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A scale drawing of the orbits of the planets shows a surprisingly large
gap between Mars and Jupiter (in Figure 10.61). As well, two astronomers
had suggested a law, now called the Titius–Bode law, which suggested that
another planet may lie between Mars and Jupiter. Six German astronomers,
including Bode, decided to organise a search for the missing planet, and
called themselves the ‘Celestial Police’. At the start of 1801, almost before
they had got their search underway, a Sicilian astronomer, Giuseppe Piazzi,
noticed a dim uncharted star that seemed to be moving slowly through
Taurus. However, shortly afterward the Sun moved into Taurus and the
object was no longer visible. Astronomers feared it may have been lost.
A young German mathematician—Karl Friedrich Gauss—came to the
rescue and, using Piazzi’s data, calculated that the object should reappear
in the early morning sky in the constellation of Virgo. Sure enough, near
the end of 1801 it was found just where he predicted. Piazzi named the
object Ceres after the patron mythological goddess of Sicily. Its orbit was
found to be at 2.77 AU, in close agreement with the prediction of Bode’s
law. However it was very dim and didn’t appear to be a full-sized planet at
all and so was referred to as a minor planet or asteroid.
Within a few years several more small asteroids had been discovered,
but the search was painstakingly slow as the positions of suspect objects
had to be recorded night after night to see if they were moving through the
stars. By the mid-1800s, hundreds of asteroids had been discovered in what
is called the asteroid belt, which extends from about 2 AU to 3.5 AU. So are
the asteroids a planet that broke up, or one that never formed? It has now
been found that the combined mass of the asteroids is not enough to make
Figure 10.61 The orbits of the visible planets drawn to scale. The dotted section is where
the planet’s orbit is below the plane of the ecliptic (the Earth’s orbit). There appears to be a
surprisingly large gap between Mars and Jupiter. Is there a missing planet?
Chapter 10 Astronomy
up a planet and it is thought that perhaps Jupiter’s huge gravitational pull
prevented the formation of a planet in this region.
Don’t confuse asteroids with comets. The latter have been known since
antiquity as occasional visitors to the skies. They have very highly elliptical
orbits and spend most of their time well out beyond the orbits of the outer
planets. While asteroids are rock-like, comets have been called ‘dirty
snowballs’. When they come in closer to the Sun, some of their frozen ice
evaporates producing the characteristic tail.
Back at the start of the 17th century, Kepler had suggested
a law which appeared to relate the size of the orbits of the
planets to the ratio of the spheres that could be placed around
and within the five regular platonic solids: tetrahedron, cube,
octahedron, dodecahedron and icosahedron. Kepler had to
change the natural order, but was convinced that God had set
out the planets according to geometric patterns. Although it
was a reasonably good fit for the six known planets, it was
relegated to history once the outer planets were discovered.
Table 10.4 Kepler’s planetary orbits compared with the
scaled radii of the spheres around the platonic solids
Solid and sphere
The cube’s circumsphere is taken as equal to the radius of
Saturn’s orbit and the other radii are scaled accordingly.
Another curious relationship discovered in the late 18th
century was the Titius–Bode Law. Titius (in 1772) found a
simple number sequence which appeared to be related to the
orbits of the planets. Later, Bode brought it to prominence.
The sequence is: 0 + 4, 3 + 4, 6 + 4, 12 + 4, 24 + 4, 48 + 4,
96 + 4, 192 + 4, etc. That is, apart from the first term, each
term is obtained by doubling the previous multiple of three
and adding four. If the addition is done and then the result
divided by 10 we obtain the series: 0.4, 0.7, 1.0, 1.6, 2.8, 5.2,
10.0, 19.6, etc. Where is all this going? Well now look back at
Table 10.2 (page 360) and compare these values with those
of the radius of orbit of the planets in AU. Not a perfect fit,
but curiously similar, except for two things. First, at that time
the outer planets had not been discovered, and so what did
19.6 and the numbers beyond it mean? Second, where was
the planet for the 2.8 value in the sequence? A number of
astronomers started looking for these ‘missing’ planets and,
as we know, Uranus at 19.2 AU was discovered less than
ten years after Titius suggested the pattern.
