An Introduction to Astronomy

What is Astronomy? Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects (such as moons, planets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies), the physics, chemistry, mathematics, and evolution of such objects, and phenomena that originate outside the atmosphere of Earth, including supernovae explosions, gamma ray bursts, and cosmic background radiation.

In astronomy, the main source of information about celestial bodies and other objects is the visible light or more generally electromagnetic radiation. Observational astronomy may be divided according to the observed region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some parts of the spectrum can be observed from the Earth’s surface, while other parts are only observable from either high altitudes or space. Specific information on these subfields is given below.

Both professional and amateur astronomers have made significant contributions to science.
Both professional and amateur astronomers have made significant contributions to science.

Optical astronomy, also called visible light astronomy, is the oldest form of astronomy. Optical images were originally drawn by hand. In the late 19th century and most of the 20th century, images were made using photographic equipment. Modern images are made using digital detectors, particularly detectors using charge-coupled devices (CCDs). Although visible light itself extends from approximately 4000 Å to 7000 Å (400 nm to 700 nm), the same equipment used at these wavelengths is also used to observe some near-ultraviolet and near-infrared radiation.

The Horsehead Nebula. This photo was taken on the morning of October 5, 2000, at Kitt Peak Observatory as part of the Advanced Observing Program. The telescope was a Meade 16 inch LX200 (f/6.3) with an SBIG ST-8E CCD camera.
The Horsehead Nebula. This photo was taken on the morning of October 5, 2000, at Kitt Peak Observatory as part of the Advanced Observing Program. The telescope was a Meade 16 inch LX200 (f/6.3) with an SBIG ST-8E CCD camera.

Radio astronomy studies radiation with wavelengths greater than approximately one millimeter. Radio astronomy is different from most other forms of observational astronomy in that the observed radio waves can be treated as waves rather than as discrete photons. Hence, it is relatively easier to measure both the amplitude and phase of radio waves, whereas this is not as easily done at shorter wavelengths. Although some radio waves are produced by astronomical objects in the form of thermal emission, most of the radio emission that is observed from Earth is seen in the form of synchrotron radiation, which is produced when electrons oscillate around magnetic fields. Additionally, a number of spectral lines produced by interstellar gas, notably the hydrogen spectral line at 21 cm, are observable at radio wavelengths. A wide variety of objects are observable at radio wavelengths, including supernovae, interstellar gas, pulsars, and active galactic nuclei.

The Very Large Array (VLA) is a radio astronomy observatory located west of Socorro, New Mexico. The VLA has made key observations of black holes and protoplanetary disks around young stars, discovered magnetic filaments and traced complex gas motions at the Milky Way's center, probed the Universe's cosmological parameters, and provided new knowledge about the physical mechanisms that produce radio emission.
The Very Large Array (VLA) is a radio astronomy observatory located west of Socorro, New Mexico. The VLA has made key observations of black holes and protoplanetary disks around young stars, discovered magnetic filaments and traced complex gas motions at the Milky Way’s center, probed the Universe’s cosmological parameters, and provided new knowledge about the physical mechanisms that produce radio emission.

Infrared astronomy deals with the detection and analysis of infrared radiation (wavelengths longer than red light). Except at wavelengths close to visible light, infrared radiation is heavily absorbed by the atmosphere, and the atmosphere produces significant infrared emission. Consequently, infrared observatories have to be located in high, dry places or in space. The infrared spectrum is useful for studying objects that are too cold to radiate visible light, such as planets and circumstellar disks. Longer infrared wavelengths can also penetrate clouds of dust that block visible light, allowing observation of young stars in molecular clouds and the cores of galaxies. Some molecules radiate strongly in the infrared. This can be used to study chemistry in space; more specifically it can detect water in comets.

The visible light (left) and infrared (right) images of the constellation Orion shown here are of the exact same area. These images dramatically illustrate how features that cannot be seen in visible light show up very brightly in the infrared. (Credits: Visible light image: Akira Fujii; Infrared image: Infrared Astronomical Satellite )
The visible light (left) and infrared (right) images of the constellation Orion shown here are of the exact same area. These images dramatically illustrate how features that cannot be seen in visible light show up very brightly in the infrared.
(Credits: Visible light image: Akira Fujii; Infrared image: Infrared Astronomical Satellite )

Ultraviolet astronomy is generally used to refer to observations at ultraviolet wavelengths between approximately 100 and 3200 Å (10 to 320 nm). Light at these wavelengths is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, so observations at these wavelengths must be performed from the upper atmosphere or from space. Ultraviolet astronomy is best suited to the study of thermal radiation and spectral emission lines from hot blue stars (OB stars) that are very bright in this wave band. This includes the blue stars in other galaxies, which have been the targets of several ultraviolet surveys. Other objects commonly observed in ultraviolet light include planetary nebulae, supernova remnants, and active galactic nuclei. However, as ultraviolet light is easily absorbed by interstellar dust, an appropriate adjustment of ultraviolet measurements is necessary.

