Distances Between Stars

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When you look up into the sky on a clear night away from the glare of the city, you see trillions upon trillions of stars.

Thousands of years ago, the classical astronomers saw the same thing you do today—except perhaps a little different, due to the ever-changing cosmos. And, like you, they weren’t satisfied with just looking. They wanted to know what was out there.

For hundreds of years, they developed model after model to explain why the stars seemed to orbit the Earth and why certain objects in the sky—which they named planetsseemed to wander backwards from time to time.

Tycho Brahe, an astronomer known mainly for what he got wrong, dismissed the idea of the Earth orbiting the sun because he could detect no parallax between the stars.

If he had been able to measure parallax, he might have realized that the universe was much larger than any of his fellow classical astronomers imagined.

So what is parallax…and how can it help us measure the distances between stars? Continue reading

Types of Stars

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Meet the sun: a G2 class star towards the middle of its lifespan.

Wait a second…G2? What does that even mean?

It’s all part of a way astronomers break down the billions of stars in the sky and organize them by temperature. They can use a star’s spectrum to figure out what it’s made of, and that helps them figure out how hot it is.

But really…being able to read stellar spectra (plural for spectrum) is only so helpful. There are billions. It helps to have an organizational system.

That way, if an astronomer sees a stellar spectrum that looks a certain way, they can know immediately that it’s a certain class of star.

So…how exactly are stars classified? 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

Infrared & High-Energy Astronomy

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You probably recognize this image. You see something like it whenever you look up at the sky. Some days are clearer than others—some, you might even see a completely blue sky—but regardless, you know that this is an image of our atmosphere.

But do you know just how much your atmosphere does for you?

We’ll talk about how it protects you from space rocks later on. For now, consider the energy from our own sun. The sun doesn’t just send visible light our way—it operates in all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Some of those wavelengths are harmful, like gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet radiation. Others, like infrared radiation, microwaves, and radio waves, are perfectly fine.

The atmosphere doesn’t really pick and choose which wavelengths get through to the surface. It blocks out some radiation it doesn’t need to. At least it protects us from the harmful wavelengths.

But that’s bad news for astronomers, because those wavelengths still contain useful information about the universe.

So how to we capture and analyze them? 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

Einstein: Space-Time Curvature Confirmed

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When you hear about “space-time,” it’s just a way to say that space is related to time. And the curvature of space-time, as Albert Einstein predicted, is the way space and time alike literally bend around a mass such as the Earth or the sun.

That’s what’s diagramed above. This is a three-dimensional concept diagram of the way space sort of “clings” to an object. Notice the way it sort of tightens up when you get close to Earth? And because time is part of this whole equation…time sort of tightens up, too.

I assume that explains the “twin paradox,” as it’s called. That’s where the space-traveling twin returns home to Earth younger than their Earth bound twin.

Why? Seems to me it’s because time was tighter and passed faster on Earth, while it spread out and passed a bit slower for the traveler. (Don’t quote me on that, I just guessed that from this diagram.)

Einstein figured all this out. But scientists need evidence. Trusting Einstein’s genius wasn’t enough for them. How did they accept relativity as fact? Continue reading

Einstein: General Relativity

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Albert Einstein may have been the genius among physicists, but like all others before his time, he stood on the shoulders of giants.

Einstein did not propose that the sun was the center of the solar system; that idea was already widely accepted when he came around. He didn’t discover elliptical orbits; that distinction belongs with Johannes Kepler.

But Kepler never could figure out why planets orbit the sun in ellipses instead of circles. Even Isaac Newton, who at last identified gravity as the reason we stick to Earth’s surface, couldn’t explain what gravity was—only how it worked.

Einstein provided that explanation with his general theory of relativity. Continue reading