Physics in action
Curious laws for the planets?
Figure 10.62 Kepler discovered a relationship between the size of the orbits
of the known planets and the spheres that can be placed inside and outside
the five platonic solids. It seems to have been simply coincidental.
In 1891 a significant breakthrough occurred. German astronomer Max Wolf
developed an important new technique to search for asteroids. First, he
motorised the drive of the right ascension axis of his telescope so that it
followed the stars across the sky automatically. Then he used photographic
film to record a long exposure of the view. The stars appeared as dots, but if
an asteroid was in the field of view, its motion through the stars would leave
a slightly blurred image. Using this method, Wolf alone discovered 228
more asteroids! Today tens of thousands of asteroids have been identified
and more are discovered every month. Indeed it is quite a sport among
amateur astronomers, who get the privilege of naming their own asteroid!
The technique of using a motorised drive on the telescope in conjunction
with long exposure photographs had become standard by the beginning
of the 20th century. Apart from motion against the background stars, the
photographs showed detail too faint to be seen by the naked eye. With better
telescopes, drives and photographic film an explosion of new astronomical
discoveries started in the early 20th century. With the development, later in
the century, of new electronic techniques for recording and processing the
images, this explosion continues into the present century!
Before Galileo, almost all astronomers believed that all celestial objects,
apart from those in the solar system, were stars. Remarkably, there is a
record from a 10th century Persian astronomer showing the Andromeda
Nebula, which is visible to the naked eye only under the very best
conditions. Only after the use of telescopes became common in the 18th
century did astronomers begin to turn their attention to certain ‘fuzzy
Another way to find asteroids is to use
a ‘blink comparator’. Photographs of the
same part of the sky taken at different
times are compared in a device that
gives the operator rapidly alternating
views of the two images. Any object
that has moved in the interval between
photographs will appear to blink on and
off and, hence, will be more noticeable.
Figure 10.63 Binoculars will reveal a fuzzy patch
around one of the stars in Orion’s sword (in the
Saucepan handle). It is the ‘Great Nebula in
Figure 10.64 The three different types of nebulae
are all seen in this photograph of the area around
Alnitak in Orion’s belt.
Chapter 10 Astronomy
patches’ in the sky. The Orion nebula had been noted earlier, but it was
William Herschel (of Neptune fame) who started to realise the significance
of studying nebulae. He compared his view of the Orion nebula with the
earlier record and decided that it had changed in the intervening period
and thus ‘...we may infer that there are undoubtedly changes among the
fixt Stars, and perhaps from a careful observation of this Spot something
might be concluded concerning the Nature of it’. Ever since, astronomers
have been learning much from their study of these ‘fuzzy spots’ in the sky.
Binoculars or a small telescope will reveal many nebulae in a clear dark
sky. Nebulae are actually huge clouds of gas or ‘dust’ and most that we
see are within our galaxy. There are three basic types of nebulae: those that
emit light, emission nebulae; those that reflect light from other sources,
reflection nebulae; and those that block light from stars beyond them, dark
nebulae. All three types are visible near Alnitak, the eastern star in Orion’s
belt (see Figure 10.64) They are not really ‘near’ Alnitak as it is a relatively
close star (820 light-years) and the nebulae are about twice as far away.
The light from nebulae tells us a lot about the nature of the material and
the processes going on in the nebula itself. Spectral lines tell us what atoms
are present, small shifts in the lines tell us about its movement, missing
parts of the spectrum tell us what is absorbing the light, and so on. As we
will see in the next section, astronomers like to analyse as much of the light,
both visible and invisible, coming from nebulae as they can collect.