In this image of galaxy NGC 1512, red represents its visible light appearance, the glow coming from older stars, while the bluish-white ring and the long, blue spiral arms show the galaxy as the Galaxy Evolution Explorer sees it in ultraviolet, tracing primarily younger stars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DSS/GALEX
In this image of galaxy NGC 1512, red represents its visible light appearance, the glow coming from older stars, while the bluish-white ring and the long, blue spiral arms show the galaxy as the Galaxy Evolution Explorer sees it in ultraviolet, tracing primarily younger stars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DSS/GALEX

X-ray astronomy is the study of astronomical objects at X-ray wavelengths. Typically, objects emit X-ray radiation as synchrotron emission (produced by electrons oscillating around magnetic field lines), thermal emission from thin gases above 107 (10 million) kelvins, and thermal emission from thick gases above 107 Kelvin. Since X-rays are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, all X-ray observations must be performed from high-altitude balloons, rockets, or spacecraft. Notable X-ray sources include X-ray binaries, pulsars, supernova remnants, elliptical galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and active galactic nuclei. According to NASA’s official website, X-rays were first observed and documented in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a German scientist who found them quite by accident when experimenting with vacuum tubes. Through a series of experiments, including the infamous X-ray photograph he took of his wife’s hand with a wedding ring on it, Röntgen was able to discover the beginning elements of radiation. The “X”, in fact, holds its own significance, as it represents Röntgen’s inability to identify exactly what type of radiation it was.

Vast clouds of hot gas are sloshing back and forth in Abell 2052, a galaxy cluster located about 480 million light years from Earth. X-ray data (blue) from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory shows the hot gas in this dynamic system, and optical data (gold) from the Very Large Telescope shows the galaxies.
Vast clouds of hot gas are sloshing back and forth in Abell 2052, a galaxy cluster located about 480 million light years from Earth. X-ray data (blue) from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows the hot gas in this dynamic system, and optical data (gold) from the Very Large Telescope shows the galaxies.

Gamma ray astronomy is the study of astronomical objects at the shortest wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma rays may be observed directly by satellites such as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory or by specialized telescopes called atmospheric Cherenkov telescopes. The Cherenkov telescopes do not actually detect the gamma rays directly but instead detect the flashes of visible light produced when gamma rays are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere. Most gamma-ray emitting sources are actually gamma-ray bursts, objects which only produce gamma radiation for a few milliseconds to thousands of seconds before fading away. Only 10% of gamma-ray sources are non-transient sources. These steady gamma-ray emitters include pulsars, neutron stars, and black hole candidates such as active galactic nuclei.

Gamma-rays detected by Fermi's LAT show that the remnant of Tycho's supernova shines in the highest-energy form of light. This portrait of the shattered star includes gamma rays (magenta), X-rays (yellow, green, and blue), infrared (red) and optical data. (Credit: Gamma ray, NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration; X-ray, NASA/CXC/SAO; Infrared, NASA/JPL-Caltech; Optical, MPIA, Calar Alto, O. Krause et al. and DSS)
Gamma-rays detected by Fermi’s LAT show that the remnant of Tycho’s supernova shines in the highest-energy form of light. This portrait of the shattered star includes gamma rays (magenta), X-rays (yellow, green, and blue), infrared (red) and optical data. (Credit: Gamma ray, NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration; X-ray, NASA/CXC/SAO; Infrared, NASA/JPL-Caltech; Optical, MPIA, Calar Alto, O. Krause et al. and DSS)

Putting is all Together: By converging an array of images taken in different kinds of astronomy (as seen above), it is now possible to see objects in various wavelengths!

Multi-wavelength image of the Crab Nebula, seen in x-rays (Chandra), optical (Hubble) and infrared (Spitzer). X-RAY: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.SEWARD; OPTICAL: NASA/ESA/ASU/J.HESTER & A.LOLL; INFRARED: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UNIV. MINN./R.GEHRZ)
Multi-wavelength image of the Crab Nebula, seen in x-rays (Chandra), optical (Hubble) and infrared (Spitzer).
X-RAY: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.SEWARD; OPTICAL: NASA/ESA/ASU/J.HESTER & A.LOLL; INFRARED: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UNIV. MINN./R.GEHRZ)