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 ([latex]\lambda[/latex]) is related to frequency (f) and the speed of light (c) by the equation [latex]c = \lambda f[/latex]. Electromagnetic radiation sometimes behaves like waves, but at other times, it behaves as if it were a particle—a little packet of energy, called a photon. The apparent brightness of a source of electromagnetic energy decreases with increasing distance from that source in proportion to the square of the distance—a relationship known as the inverse square law.

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. The higher the temperature of an idealized emitter of electromagnetic radiation, the shorter is the wavelength at which the maximum amount of radiation is emitted. The mathematical equation describing this relationship is known as Wien’s law: [latex]{\lambda _{\max }} = \frac{{(3 \times {{10}^6})}}{T}[/latex]. The total power emitted per square meter increases with increasing temperature. The relationship between emitted energy flux and temperature is known as the Stefan-Boltzmann law: [latex]F = \sigma {T^4}[/latex].

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. In the Bohr model of the atom, electrons on permitted orbits (or energy levels) don’t give off any electromagnetic radiation. But when electrons go from lower levels to higher ones, they must absorb a photon of just the right energy, and when they go from higher levels to lower ones, they give off a photon of just the right energy. The energy of a photon is connected to the frequency of the electromagnetic wave it represents by Planck’s formula, [latex]E = hf[/latex].

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. An atom in its lowest energy level is in the ground state. If an electron is in an orbit other than the least energetic one possible, the atom is said to be excited. If an atom has lost one or more electrons, it is called an ion and is said to be ionized. The spectra of different ions look different and can tell astronomers about the temperatures of the sources they are observing.

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.

This book was adapted from the following: Fraknoi, A., Morrison, D., & Wolff, S. C. (2016). Summary. In Astronomy. OpenStax. under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0
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PPSC AST 1120: Stellar Astronomy by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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