Some objects which appear to be nebulae are actually not dust clouds
in our own galaxy, but other galaxies right outside the Milky Way. In fact
the Andromeda ‘nebula’ mentioned at the start of this section is one of the
most famous. It was not until the start of the 20th century that astronomers
began to realise that our own Milky Way Galaxy was much larger than
they had thought, and furthermore, other complete galaxies lay at vast
distances from it. Some galaxies like Andromeda and the Milky Way are
huge spiralling collections of billions of stars; others are egg-shaped, or
‘globular’ conglomerations of stars, and others quite irregular. Some are
only one-hundredth the size of the Milky Way, others are fifty times as
massive. The two closest galaxies to the Milky Way are actually quite easily
visible to the naked eye: the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. They are
actually smaller, irregular galaxies and are referred to as satellite galaxies
of the Milky Way.
New light ...
As we look through a telescope we gather more light to create a brighter
image of the object we are looking at. The light, however, is just the same
as we see with the naked eye. The first indication that there was more to
light than what met the eye, so to speak, was around 1800 when William
Herschel placed a thermometer in the spectrum produced as sunlight
streamed through a prism. He found that a higher temperature was
recorded even when the thermometer was placed beyond the red end of
the rainbow spectrum. The invisible radiation ‘below’ the red end of the
spectrum is now called infrared radiation. In the later 1800s Maxwell showed
that light was an electromagnetic wave. He also realised that there was no
reason why electromagnetic waves of lower or higher frequency should
not also exist. Herschel’s discovery had shown the presence of waves of
slightly lower frequencies, but what about other frequencies?
Figure 10.65 The M31 Galaxy in Andromeda is a
spiral galaxy like the Milky Way. The two smaller
galaxies above and below M31 are M32 and
M110. They are actually satellite galaxies of the
much larger M31.
Soon after Maxwell’s prediction, Heinrich Hertz produced electro-
magnetic waves of much lower frequencies, with wavelengths of metres
instead of micrometres. These we now call radio waves. Not long after that
Wilhelm Röntgen produced higher frequency, short wavelength (only one-
hundredth that of light) X-rays. Needless to say, the rest of the spectrum
was rapidly filled in and we are now familiar with the spectrum as shown
in Figure 10.66.
Traditionally, astronomy had always used visible light to look at
the universe. There actually appeared to be little option as it was soon
discovered that the atmosphere was opaque to ultraviolet (UV) and infrared
(IR) radiation much beyond the visible spectrum. However, a surprising
new tool was discovered, more or less by accident in the early 1930s. As
radio developed as a communication link, engineers became aware of a
form of interference which seemed to fluctuate with the time of day. Karl
Jansky, a young engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, eventually realised
that the interference was strongest when the constellation of Sagittarius
was overhead and that indeed he appeared to be detecting radio waves
from the centre of our galaxy, which is in that region of the sky. Initially
few astronomers took any interest in these waves, but Grote Reber, a radio
engineer in Illinois, decided to take up the challenge and built the first
radio telescope in his backyard. It was a 10 m metal ‘dish’ which focused
the waves onto a radio receiver at the principal focus. Over the next few
years he mapped the radio emissions from the entire Milky Way at two
wavelengths, both of which were around 1 m.
During and after World War II, radio technology advanced very quickly
and astronomers began to realise they had a powerful new way of looking
at the universe. Radio telescopes proliferated and soon a vast array of
new data was being generated. There was one very significant problem
however. Because radio waves are very much larger than light waves the
angular resolution of the new devices was very poor. As we saw in section
10.3, the resolution is dependent on the ratio of the wavelength to the size
of the telescope, in this case the diameter of the dish. For a large optical
telescope this ratio is about 107
, but for the radio telescopes it was about
10–100. This made identification of a radio source with a particular star or
other object very difficult indeed. So radio telescopes were made as large
as possible. This was also important in terms of their light-gathering power
Figure 10.66 The spectrum of electromagnetic waves extends from radio waves, with
wavelengths of kilometres, all the way down to gamma radiation, with wavelengths smaller
than a nucleus. Astronomers like to look at the universe in ‘light’ of all wavelengths.
