4.1 Spectral Lines

Posted by Andri Fadillah Martin on Saturday, February 18, 2012

Spectral Lines

In Chapter 3 we saw something of how astronomers can analyze electromagnetic radiation received from space to obtain information about distant objects. A vital step in this process is the formation of a spectrum—splitting the incoming radiation into its component wavelengths. But in reality, no cosmic object emits a perfect blackbody spectrum like those discussed earlier. (Sec. 3.4) All spectra deviate from this idealized form—some by only a little, others by a lot. Far from invalidating our earlier studies, however, these deviations contain a wealth of detailed information about physical conditions in the source of the radiation. Because spectra are so important, let's examine in more detail how astronomers obtain and interpret them.

Radiation can be analyzed with an instrument known as a spectroscope. In its most basic form, this device consists of an opaque barrier with a slit in it (to define a beam of light), a prism (to split the beam into its component colors), and an eyepiece or screen (to allow the user to view the resulting spectrum). Figure 4.1 shows such an arrangement. The research instruments calledspectrographs, or spectrometers, used by professional astronomers are rather more complex, consisting of a telescope (to capture the radiation), a dispersing device (to spread it out into a spectrum), and a detector (to record the result). Despite their greater sophistication, however, their basic operation is conceptually similar to the simple spectroscope shown in the figure.

Figure 4.1 Spectroscope Diagram of a simple spectroscope. A small slit in the mask on the left allows a narrow beam of light to pass. The light passes through a prism and is split up into its component colors. The resulting spectrum can be viewed through an eyepiece or simply projected onto a screen.

In many large instruments the prism is replaced by a device called a diffraction grating, consisting of a sheet of transparent material with many closely spaced parallel lines ruled on it. The spacing between the lines is typically a few microns (10-6 m), comparable to the wavelength of visible light. The spaces act as many tiny openings, and light is diffracted as it passes through the grating (or is reflected from it, depending on the design of the device). (Discovery 3-1) Because different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation are diffracted by different amounts on encountering the grating, the effect is to split a beam of light into its component colors. You are probably more familiar with diffraction gratings than you think—the "rainbow" of colors seen in light reflected from a compact disk is the result of precisely this process.


Figure 4.2 Continuous and Emission Spectra When passed through a slit and split up by a prism, light from a source of continuous radiation (a) gives rise to the familiar rainbow of colors. By contrast, the light from excited hydrogen gas (b) consists of a series of distinct bright spectral lines called emission lines. (The focusing lenses have been omitted for clarity.)
The spectra we encountered in Chapter 3 are examples of continuous spectraA lightbulb, for example, emits radiation of all wavelengths (mostly in the visible range), with an intensity distribution that is well described by the blackbody curve corresponding to the bulb's temperature. (Sec. 3.4) Viewed through a spectroscope, the spectrum of the light from the bulb would show the familiar rainbow of colors, from red to violet, without interruption, as presented in Figure 4.2(a).

Not all spectra are continuous, however. For instance, if we took a glass jar containing pure hydrogen gas and passed an electrical discharge through it (a little like a lightning bolt arcing through Earth's atmosphere), the gas would begin to glow—that is, it would emit radiation. If we were to examine that radiation with our spectroscope, we would find that its spectrum consists of only a few bright lines on an otherwise dark background, quite unlike the continuous spectrum described for the incandescent light bulb. Figure 4.2(b) shows this schematically. A more detailed rendering of the spectrum of hydrogen appears in the top panel of Figure 4.3. The light produced by the hydrogen in this experiment does not consist of all possible colors but instead includes only a few narrow, well-defined emission lines—narrow "slices" of the continuous spectrum. The black background represents all the wavelengths notemitted by hydrogen.

After some experimentation we would also find that although we could alter the intensity of the lines—for example, by changing the amount of hydrogen in the jar or the strength of the electrical discharge—we could not alter their color (in other words, their frequency or wavelength). The pattern of spectral emission lines is a property of the element hydrogen. Whenever we perform this experiment, the same characteristic colors result.

Figure 4.3 Elemental Emission The emission spectra of some well-known elements. In accordance with the convention adopted throughout this text, frequency increases to the right. (Wabash Instrument Corp.)

By the early nineteenth century scientists had carried out similar experiments on many different gases. By vaporizing solids and liquids in a flame, they extended their inquiries to include materials that are not normally found in the gaseous state. Sometimes the pattern of lines was fairly simple, sometimes it was very complex, but it was always unique to that element. Even though the origin of the lines was not understood, researchers quickly realized that the lines provided a one-of-a-kind "fingerprint" of the substance under investigation. They could detect the presence of a particular atom or molecule (a group of atoms held together by chemical bonds—see Sec. 4.4) solely through the study of the light it emitted. Scientists have accumulated extensive catalogs of the specific wavelengths at which many different hot gases emit radiation. The particular pattern of the light emitted by a gas of a given chemical composition is known as its emission spectrum. Examples of the emission spectra of some common substances are shown in Figure 4.3.

Figure 4.4 Solar Spectrum This visible spectrum of the Sun shows hundreds of dark absorption lines superimposed on a bright continuous spectrum. Here, the scale extends from long wavelengths (red) at the upper left to short wavelengths (blue) at the lower right. (AURA)

When sunlight is split by a prism, at first glance it appears to produce a continuous spectrum. However, closer scrutiny with a spectroscope shows that the solar spectrum is interrupted vertically by a large number of narrow dark lines, as shown in Figure 4.4. We now know that many of these lines represent wavelengths of light that have been removed (absorbed) by gases present either in the outer layers of the Sun or in Earth's atmosphere. These gaps in the spectrum are called absorption lines.

