Atomic and molecular astrophysics

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Within a few million years the light from bright stars will have boiled away this molecular cloud of gas and dust. The cloud has broken off from the Carina Nebula. Newly formed stars are visible nearby, their images reddened by blue light being preferentially scattered by the pervasive dust. This image spans about two light years and was taken by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope in 1999.
Within a few million years the light from bright stars will have boiled away this molecular cloud of gas and dust. The cloud has broken off from the Carina Nebula. Newly formed stars are visible nearby, their images reddened by blue light being preferentially scattered by the pervasive dust. This image spans about two light years and was taken by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope in 1999.

Atomic astrophysics is concerned with performing atomic physics calculations that will be useful to astronomers and using atomic data to interpret astronomical observations. Atomic physics plays a key role in astrophysics as astronomers' only information about a particular object comes through the light that it emits, and this light arises through atomic transitions.


Molecular astrophysics, developed into a rigorous field of investigation by theoretical astrochemist Alexander Dalgarno beginning in 1967, concerns the study of emission from molecules in space. There are 110 currently known interstellar molecules. These molecules have large numbers of observable transitions. Lines may also be observed in absorption—for example the highly redshifted lines seen against the gravitationally lensed quasar PKS1830-211. High energy radiation, such as ultraviolet light, can break the molecular bonds which hold atoms in molecules. In general then, molecules are found in cool astrophysical environments. The most massive objects in our galaxy are giant clouds of molecules and dust known as giant molecular clouds. In these clouds, and smaller versions of them, stars and planets are formed. One of the primary fields of study of molecular astrophysics is star and planet formation. Molecules may be found in many environments, however, from stellar atmospheres to those of planetary satellites. Most of these locations are relatively cool, and molecular emission is most easily studied via photons emitted when the molecules make transitions between low rotational energy states. One molecule, composed of the abundant carbon and oxygen atoms, and very stable against dissociation into atoms, is carbon monoxide (CO). The wavelength of the photon emitted when the CO molecule falls from its lowest excited state to its zero energy, or ground, state is 2.6mm, or 115 gigahertz. This frequency is a thousand times higher than typical FM radio frequencies. At these high frequencies, molecules in the Earth's atmosphere can block transmissions from space, and telescopes must be located in dry (water is an important atmospheric blocker), high sites. Radio telescopes must have very accurate surfaces to produce high fidelity images.

On February 21, 2014, NASA announced a greatly upgraded database for tracking polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the universe. According to scientists, more than 20% of the carbon in the universe may be associated with PAHs, possible starting materials for the formation of life. PAHs seem to have been formed shortly after the Big Bang, are widespread throughout the universe, and are associated with new stars and exoplanets. [1]

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Diatomic molecule Molecule composed of only two atoms of the same or different chemical elements

Diatomic molecules are molecules composed of only two atoms, of the same or different chemical elements. The prefix di- is of Greek origin, meaning "two". If a diatomic molecule consists of two atoms of the same element, such as hydrogen (H2) or oxygen (O2), then it is said to be homonuclear. Otherwise, if a diatomic molecule consists of two different atoms, such as carbon monoxide (CO) or nitric oxide (NO), the molecule is said to be heteronuclear. The bond in a homonuclear diatomic molecule is non-polar.

The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and their respective wavelengths and photon energies.

Maser Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

A maser is a device that produces coherent electromagnetic waves through amplification by stimulated emission. The first maser was built by Charles H. Townes, James P. Gordon, and Herbert J. Zeiger at Columbia University in 1953. Townes, Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov were awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for theoretical work leading to the maser. Masers are used as the timekeeping device in atomic clocks, and as extremely low-noise microwave amplifiers in radio telescopes and deep space spacecraft communication ground stations.

Radiation Waves or particles propagating through space or through a medium, carrying energy

In physics, radiation is the emission or transmission of energy in the form of waves or particles through space or through a material medium. This includes:

Spectroscopy Study involving matter and electromagnetic radiation

Spectroscopy is the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation as a function of the wavelength or frequency of the radiation. In simpler terms, spectroscopy is the precise study of color as generalized from visible light to all bands of the electromagnetic spectrum; indeed, historically, spectroscopy originated as the study of the wavelength dependence of the absorption by gas phase matter of visible light dispersed by a prism. Matter waves and acoustic waves can also be considered forms of radiative energy, and recently gravitational waves have been associated with a spectral signature in the context of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

Atomic, molecular, and optical physics (AMO) is the study of matter-matter and light-matter interactions; at the scale of one or a few atoms and energy scales around several electron volts. The three areas are closely interrelated. AMO theory includes classical, semi-classical and quantum treatments. Typically, the theory and applications of emission, absorption, scattering of electromagnetic radiation (light) from excited atoms and molecules, analysis of spectroscopy, generation of lasers and masers, and the optical properties of matter in general, fall into these categories.

Astronomy Scientific study of celestial objects and phenomena

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, 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 outside Earth's atmosphere. Cosmology is a branch of astronomy. It studies the Universe as a whole.