Figure 10.67 The parkes Observatory radio
telescope (‘The Dish’) in NSW has a diameter of
64 m. It has played a key role in the development
of radio astronomy and is well worth a visit if you
get the chance.
Ultraviolet X rays
600 500 400
10 1 10–1
Chapter 10 Astronomy
(‘light’ being used in a general sense of electromagnetic waves) as the radio
emissions from space were rather faint compared with optical emissions.
The largest single radio telescope built is the Aricebo dish in Puerto Rico. It
was actually constructed in an extinct volcano using a steel superstructure
to form the concave dish that is 305 m in diameter. This still only gives it a
diameter-to-wavelength ratio of less than 1000 when mapping 5 cm radio
waves; this corresponds to a resolution of about 1 arcmin—compared with
the 1 arcsec of a good optical telescope.
Fortunately, radio astronomers have found a way around the resolution
problem! Radio signals can be fed along cables and the output from several
dishes combined by clever electronics. This enables a radio telescope with
an effective diameter (for resolution purposes, not light-gathering) of many
kilometres to be built. The Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico consists
of 27 dishes, each 25 m in diameter, arranged in a Y shape. This array
has an effective diameter of 27 km, giving it better resolution than most
optical telescopes. Even larger resolution can be achieved by combining
radio telescopes right across the Earth. There is even a space-based radio
telescope that can be used for this purpose, giving resolutions down to
better than 0.001 arcsec.
Radio astronomy enables information to be obtained that would be
impossible to obtain at visible wavelengths. For example, electrically
charged particles moving in the magnetic field of a planet (such as those
which cause auroras on Earth) give off radio waves that, in effect, make the
magnetic field of the planet ‘visible’ to the radio telescope. On the larger
scale, stars can produce radio waves by similar means and this tells us
much about the type of star. As their name implies, so-called ‘black holes’
are not visible. However, as they suck in matter around them, it spirals
in at ever-increasing speeds giving off a characteristic longer wavelength
electromagnetic radiation which was first detected by radio telescopes.
... and new ways of seeing it
For well over a century many wonderful images of the sights of the universe
have been produced on photographic film. Unfortunately, however, only
about 2% of the light that falls on a photographic film triggers the chemical
reactions which set the image in place. Since it was discovered that various
silicon devices could be made light-sensitive (‘solar cells’ that produce
electricity, for example), many ways to exploit this technology to produce
images have been found. The most sensitive device is known simply as
a charge-coupled device or CCD. The term hides the complexity involved,
but these are the basis of most modern video and digital cameras. CCDs
can be made that utilise up to 70% of the light falling on them, so they are
35 times more sensitive than photographic film. They are now used almost
universally in new telescopes. The Hubble Space Telescope would have
been impossible without CCDs to collect the pictures electronically and
radio them back to Earth. Indeed the development of the HST was the
reason for much of the development of CCDs.
Basically a CCD is a square ‘chip’ of silicon which is divided into an array
of tiny light-sensitive ‘picture elements’ or pixels. A typical CCD may have
about 16 million pixels arranged in 4000 rows and columns on a chip only a
few centimetres square. When the image from the telescope is focused onto
Figure 10.68 Charge-coupled devices such as
this are used to record the images in modern
telescopes. They are much more sensitive than
film and directly produce an image in electronic
form for further analysis or display.
the CCD, each pixel builds up an electric charge; the size of the charge is
related to the amount of light that falls on the pixel. The amount of charge
on each pixel is then recorded electronically and processed to produce
an image that can be stored in a computer. From there the image can be
displayed, printed, transmitted around the world, or further processed
by powerful computer programs which may, for example, compare many
sets of similar photographs to look for minute changes that would indicate
variable stars, asteroids, supernova and much more.
Because of their great sensitivity and means of operation, CCDs are much
more useful than film. They can not only record an image, but they can be
used to measure the light intensity of a certain star and produce a graph of
brightness versus time, for example. Or they can analyse the light in terms
of the wavelengths present and produce a spectrum. A large amount of
what we know about stars has been obtained from their spectra.
