Star Stuff & Cecilia Payne

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If this quote really is from Cecilia Payne, then she had the right idea—at least for a female astronomer in the 1920s. Women in science back then faced an uphill battle to get recognized for any discoveries they made, and Payne was no different.

What’s so special about Payne, you might ask? Well, she wasn’t just one of the many “unsung heroes” of modern science. She was the one who figured out what stars are made of.

Yeah, that’s right. She sent a probe to the sun, collected a jar of star stuff, and brought it back to her laboratory…

Um, no, not really. It wasn’t that easy.

In fact, it was very difficult. She had far too many roadblocks than were fair. But she wasn’t out for money or recognition. She was just in it for the science. And science was what she got…

Continue reading

The Atomic Spectrum

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Astronomers know that if white light passes through a prism and is bent, it’s separated out into its component colors—the colors of the rainbow.

Astronomers also know that when light interacts with atoms, the building blocks of the universe, the atoms absorb photons of light and reemit them—but in a different direction.

Put these two bits of knowledge together, and astronomers now have everything they need to understand spectra (the plural for spectrum).

spectrum is something I’ve covered in previous posts. In astronomy, it means the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation spread out so we can analyze them individually. And it’s an astronomer’s most valuable tool.

So, what exactly is a spectrum, and how can we use it to analyze radiation from space and learn more about the universe? 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

The Hubble Space Telescope

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The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most famous telescopes in the world.

Oops, excuse me—one of the most famous telescopes built.

Hubble, after all, is certainly not in this world. Unless you call the universe the “world,” it’s about as far from being in this world as you can get. It’s in space.

Hubble isn’t that different from an ordinary, ground telescope. It’s only as big as a bus. There are bigger optical telescopes. Its mirror is 2.4 m across—hardly an achievement by modern-day standards.

Palomar Observatory, which was the biggest telescope in the world when it was built, has better optics than Hubble, meaning its images are a bit crisper.

But that doesn’t keep astronomers from continuing to use Hubble. In fact, if you want to use Hubble, you have to get in line—it hardly has time to complete all the projects astronomers ask of it, even observing the night sky 24/7.

So why is Hubble so useful? 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

Telescope Imaging Systems

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Have you ever seen an image like this?

Okay, maybe you have…online. What with the spread of the internet these days, I’m guessing that at one point you have seen something like this on a page of image search results.

That’s the thing, though. You’ve seen this incredible phenomenon on a computer screen. But have you ever seen it through a telescope?

Don’t worry—if you haven’t had an opportunity to look through a telescope, you’re not missing out. You’re not going to see the Sombrero Galaxy above in all its photographed glory just from looking through the eyepiece of a telescope.

So…how do we get an image like this, then? 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

Telescope Powers

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Have you seen one of these guys before?

You probably have, even if you don’t recognize this brand-new innovation. This is the European Extremely Large Telescope, or the E-ELT. I know, imaginative name, huh? Anyway, it’s not all that different from one of those white observatory domes you’re used to seeing.

Astronomers keep building new observatories. They keep putting new telescopes into space—Hubble, Spitzer, and James Webb, to name a few. But the common goal of all the telescopes they build is to make telescopes that are as big as possibly possible.

Why? I mean, are astronomers just huge braggarts that like to impress us all with their big toys?

Well…I’ll admit that we astronomers have a lot of fun with our toys. But we need huge telescopes for a much better reason than bragging. Continue reading