Astrophysics

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Early 1900s comparison of elemental, solar, and stellar spectra NIEdot362.jpg
Early 1900s comparison of elemental, solar, and stellar spectra

Astrophysics is a science that employs the methods and principles of physics and chemistry in the study of astronomical objects and phenomena. [1] [2] As one of the founders of the discipline, James Keeler, said, Astrophysics "seeks to ascertain the nature of the heavenly bodies, rather than their positions or motions in space–what they are, rather than where they are." [3] Among the subjects studied are the Sun (solar physics), other stars, galaxies, extrasolar planets, the interstellar medium and the cosmic microwave background. [4] [5] Emissions from these objects are examined across all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the properties examined include luminosity, density, temperature, and chemical composition. Because astrophysics is a very broad subject, astrophysicists apply concepts and methods from many disciplines of physics, including classical mechanics, electromagnetism, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, relativity, nuclear and particle physics, and atomic and molecular physics.

Contents

In practice, modern astronomical research often involves a substantial amount of work in the realms of theoretical and observational physics. Some areas of study for astrophysicists include their attempts to determine the properties of dark matter, dark energy, black holes, and other celestial bodies; and the origin and ultimate fate of the universe. [4] Topics also studied by theoretical astrophysicists include Solar System formation and evolution; stellar dynamics and evolution; galaxy formation and evolution; magnetohydrodynamics; large-scale structure of matter in the universe; origin of cosmic rays; general relativity, special relativity, quantum and physical cosmology, including string cosmology and astroparticle physics.

History

Astronomy is an ancient science, long separated from the study of terrestrial physics. In the Aristotelian worldview, bodies in the sky appeared to be unchanging spheres whose only motion was uniform motion in a circle, while the earthly world was the realm which underwent growth and decay and in which natural motion was in a straight line and ended when the moving object reached its goal. Consequently, it was held that the celestial region was made of a fundamentally different kind of matter from that found in the terrestrial sphere; either Fire as maintained by Plato, or Aether as maintained by Aristotle. [6] [7] During the 17th century, natural philosophers such as Galileo, [8] Descartes, [9] and Newton [10] began to maintain that the celestial and terrestrial regions were made of similar kinds of material and were subject to the same natural laws. [11] Their challenge was that the tools had not yet been invented with which to prove these assertions. [12]

For much of the nineteenth century, astronomical research was focused on the routine work of measuring the positions and computing the motions of astronomical objects. [13] [14] A new astronomy, soon to be called astrophysics, began to emerge when William Hyde Wollaston and Joseph von Fraunhofer independently discovered that, when decomposing the light from the Sun, a multitude of dark lines (regions where there was less or no light) were observed in the spectrum. [15] By 1860 the physicist, Gustav Kirchhoff, and the chemist, Robert Bunsen, had demonstrated that the dark lines in the solar spectrum corresponded to bright lines in the spectra of known gases, specific lines corresponding to unique chemical elements. [16] Kirchhoff deduced that the dark lines in the solar spectrum are caused by absorption by chemical elements in the Solar atmosphere. [17] In this way it was proved that the chemical elements found in the Sun and stars were also found on Earth.

Among those who extended the study of solar and stellar spectra was Norman Lockyer, who in 1868 detected radiant, as well as dark lines in solar spectra. Working with chemist Edward Frankland to investigate the spectra of elements at various temperatures and pressures, he could not associate a yellow line in the solar spectrum with any known elements. He thus claimed the line represented a new element, which was called helium, after the Greek Helios, the Sun personified. [18] [19]

In 1885, Edward C. Pickering undertook an ambitious program of stellar spectral classification at Harvard College Observatory, in which a team of woman computers, notably Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, and Annie Jump Cannon, classified the spectra recorded on photographic plates. By 1890, a catalog of over 10,000 stars had been prepared that grouped them into thirteen spectral types. Following Pickering's vision, by 1924 Cannon expanded the catalog to nine volumes and over a quarter of a million stars, developing the Harvard Classification Scheme which was accepted for worldwide use in 1922. [20]

In 1895, George Ellery Hale and James E. Keeler, along with a group of ten associate editors from Europe and the United States, [21] established The Astrophysical Journal: An International Review of Spectroscopy and Astronomical Physics. [22] It was intended that the journal would fill the gap between journals in astronomy and physics, providing a venue for publication of articles on astronomical applications of the spectroscope; on laboratory research closely allied to astronomical physics, including wavelength determinations of metallic and gaseous spectra and experiments on radiation and absorption; on theories of the Sun, Moon, planets, comets, meteors, and nebulae; and on instrumentation for telescopes and laboratories. [21]