The English astronomer William Wollaston first noticed the solar absorption lines in 1802. They were studied in greater detail about 10 years later by the German physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer, who measured and cataloged over 600 of them. They are now referred to collectively asFraunhofer lines. Although the Sun is by far the easiest star to study, and so has the most extensive set of observed absorption lines, similar lines are known to exist in the spectra of all stars.

Figure 4.5 Absorption Spectrum When cool gas is placed between a source of continuous radiation, such as a hot lightbulb, and a detector, the resulting spectrum consists of a continuous spectrum crossed by a series of dark absorption lines. These lines are formed when the intervening gas absorbs certain wavelengths (colors) from the original beam. The absorption lines appear at precisely the same wavelengths as the emission lines that would be produced if the gas were heated to high temperatures.
At around the same time as the solar absorption lines were discovered, scientists found that absorption lines could also be produced in the laboratory by passing a beam of light from a source that produces a continuous spectrum through a cool gas, as shown in Figure 4.5. They quickly observed an intriguing connection between emission and absorption lines: The absorption lines associated with a given gas occur at precisely the same wavelengths as the emission lines produced when the gas is heated.

As an example, consider the element sodium, whose emission spectrum appears in Figure 4.3. When heated to high temperatures, a sample of sodium vapor emits visible light strongly at just two wavelengths—589.9 nm and 589.6 nm—lying in the yellow part of the spectrum. When a continuous spectrum is passed through some relatively cool sodium vapor, two sharp, dark absorption lines appear at precisely the same wavelengths. The emission and absorption spectra of sodium are compared in Figure 4.6, clearly showing the relation between emission and absorption features.

Figure 4.6 Sodium Spectrum (a) The characteristic emission lines of sodium. The two bright lines in the center appear in the yellow part of the spectrum. (b) The absorption spectrum of sodium. The two dark lines appear at exactly the same wavelengths as the bright lines in the sodium emission spectrum.


 The analysis of the ways in which matter emits and absorbs radiation is called spectroscopy.One early spectroscopist, the German physicist Gustav Kirchhoff, summarized the observed relationships among the three types of spectra—continuous, emission line, and absorption line—in 1859. He formulated three spectroscopic rules, now known as Kirchhoff's laws, governing the formation of spectra:

1. A luminous solid or liquid, or a sufficiently dense gas, emits light of all wavelengths and so produces a continuous spectrum of radiation.
2. A low-density hot gas emits light whose spectrum consists of a series of bright emission lines.These lines are characteristic of the chemical composition of the gas.
3. A cool thin gas absorbs certain wavelengths from a continuous spectrum, leaving darkabsorption lines in their place superimposed on the continuous spectrum. Once again, these lines are characteristic of the composition of the intervening gas—they occur at precisely the same wavelengths as the emission lines produced by that gas at higher temperatures.

Figure 4.7 Kirchhoff's Laws A source of continuous radiation, here represented by a lightbulb, is used to illustrate Kirchhoff's laws of spectroscopy. (a) The unimpeded beam shows the familiar continuous spectrum of colors.

(b) When the source is viewed through a cloud of hydrogen gas, a series of dark hydrogen absorption lines appears in the continuous spectrum. These lines are formed when the gas absorbs some of the bulb's radiation and reemits it in random directions. Because most of the reemitted radiation does not go through the slit, the effect is to remove the absorbed radiation from the light that reaches the screen at left. (c) When the gas is viewed from the side, a fainter hydrogen emission spectrum is seen, consisting of reemitted radiation. The absorption lines in (b) and the emission lines in (c) have the same wavelengths.

Figure 4.7 illustrates Kirchhoff's laws and the relationship between absorption and emission lines. When viewed directly, the light source, a hot solid (the filament of the bulb), has a continuous (blackbody) spectrum. When the light source is viewed through a cloud of cool hydrogen gas, a series of dark absorption lines appear, superimposed on the spectrum at wavelengths characteristic of hydrogen. The lines appear because the light at those wavelengths is absorbed by the hydrogen. As we will see later in this chapter, the absorbed energy is subsequently reradiated into space, but in all directions, not just the original direction of the beam. Consequently, when the cloud is viewed from the side against an otherwise dark background, a series of faint emission lines is seen. These lines contain the energy lost by the forward beam. If the gas was heated to incandescence, it would produce stronger emission lines at precisely the same wavelengths.


By the late nineteenth century, spectroscopists had developed a formidable arsenal of techniques for interpreting the radiation received from space. Once astronomers knew that spectral lines were indicators of chemical composition, they set about identifying the observed lines in the solar spectrum. Almost all the lines in light from extraterrestrial sources could be attributed to known elements. For example, many of the Fraunhofer lines in sunlight are associated with the element iron, a fact first recognized by Kirchhoff and coworker Robert Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) in 1859. However, some unfamiliar lines also appeared in the solar spectrum. In 1868, astronomers realized that those lines must correspond to a previously unknown element. It was given the name helium, after the Greek word helios, meaning "Sun." Not until 1895, almost three decades after its detection in sunlight, was helium discovered on Earth. (A laboratory spectrum of helium is included in Figure 4.3.)

Yet for all the information that nineteenth-century astronomers could extract from observations of stellar spectra, they still lacked a theory explaining how the spectra themselves arose. Despite their sophisticated spectroscopic equipment, they knew scarcely any more about the physics of stars than did Galileo or Newton. To understand how spectroscopy can be used to extract detailed information about astronomical objects from the light they emit, we must delve more deeply into the processes that produce line spectra.

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