The Solar Neutrino

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Ever heard of a neutrino?

Well, I guess now you have. But what exactly is a neutrino?

Don’t worry, they’re not harmful. They’re passing through you this very second and you’ll never notice them, not in your whole life. They’ll never hurt you because they just don’t interact with matter—including you—in the way you’d expect.

I’ll bet now you’re wondering where they even come from.

Well, as the diagram illustrates, they come from the sun. They’re kind of a side-effect of the nuclear reaction that powers the sun, and they radiate out from the sun in droves. But that’s not even the coolest bit.

We know how many neutrinos should come from the sun if our theories about its power generation are right. So if we can count them, we can prove those theories correct.

That’s when we encounter a bit of a problem. We can’t actually detect neutrinos.

So how the heck do we count them? Continue reading

The Balmer Thermometer

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How hot would you say this star is? Take a wild guess.

Well…sorry, but I’m going to stop you for a moment just to make sure we’re all using Kelvins. The Kelvin scale is like the Celsius scale, except water freezes at 273 K instead of 0℃. 0 K is absolute zero, which is purely theoretical and doesn’t exist.

Now can you guess this star’s temperature?

I’ll give you another hint. This is a real photograph, so it’s impossible for this star to be any star other than our sun. How hot do you think our sun is?

Okay…I’ll tell you. It’s about 5800 K, which—for those of you unfamiliar with Kelvins—is about 5527℃. Kinda crazy, huh?

Next question. How do we know this? I mean, it’s not like we stuck a thermometer in the sun’s surface and actually measured it, right? Continue reading

Stars and Radiation

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Stars are hot.

Really hot. Hot enough to have energy to spare for their planets. If our star wasn’t hot, we couldn’t live on Earth. And our star isn’t even particularly hot for a star. It’s a middle-aged star of low mass, so it’s relatively cool compared to other stars.

You might also notice that stars aren’t all the same color. There are redder stars and bluer stars and more whitish stars.

We know stars are hot. They’re also bright. And they’re different colors. But how does that all translate to radiation—and how can we see it? Continue reading

Atoms and Radiation

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Everything we know about space comes from radiation.

Now wait just a moment here. That statement explains how astronomy is such a successful field of science—it’s based entirely on the information we can glean from radiation, after all. But how does that make sense?

I mean, it’s one thing to study radiation. It’s quite another thing to study matter, the “stuff” in the universe. How does one have anything to do with the other?

Well…that’s where atoms come in. Radiation does, in fact, have a lot to do with the “stuff” it comes from. And if it weren’t for that basic principle, astronomy as a science wouldn’t work.

Thankfully for astronomers, it does. So what’s the secret, then? What does radiation have to do with matter? Continue reading

Radio Astronomy: Advantages

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Whoa…what’s this thing?

It’s a radio telescope, the largest in the world. It’s so huge that a normal support system can’t support its weight. So it’s basically suspended between three mountaintops. It’s 300 m across, which is 1000 feet. It’s huge.

This is the kind of construction endeavor that radio astronomers must try if they want to get much detail from radio waves. The radio wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum are really, really weak. You need huge telescopes to collect enough.

But, as ever, astronomers face the same basic problem: money.

Huge telescopes are expensive. It’s unfortunate for astronomers, but true—just think of the cost of labor of basically burying a whole valley under a radio dish.

So why bother? Continue reading

Radio Astronomy: Limitations

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Astronomy is a labor of love, and radio astronomy is no different.

As I covered in my last post, radio astronomy deals with the longest wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum (a spectrum that includes visible light). Radio waves are not sound waves. They’re radiation just like visible light, infrared, and ultraviolet.

I’ll prove to you that radio waves can’t be sound waves. We get them from space—that’s why there’s such a thing as radio astronomy. But there’s no sound in space. Why? Sound requires something to pass through, and space is a vacuum.

So, we’ve established that radio waves are just another form of electromagnetic radiation. And astronomers love to collect any form of electromagnetic radiation. We can’t touch the stars ourselves, so it’s our only chance at learning about the cosmos.

Why? Because just about everything in the sky emits electromagnetic radiation.

Everything except black holes and a couple other things…but those are topics for another day.

But electromagnetic radiation isn’t easy to collect. And radio waves are especially hard. Continue reading

Radio Astronomy

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Ever seen one of these before?

Yeah, it’s a bit bigger than your average radio antenna.

That’s because its job isn’t to direct radio signals to your house. It’s a radio telescope, and its job is to collect as many radio signals as it possibly can—from outer space, not from a radio station.

Radio astronomy is a tricky business. It has its advantages over visible astronomy—it certainly works better for interferometers—but radio signals are so weak, they’re hard to detect and study. Which is why you’ll never see a small radio telescope.

So, how do astronomers manage to collect and study radio emissions from the cosmos? Continue reading

Interferometry

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Imagine you have an image like this. This object is faint and faraway, so you can’t make out much more detail. You know that other stars like it—closer, brighter stars—have looked like this and turned out to be two stars, nestled very close together.

How do you figure out what you’re looking at? How do you increase the resolving power on your telescope so that you can make out more detail?

A telescope’s resolving power is limited by its size. Bigger telescopes can make out more detail on faraway objects—that’s because they can gather more light. But now, we can make telescopes that are so big their size doesn’t limit their resolving power anymore.

The atmosphere does.

We obviously can’t change the atmosphere. So how do we get around this particular predicament? Continue reading

The Spectrum of Light

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Does this look familiar?

People think of rainbows as a symbol of happiness and fortune. There are even myths that leprechauns hide gold at the end of a rainbow. That’s more of a tease than good fortune, if you ask me, because it’s impossible to reach the end of a rainbow.

That’s right. Impossible.

Some people wonder if rainbows look the same from the back. The answer’s no. They don’t. You wouldn’t see a rainbow if you were standing behind it.

Whoa…why would that be? Continue reading