Around 1920, following the discovery of the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram still used as the basis for classifying stars and their evolution, Arthur Eddington anticipated the discovery and mechanism of nuclear fusion processes in stars, in his paper The Internal Constitution of the Stars. [23] [24] At that time, the source of stellar energy was a complete mystery; Eddington correctly speculated that the source was fusion of hydrogen into helium, liberating enormous energy according to Einstein's equation E = mc2. This was a particularly remarkable development since at that time fusion and thermonuclear energy, and even that stars are largely composed of hydrogen (see metallicity), had not yet been discovered. [25]

In 1925 Cecilia Helena Payne (later Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin) wrote an influential doctoral dissertation at Radcliffe College, in which she applied Saha's ionization theory to stellar atmospheres to relate the spectral classes to the temperature of stars. [26] Most significantly, she discovered that hydrogen and helium were the principal components of stars, not the composition of Earth. Despite Eddington's suggestion, discovery was so unexpected that her dissertation readers (including Russell) convinced her to modify the conclusion before publication. However, later research confirmed her discovery. [27] [28]

By the end of the 20th century, studies of astronomical spectra had expanded to cover wavelengths extending from radio waves through optical, x-ray, and gamma wavelengths. [29] In the 21st century, it further expanded to include observations based on gravitational waves.

Observational astrophysics

Supernova remnant LMC N 63A imaged in x-ray (blue), optical (green) and radio (red) wavelengths. The X-ray glow is from material heated to about ten million degrees Celsius by a shock wave generated by the supernova explosion. N 63A- Chandra and Hubble - Heic0507f.tif
Supernova remnant LMC N 63A imaged in x-ray (blue), optical (green) and radio (red) wavelengths. The X-ray glow is from material heated to about ten million degrees Celsius by a shock wave generated by the supernova explosion.

Observational astronomy is a division of the astronomical science that is concerned with recording and interpreting data, in contrast with theoretical astrophysics, which is mainly concerned with finding out the measurable implications of physical models. It is the practice of observing celestial objects by using telescopes and other astronomical apparatus.

The majority of astrophysical observations are made using the electromagnetic spectrum.

Other than electromagnetic radiation, few things may be observed from the Earth that originate from great distances. A few gravitational wave observatories have been constructed, but gravitational waves are extremely difficult to detect. Neutrino observatories have also been built, primarily to study the Sun. Cosmic rays consisting of very high-energy particles can be observed hitting the Earth's atmosphere.

Observations can also vary in their time scale. Most optical observations take minutes to hours, so phenomena that change faster than this cannot readily be observed. However, historical data on some objects is available, spanning centuries or millennia. On the other hand, radio observations may look at events on a millisecond timescale (millisecond pulsars) or combine years of data (pulsar deceleration studies). The information obtained from these different timescales is very different.

The study of the Sun has a special place in observational astrophysics. Due to the tremendous distance of all other stars, the Sun can be observed in a kind of detail unparalleled by any other star. Understanding the Sun serves as a guide to understanding of other stars.

The topic of how stars change, or stellar evolution, is often modeled by placing the varieties of star types in their respective positions on the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, which can be viewed as representing the state of a stellar object, from birth to destruction.

Theoretical astrophysics

Theoretical astrophysicists use a wide variety of tools which include analytical models (for example, polytropes to approximate the behaviors of a star) and computational numerical simulations. Each has some advantages. Analytical models of a process are generally better for giving insight into the heart of what is going on. Numerical models can reveal the existence of phenomena and effects that would otherwise not be seen. [30] [31]

Theorists in astrophysics endeavor to create theoretical models and figure out the observational consequences of those models. This helps allow observers to look for data that can refute a model or help in choosing between several alternate or conflicting models.

Theorists also try to generate or modify models to take into account new data. In the case of an inconsistency, the general tendency is to try to make minimal modifications to the model to fit the data. In some cases, a large amount of inconsistent data over time may lead to total abandonment of a model.

Topics studied by theoretical astrophysicists include stellar dynamics and evolution; galaxy formation and evolution; magnetohydrodynamics; large-scale structure of matter in the universe; origin of cosmic rays; general relativity and physical cosmology, including string cosmology and astroparticle physics. Relativistic astrophysics serves as a tool to gauge the properties of large-scale structures for which gravitation plays a significant role in physical phenomena investigated and as the basis for black hole (astro)physics and the study of gravitational waves.

Some widely accepted and studied theories and models in astrophysics, now included in the Lambda-CDM model, are the Big Bang, cosmic inflation, dark matter, dark energy and fundamental theories of physics.

