General Astronomy/Atomic Emission and Absorption

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Most of the information about stars is obtained from studying electromagnetic radiation. Interstellar dust can be observed to get information, as well.

Electromagnetic radiation includes UV (ultraviolet), radio waves, and X-rays. There are two kinds of waves: longitudinal (such as the way sound travels), and transverse (the way light and other electromagnetic radiation travels). Transverse waves are measured by their wavelength and frequency. Wavelength is represented by the Greek letter \lambda (lambda). Longer wavelengths make shorter frequency.

The formula for frequency is

f=\frac{c}{\lambda}

where c is the speed of EM radiation, 3*10^8 meters per second.

Astronomers can learn a lot about distant objects by analyzing spectra. The 3 types of spectra are continuous, emission, and absorption. A continuous spectrum comes from a high pressure blackbody, or thermal source (such as a light bulb). An emission spectrum has bright lines. It is caused by cool, low-pressure gas. An absorption spectrum has dark lines it. It appears when a blackbody's light passes through a cool, low-pressure gas. For example, our sun's surface emits a continuous spectrum, but it becomes an absorption spectrum once it reaches us, because it has passed through the sun's atmosphere. Because of this, all normal stars have absorption spectra.

Since each element has a unique spectrum, astronomers can determine the chemical composition of stars by analyzing their spectra. They can also determine the pressure of the object by the type of spectrum: continuous (high pressure), or emission (low pressure).