Spectroscopy and Astronomy

Astronomers generally do not look through their large telescopes. Most of the time large telescopes are collecting light for a spectrograph, which spreads the light out into a rainbow. Each kind of atom or ion has certain special wavelengths which it can absorb or emit. Atoms in the cool outer layers of a star absorb light coming from the hotter regions within, producing dark absorption lines across the spectrum. These can be used to identify the atoms that make up a star. In the spectrum at right, the dark lines are 2 from ionized calcium at about 390 nm wavelength, hydrogen lines at 410, 434, 486 and 656 nm, a line from ionized magnesium at 518 nm, and a line from sodium at 590 nm. To see the lines produced by any element, use this Java applet.

And astronomers do not actually use color film to take a color picture of the spectrum, for several reasons:

Thus astronomers make graphs of their spectra, with the y-axis showing the brightness, while the x-axis shows the wavelength. In the figure this graph is aligned just below the picture of the spectrum.

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© 1999 Edward L. Wright. Last modified 28-Aug-1999