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Astrochemistry basics

How we detect elements and molecular compounds in space Begin

Background photograph - NASA -

Whoa!! I dont understand the term Astrochemistry???

Astrochemistry is the (relatively) new branch of Astronomy that deals with how/where elements and compounds come from that are found in:
The Milky Way (our very own Galaxy) learn more Nebulae (clouds of gas within our galaxy) learn more Other galaxies learn more

Any other place in the universe INCLUDING our Solar System

Some useful concepts

Spectral lines Absorption / Emission lines Radio Telescopes Detection

We detect these chemicals in space by at least two methods:

Atomic Spectroscopy Useful for Visible, Infrared, and Ultraviolet Light Molecular Spectroscopy Useful for Radio Waves, and Microwaves (type of
Radio Wave),

Atomic Spectroscopy

Atoms of a specific element emit a specific wavelength of light when an electron undergoes a transition between energy levels (Bohr model of the

Molecular Spectroscopy

Molecules of a compound have rotation energy. When they change rotation energy states, they emit a photon at a specific wavelength (). Different molecules emit photons of unique wavelengths for that rotation energy state.

Diatomic molecule rotation

Absorption / Emission lines

Electrons making an energy transition is the key to either emission of light or radio waves. Absorption is the process where energy is taken in by an electron to change its energy level to a non-rest state. Emission is the process where energy is given off by the electron as it returns to its rest state.

Absorption Spectra

Happens when waves of an electromagnetic wave (shown in visible light) passes through a cool gas. The gas robs (absorbs) photons at specific wavelengths to energize its electrons. Result Specific wavelengths drop out of the otherwise continuous spectrum.

Absorption Spectra Examples:

The absorption of these specific wavelengths of light prove the presence of Hydrogen gas in the outer atmosphere of the star.

Absorption Spectra Examples:

Yup, another example

Psst!, This is how we identify Spectral types!!!

Emission Spectra

Happens when photons are created by an energized gas. The gas creates (emits) photons at wavelengths corresponding to the energy change of its electrons. Result Specific wavelengths of light are created where there was no light before.

Emission lines of specific gasses

Tools of the Radio Astronomer

Radio Telescopes Similar in many ways to Optical telescopes Focus configurations:

A. Prime Focus radio receiver at the prime focus B. Cassegrain secondary convex reflector at prime focus

How do you make a radio telescope (almost) the size of the Earth??

Very Long Baseline Array

What is a VLBA??
Answer: a Very Long Baseline Array A grouping of identical radio telescopes at different places on the earth that act as one large radio telescope

Combining the signals from more than one telescope is called interferometry. (learn more)

Telescopes of the VLBA

The National Science Foundation's VLBA (learn more) is a system of ten identical radio-telescopes controlled from a common headquarters in New Mexico, and working together as a single instrument. The radio signals received by each individual antenna contribute part of the information used to produce images of celestial objects with hundreds of times more detail than Hubble Space Telescope images.

Telescopes of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA)


Radio Telescopes

How big is the worlds largest Radio Telescope, and where is it?
How Big: > 100 m (> 300 ft.) Where: Green Bank, West Virginia



In the 50s & 60s, Radio telescopes first discovered the signature line of Hydrogen at 21 cm wavelength between stars.
The hydrogen gas was found (in abundance) in the empty space between stars. Note: Domestic microwave ovens use a signal of ~ 12 cm wavelength to cook food

This gas was dark in optical wavelengths but bright in radio wavelengths.

Keeping score

What molecules have been discovered and at which wavelengths?

Ans: Well over 100 molecules of compounds have been found in Interstellar space.

Here are just a few of them showing where they were discovered and at the corresponding signature frequencies and wavelengths

Familiar Compounds in Space

Name (Popular Name) Suphur Monoxide Methanol
Formaldehyde Carbon Oxide Sulfide
Silicon Monoxide

Formula Wavelength Frequency (Chemical ( - in cm) (MHz) formula) SO CH3OH H2C18O OCS SiO SiC4 NH3 8.28 8.29 6.83 8.22 7.05

Found In:

36202 36169 4388 36488 42519 42944 18017

Orion Sagittarius Sagittarius Taurus Sagittarius

(Var. Supergiant)

Silicon Tetracarbide Ammonia



Molecular Cloud

How can we find Molecules with a Radio Telescope

Check out this website. It relates many compounds found in the universe and at which frequency they are detected.

Start the frequency range at about 1200 Hz. You can type in the upper frequency range at about 44,000 Hz. Check the Name field at the bottom. This will add the familiar chemical formula name to the table which the web site creates for you.