The Stuff of Nebulae


What you see here is the Trifid Nebula, a vast cloud of gas and dust in space.

In my last post, we explored why it looks the way it does. We discovered that the pink hues of emission nebulae are caused when extremely hot nearby stars “excite” the gas of the nebula itself to emit its own light, which our eyes perceive as pink.

The haze of blue to the right, on the other hand, is the result of light from hot young stars nearby getting scattered among the nebula’s dust particles. It looks blue for the same reason the sky looks blue. We call nebulae like this reflection nebulae.

And the black wisps of dark nebulae are hardly as ominous as they look; they’re simply ordinary clouds of gas and dust, ordinary nebulae, that we can only see because they’re silhouetted by brighter objects in the background.

But nebulae, for all their different names, are actually a heck of a lot more similar than you might think. Continue reading

What Makes a Star Blue?


Albireo is the distinctive double star in the head of the constellation Cygnus. You can find it yourself if you look for the Summer Triangle amid the dusty trail of the Milky Way across the night sky.

The brighter, orange star of Albireo is a K3-class bright giant. That means it’s just a few thousand Kelvins (Celsius degrees plus 273) cooler than the sun. But it’s also larger—70 times the sun’s radius—and that makes it brighter than you would expect.

The blue star, on the other hand, is a B8-class dwarf. It has only about 3.5 times the sun’s radius, although it’s hotter by about 7422 Kelvins.

Neither star in Albireo is particularly unusual. There are doubtless millions, even billions, of other stars similar to each one. But Albireo certainly offers us the most striking contrast. Bright blue and red stars don’t often appear so close together.

But what exactly gives these stars their distinctive colors? Continue reading

The Starlight We Can’t See


Find yourself a dark, unpolluted night sky on a clear night free of clouds, and you are very likely to look up into the heavens and see a sight quite like this. It’s what we see of the Milky Way, our galaxy.

When I’m at an astronomy event with a sky like the one above, I find it absolutely incredible. Do you notice how the stars don’t all look the same?

A couple are startlingly bright, there are numerous stars that are somewhat dimmer, and if you look really hard, you notice that even the dark night background is sprinkled with stars so faint they can barely be seen.

But what if I told you that you’re not even seeing the half of it? Continue reading

The Solar Neutrino


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


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


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