Earlier we said that the Hubble Space Telescope had the huge advantage
of not having to look through the Earth’s atmosphere and hence avoided
the problem of ‘twinkling’ stars. There is another very important reason for
getting above the Earth’s atmosphere: it absorbs much of the electromagnetic
radiation coming from space. This is very important to us as it means that
we are protected from dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. On the
other hand, astronomers want to get all the information they can about the
light, both visible and invisible, emitted by stars. Figure 10.70 shows the
electromagnetic radiation that can penetrate the atmosphere. As you can
see, there are effectively just two ‘windows’ that can be used by Earth-bound
astronomers: from visible light into a little of the infrared radiation, as well
as 1 cm to 10 m radio waves. In order to see the universe in X-ray light,
strong ultraviolet radiation, deep infrared radiation or short-wavelength
microwaves, we need to get above most of the atmosphere. Some of this
can be done by sending equipment up on high-altitude balloons or very
high-flying aircraft, but clearly the best solution is to go into orbit around
the Earth, right outside the atmosphere.
The Hubble Space Telescope is designed to use light of wavelengths
from about 0.1 µm to 1.0 µm; that is, from strong ultraviolet through
visible and just into the infrared radiation. Other space-based telescopes
are specifically designed to use microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray or
Figure 10.69 The International Space Station
is an ideal platform from which to observe the
universe in all its many colours: from radio
waves to gamma radiation.
Figure 10.70 A graph showing the transparency of the atmosphere to electromagnetic waves.
A space-based telescope is able to receive waves from all parts of the spectrum.
0.1 nm1 nm10 nm100 nm1 µm10 µm100 µm1 mm
Chapter 10 Astronomy
1 It was quite some time after the invention of the
telescope before the outer planets were discovered.
What were some of the difficulties in finding new
2 In what way was the discovery of Neptune more of a
scientific achievement than the discovery of Uranus?
3 How did photography revolutionise the discovery of
4 What is ‘invisible light’? What different types are
there and what are their characteristics?
5 One hundred years ago it was known that photo-
graphic film was sensitive to infrared and ultraviolet
light. Why didn’t astronomers use these films to take
photographs of the stars at these wavelengths?
6 Brave astronomers who do peer through a telescope
at night have to endure cold conditions in the
observatory. Is this because the observatory needs
the money and can’t afford heating?
7 Why do radio astronomers never have to endure
cold dark nights in unheated observatories?
8 What are some of the advantages and disadvantages
of a space-based telescope?
9 X-ray telescopes can be used in space or in high-
flying aircraft or balloons. Why can’t they be used
in ground-based telescopes? What is the difference
between an X-ray photograph of stars and the one
you may have at a hospital?
10 What are the similarities and the differences between
a radio telescope and a reflecting optical telescope?
• New planets were discovered by a combination
of luck, good guesses and prediction based on the
known planets—and, of course, the telescope.
• Techniques for finding new planets or asteroids
rely on finding small differences in the position
of a celestial object over time. Once photographic
techniques were combined with motorised telescope
drives, thousands of new asteroids were found.
• Nebulae can be dust clouds in our own galaxy
(emission, reflection or dark) or in other galaxies.
• As well as visible light, astronomers use ‘invisible’
electromagnetic radiation such as ultraviolet and
infrared radiation, as well as much longer radio
waves to reveal the nature of the universe.
• Electronic image-recording devices have revolution-
ised astronomy, enabling astronomers to analyse
their pictures of the universe in ways that were
impossible not that long ago.
• Space-based telescopes enable the universe to be
seen in all wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation
from radio and microwave, through visible to X-rays
and gamma radiation.
New ways of seeing
New ways of seeing
Figure 10.71 These five views show the
entire celestial sphere as seen in (a)
visible, (b) radio, (c) infrared, (d) X-ray and
(e) gamma-ray radiation. The Milky Way
stretches across the centre of each image.