Interstellar medium Matter and radiation in the space between the star systems in a galaxy

In astronomy, the interstellar medium (ISM) is the matter and radiation that exists in the space between the star systems in a galaxy. This matter includes gas in ionic, atomic, and molecular form, as well as dust and cosmic rays. It fills interstellar space and blends smoothly into the surrounding intergalactic space. The energy that occupies the same volume, in the form of electromagnetic radiation, is the interstellar radiation field.

Astrochemistry is the study of the abundance and reactions of molecules in the Universe, and their interaction with radiation. The discipline is an overlap of astronomy and chemistry. The word "astrochemistry" may be applied to both the Solar System and the interstellar medium. The study of the abundance of elements and isotope ratios in Solar System objects, such as meteorites, is also called cosmochemistry, while the study of interstellar atoms and molecules and their interaction with radiation is sometimes called molecular astrophysics. The formation, atomic and chemical composition, evolution and fate of molecular gas clouds is of special interest, because it is from these clouds that solar systems form.

Astronomical spectroscopy

Astronomical spectroscopy is the study of astronomy using the techniques of spectroscopy to measure the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light and radio, which radiates from stars and other celestial objects. A stellar spectrum can reveal many properties of stars, such as their chemical composition, temperature, density, mass, distance, luminosity, and relative motion using Doppler shift measurements. 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.

Emission spectrum Frequencies of light emitted by atoms or chemical compounds

The emission spectrum of a chemical element or chemical compound is the spectrum of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation emitted due to an atom or molecule making a transition from a high energy state to a lower energy state. The photon energy of the emitted photon is equal to the energy difference between the two states. There are many possible electron transitions for each atom, and each transition has a specific energy difference. This collection of different transitions, leading to different radiated wavelengths, make up an emission spectrum. Each element's emission spectrum is unique. Therefore, spectroscopy can be used to identify elements in matter of unknown composition. Similarly, the emission spectra of molecules can be used in chemical analysis of substances.


Cosmochemistry or chemical cosmology is the study of the chemical composition of matter in the universe and the processes that led to those compositions. This is done primarily through the study of the chemical composition of meteorites and other physical samples. Given that the asteroid parent bodies of meteorites were some of the first solid material to condense from the early solar nebula, cosmochemists are generally, but not exclusively, concerned with the objects contained within the Solar System.

H-alpha Color of light from hydrogens Balmer series emissions

H-alpha () is a specific deep-red visible spectral line in the Balmer series with a wavelength of 656.28 nm in air; it occurs when a hydrogen electron falls from its third to second lowest energy level. H-alpha light is the brightest hydrogen line in the visible spectral range. It is important to astronomers as it is emitted by many emission nebulae and can be used to observe features in the Sun's atmosphere, including solar prominences and the chromosphere.

Coma (cometary)

The coma is the nebulous envelope around the nucleus of a comet, formed when the comet passes close to the Sun on its highly elliptical orbit; as the comet warms, parts of it sublimate. This gives a comet a "fuzzy" appearance when viewed in telescopes and distinguishes it from stars. The word coma comes from the Greek "kome" (κόμη), which means "hair" and is the origin of the word comet itself.

Diffuse interstellar bands

Diffuse interstellar bands (DIBs) are absorption features seen in the spectra of astronomical objects in the Milky Way and other galaxies. They are caused by the absorption of light by the interstellar medium. Circa 500 bands have now been seen, in ultraviolet, visible and infrared wavelengths.

Theoretical astronomy is the use of the analytical models of physics and chemistry to describe astronomical objects and astronomical phenomena.

Cosmic dust Dust floating in space

Cosmic dust, also called extraterrestrial dust or space dust, is dust which exists in outer space, or has fallen on Earth. Most cosmic dust particles measure between a few molecules and 0.1 mm. Larger particles are called meteoroids. Cosmic dust can be further distinguished by its astronomical location: intergalactic dust, interstellar dust, interplanetary dust and circumplanetary dust.

Einstein coefficients

Einstein coefficients are mathematical quantities which are a measure of the probability of absorption or emission of light by an atom or molecule. The Einstein A coefficients are related to the rate of spontaneous emission of light, and the Einstein B coefficients are related to the absorption and stimulated emission of light.

PAH world hypothesis Hypothesis about the origin of life

The PAH world hypothesis is a speculative hypothesis that proposes that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), known to be abundant in the universe, including in comets, and assumed to be abundant in the primordial soup of the early Earth, played a major role in the origin of life by mediating the synthesis of RNA molecules, leading into the RNA world. However, as yet, the hypothesis is untested.

Cyanopolyynes are a group of chemicals with the chemical formula HC
(n = 3,5,7,...). Structurally, they are polyynes with a cyano group covalently bonded to one of the terminal acetylene units. A rarely seen group of molecules both due to the difficulty in production and the unstable nature of the paired groups, the cyanopolyynes have been observed as a major organic component in interstellar clouds. This is believed to be due to the hydrogen scarcity of some of these clouds. Interference with hydrogen is one of the reason for the molecule's instability due to the energetically favorable dissociation back into hydrogen cyanide and acetylene.


  1. Hoover, Rachel (February 21, 2014). "Need to Track Organic Nano-Particles Across the Universe? NASA's Got an App for That". NASA . Retrieved February 22, 2014.