limit of both CCDs and photography, to 100 micrometers or longer. Recall from the discussion on radiation and spectra that infrared is “heat radiation” (given off at temperatures that we humans are comfortable with). The main challenge to astronomers using infrared is to distinguish between the tiny amount of heat radiation that reaches Earth from stars and galaxies, and the much greater heat radiated by the telescope itself and our planet’s atmosphere.

Typical temperatures on Earth’s surface are near 300 K, and the atmosphere through which observations are made is only a little cooler. According to Wien’s law (from the chapter on Radiation and Spectra), the telescope, the observatory, and even the sky are radiating infrared energy with a peak wavelength of about 10 micrometers. To infrared eyes, everything on Earth is brightly aglow—including the telescope and camera (Figure 6.15). The challenge is to detect faint cosmic sources against this sea of infrared light. Another way to look at this is that an astronomer using infrared must always contend with the situation that a visible-light observer would face if working in broad daylight with a telescope and optics lined with bright fluorescent lights.

Two side-by-side photographs show a person with a black plastic bag covering his hands. The left-image is visible light and only the plastic bag can be seen over the hands; the right image is infrared and the hand and fingers are easily visible although covered by visible-light-blocking plastic.
Figure 6.15 Infrared Eyes. Infrared waves can penetrate places in the universe from which light is blocked, as shown in this infrared image where the plastic bag blocks visible light but not infrared. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC))

To solve this problem, astronomers must protect the infrared detector from nearby radiation, just as you would shield photographic film from bright daylight. Since anything warm radiates infrared energy, the detector must be isolated in very cold surroundings; often, it is held near absolute zero (1 to 3 K) by immersing it in liquid helium. The second step is to reduce the radiation emitted by the telescope structure and optics, and to block this heat from reaching the infrared detector.

Spectroscopy

Spectroscopy is one of the astronomer’s most powerful tools, providing information about the composition, temperature, motion, and other characteristics of celestial objects. More than half of the time spent on most large telescopes is used for spectroscopy.

The many different wavelengths present in light can be separated by passing them through a spectrometer to form a spectrum. The design of a simple spectrometer is illustrated in Figure 6.16. Light from the source (actually, the image of a source produced by the telescope) enters the instrument through a small hole or narrow slit, and is collimated (made into a beam of parallel rays) by a lens. The light then passes through a prism, producing a spectrum: different wavelengths leave the prism in different directions because each wavelength is bent by a different amount when it enters and leaves the prism. A second lens placed behind the prism focuses the many different images of the slit or entrance hole onto a CCD or other detecting device. This collection of images (spread out by color) is the spectrum that astronomers can then analyze at a later point. As spectroscopy spreads the light out into more and more collecting bins, fewer photons go into each bin, so either a larger telescope is needed or the integration time must be greatly increased—usually both.

Diagram showing a prism spectrometer. At left is a convex lens. Parallel rays of light enter the lens from the left and then converge at the focus. A thin slit has been placed at the focus. The light rays pass through the slit and strike a smaller convex lens which is used to collimate (make parallel again) the rays. This collimated light beam then enters a triangular prism where the light is refracted and separated into its rainbow of colors. The rainbow of light then enters another lens in order to focus the image onto a photographic plate or CCD camera.
Figure 6.16 Prism Spectrometer. The light from the telescope is focused on a slit. A prism (or grating) disperses the light into a spectrum, which is then photographed or recorded electronically.

In practice, astronomers today are more likely to use a different device, called a grating, to disperse the spectrum. A grating is a piece of material with thousands of grooves on its surface. While it functions completely differently, a grating, like a prism, also spreads light out into a spectrum.

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