Popularization

The roots of astrophysics can be found in the seventeenth century emergence of a unified physics, in which the same laws applied to the celestial and terrestrial realms. [11] There were scientists who were qualified in both physics and astronomy who laid the firm foundation for the current science of astrophysics. In modern times, students continue to be drawn to astrophysics due to its popularization by the Royal Astronomical Society and notable educators such as prominent professors Lawrence Krauss, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Stephen Hawking, Hubert Reeves, Carl Sagan and Patrick Moore. The efforts of the early, late, and present scientists continue to attract young people to study the history and science of astrophysics. [32] [33] [34] The television sitcom show The Big Bang Theory popularized the field of astrophysics with the general public, and featured some well known scientists like Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cosmic microwave background</span> Trace radiation from the early universe

The cosmic microwave background is microwave radiation that fills all space in the observable universe. It is a remnant that provides an important source of data on the primordial universe. With a standard optical telescope, the background space between stars and galaxies is almost completely dark. However, a sufficiently sensitive radio telescope detects a faint background glow that is almost uniform and is not associated with any star, galaxy, or other object. This glow is strongest in the microwave region of the radio spectrum. The accidental discovery of the CMB in 1965 by American radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson was the culmination of work initiated in the 1940s.

In astronomy, dark matter is a hypothetical form of matter that appears not to interact with light or the electromagnetic field. Dark matter is implied by gravitational effects which cannot be explained by general relativity unless more matter is present than can be seen. Such effects occur in the context of formation and evolution of galaxies, gravitational lensing, the observable universe's current structure, mass position in galactic collisions, the motion of galaxies within galaxy clusters, and cosmic microwave background anisotropies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Quasar</span> Active galactic nucleus containing a supermassive black hole

A quasar is an extremely luminous active galactic nucleus (AGN). It is sometimes known as a quasi-stellar object, abbreviated QSO. The emission from an AGN is powered by a supermassive black hole with a mass ranging from millions to tens of billions of solar masses, surrounded by a gaseous accretion disc. Gas in the disc falling towards the black hole heats up and releases energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. The radiant energy of quasars is enormous; the most powerful quasars have luminosities thousands of times greater than that of a galaxy such as the Milky Way. Quasars are usually categorized as a subclass of the more general category of AGN. The redshifts of quasars are of cosmological origin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Redshift</span> Change of wavelength in photons during travel

In physics, a redshift is an increase in the wavelength, and corresponding decrease in the frequency and photon energy, of electromagnetic radiation. The opposite change, a decrease in wavelength and increase in frequency and energy, is known as a blueshift, or negative redshift. The terms derive from the colours red and blue which form the extremes of the visible light spectrum. The main causes of electromagnetic redshift in astronomy and cosmology are the relative motions of radiation sources, which give rise to the relativistic Doppler effect, and gravitational potentials, which gravitationally redshift escaping radiation. All sufficiently distant light sources show cosmological redshift corresponding to recession speeds proportional to their distances from Earth, a fact known as Hubble's law that implies the universe is expanding.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Outline of space science</span> Overview of and topical guide to space science

The following outline is provided as an overview and topical guide to space science:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">X-ray astronomy</span> Branch of astronomy that uses X-ray observation

X-ray astronomy is an observational branch of astronomy which deals with the study of X-ray observation and detection from astronomical objects. X-radiation is absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere, so instruments to detect X-rays must be taken to high altitude by balloons, sounding rockets, and satellites. X-ray astronomy uses a type of space telescope that can see x-ray radiation which standard optical telescopes, such as the Mauna Kea Observatories, cannot.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Astronomy</span> Scientific study of celestial objects

Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It uses mathematics, physics, and chemistry in order to explain their origin and evolution. Objects of interest include planets, moons, stars, nebulae, galaxies, meteoroids, asteroids, and comets. Relevant phenomena include supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars, and cosmic microwave background radiation. More generally, astronomy studies everything that originates beyond Earth's atmosphere. Cosmology is a branch of astronomy that studies the universe as a whole.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Radio astronomy</span> Subfield of astronomy that studies celestial objects at radio frequencies

Radio astronomy is a subfield of astronomy that studies celestial objects at radio frequencies. The first detection of radio waves from an astronomical object was in 1933, when Karl Jansky at Bell Telephone Laboratories reported radiation coming from the Milky Way. Subsequent observations have identified a number of different sources of radio emission. These include stars and galaxies, as well as entirely new classes of objects, such as radio galaxies, quasars, pulsars, and masers. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, regarded as evidence for the Big Bang theory, was made through radio astronomy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Seyfert galaxy</span> Class of active galaxies with very bright nuclei

Seyfert galaxies are one of the two largest groups of active galaxies, along with quasars. They have quasar-like nuclei with very high surface brightnesses whose spectra reveal strong, high-ionisation emission lines, but unlike quasars, their host galaxies are clearly detectable.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Astronomical spectroscopy</span> Study of astronomy using spectroscopy to measure the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation

Astronomical spectroscopy is the study of astronomy using the techniques of spectroscopy to measure the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, ultraviolet, X-ray, infrared and radio waves that radiate from stars and other celestial objects. A stellar spectrum can reveal many properties of stars, such as their chemical composition, temperature, density, mass, distance and luminosity. Spectroscopy can show the velocity of motion towards or away from the observer by measuring the Doppler shift. Spectroscopy is also used to study the physical properties of many other types of celestial objects such as planets, nebulae, galaxies, and active galactic nuclei.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Observational astronomy</span> Division of astronomy

Observational astronomy is a division of astronomy that is concerned with recording data about the observable universe, in contrast with theoretical astronomy, which is mainly concerned with calculating the measurable implications of physical models. It is the practice and study of observing celestial objects with the use of telescopes and other astronomical instruments.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Herbig–Haro object</span> Small patches of nebulosity associated with newly born stars

Herbig–Haro (HH) objects are bright patches of nebulosity associated with newborn stars. They are formed when narrow jets of partially ionised gas ejected by stars collide with nearby clouds of gas and dust at several hundred kilometres per second. Herbig–Haro objects are commonly found in star-forming regions, and several are often seen around a single star, aligned with its rotational axis. Most of them lie within about one parsec of the source, although some have been observed several parsecs away. HH objects are transient phenomena that last around a few tens of thousands of years. They can change visibly over timescales of a few years as they move rapidly away from their parent star into the gas clouds of interstellar space. Hubble Space Telescope observations have revealed the complex evolution of HH objects over the period of a few years, as parts of the nebula fade while others brighten as they collide with the clumpy material of the interstellar medium.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Theoretical astronomy</span> Applied and interdisciplinary physics

Theoretical astronomy is the use of analytical and computational models based on principles from physics and chemistry to describe and explain astronomical objects and astronomical phenomena. Theorists in astronomy endeavor to create theoretical models and from the results predict observational consequences of those models. The observation of a phenomenon predicted by a model allows astronomers to select between several alternate or conflicting models as the one best able to describe the phenomena.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Outline of astronomy</span>

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to astronomy:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nuclear astrophysics</span> Field of nuclear physics and astrophysics

Nuclear astrophysics is an interdisciplinary part of both nuclear physics and astrophysics, involving close collaboration among researchers in various subfields of each of these fields. This includes, notably, nuclear reactions and their rates as they occur in cosmic environments, and modeling of astrophysical objects where these nuclear reactions may occur, but also considerations of cosmic evolution of isotopic and elemental composition (often called chemical evolution). Constraints from observations involve multiple messengers, all across the electromagnetic spectrum (nuclear gamma-rays, X-rays, optical, and radio/sub-mm astronomy), as well as isotopic measurements of solar-system materials such as meteorites and their stardust inclusions, cosmic rays, material deposits on Earth and Moon). Nuclear physics experiments address stability (i.e., lifetimes and masses) for atomic nuclei well beyond the regime of stable nuclides into the realm of radioactive/unstable nuclei, almost to the limits of bound nuclei (the drip lines), and under high density (up to neutron star matter) and high temperature (plasma temperatures up to 109 K). Theories and simulations are essential parts herein, as cosmic nuclear reaction environments cannot be realized, but at best partially approximated by experiments. In general terms, nuclear astrophysics aims to understand the origin of the chemical elements and isotopes, and the role of nuclear energy generation, in cosmic sources such as stars, supernovae, novae, and violent binary-star interactions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gravitational wave</span> Propagating spacetime ripple

Gravitational waves are waves of the intensity of gravity that are generated by the accelerated masses of binary stars and other motions of gravitating masses, and propagate as waves outward from their source at the speed of light. They were first proposed by Oliver Heaviside in 1893 and then later by Henri Poincaré in 1905 as the gravitational equivalent of electromagnetic waves.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gravitational-wave astronomy</span> Branch of astronomy using gravitational waves

Gravitational-wave astronomy is an emerging field of science, concerning the observations of gravitational waves to collect relatively unique data and make inferences about objects such as neutron stars and black holes, events such as supernovae, and processes including those of the early universe shortly after the Big Bang.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor</span> Microwave telescope array in Chile

The Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor (CLASS) is an array of microwave telescopes at a high-altitude site in the Atacama Desert of Chile as part of the Parque Astronómico de Atacama. The CLASS experiment aims to improve our understanding of cosmic dawn when the first stars turned on, test the theory of cosmic inflation, and distinguish between inflationary models of the very early universe by making precise measurements of the polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) over 65% of the sky at multiple frequencies in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

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Further reading