1 As you look into a dark night sky, what are some of the thoughts
that come into your mind?
2 Even though we know that there is really no huge ‘celestial
sphere’ rotating around the Earth, astronomers still speak of
one. Why is this?
3 The stars are said to have a diurnal and an annual rotation. What
is the difference between these two expressions and what is
the reason for the difference?
4 What is the altitude of the celestial equator above the north
horizon in Melbourne? Would it be different from Brisbane or
hobart? If so, in what way?
5 Where does the celestial equator meet the horizon as seen from
Melbourne? Would it be different from Brisbane or Hobart? If so,
in what way?
6 At the South pole no stars are visible in the middle of summer.
Why not? If there was a sudden eclipse of the Sun and the stars
did become visible, how would the sky differ, or not differ, from
that seen in the middle of winter?
7 If you observed the stars from a point on the equator at midnight
on 21 March and then looked again at midnight on 21 September
how would the two views differ?
8 Because of the Earth’s atmosphere the Sun rises a little earlier
and sets a little later than it would otherwise. Assuming that the
atmosphere is uniform, 100 km thick and has a refractive index
of 1.003, use Snell’s law to determine the amount of refraction
at sunrise and sunset and, hence, the extra time that the Sun is
visible. (Use Earth’s radius = 6400 km.) How closely does your
answer agree with the actual extra time?
9 From Melbourne, latitude 38°, some of the stars are always in
the sky (A), some spend part of the day in the sky (P) and some
never appear (N).
a Classify each of the following stars as either A, P or N.
i A star within 20º of the SCp
ii A star within 20º of the NCP
iii The Southern Cross
v A star 50º north of the celestial equator
vi A star 50º south of the celestial equator
b For those stars you classified as p, give a rough estimate of
the time they will spend in the sky.
10 Use a starfinder or chart to find the stars closest to the positions
given by the following celestial coordinates:
a rA 14 h 13 min, dec. +19°
b rA 5 h 50 min, dec. +7°
c rA 14 h 40 min, dec. –60°
d rA 4 h 30 min, dec. +15°
11 What are the coordinates of the following stars?
12 Is the Sun due north at midday each day?
13 After one full sidereal day, compared with the previous day, a
star on the celestial equator will:
A be in exactly the same position.
B be a little east.
C be a little west.
D have set.
14 In Melbourne, the Sun has a maximum altitude of 75° at the
summer solstice and 29° at the winter solstice. What is the
maximum altitude at the equinoxes and why is it different in
summer and winter?
15 how is the ecliptic related to the celestial sphere? Is it fixed in
place on the celestial sphere or does it move?
16 You are watching the sunset with a crescent moon still in the
sky. Which of these pictures best represents the Moon as you
will see it?
D None of the above.
Chapter 10 Astronomy
17 A full moon is seen high in the sky at midnight during winter
whereas a full moon in summer is always lower in the sky. Why
18 Jupiter’s moon Io is 3642 km in diameter and 350 000 km from
the surface of Jupiter. The comparable figures for our Moon are
3476 km diameter and 378 000 km from Earth. Thus the two
moons would look quite similar in size when viewed from the
surface of each planet.
a When the two moons are overhead, which one will appear
larger in the sky?
b Given that Jupiter’s diameter is about 11 times that of
the Earth, and its orbit is 5 times further away, what con-
clusions can you draw about the likelihood of seeing, and
the nature of:
i a lunar eclipse from Jupiter?
ii a solar eclipse from Jupiter?
19 The orbit of Mercury is 0.39 AU. What is its maximum elongation
angle from the Sun? how long before or after sunrise or sunset
can it be seen?
20 You can see a tree in a direct line with the top of a hill that is
5.0 km away from you, so there is no angular separation
between the two. The tree is 200 m from you. You now walk a
distance of 20 m at right angles to the line from the hill and tree.
What is the angular separation between the two now?
21 When furthest from the Sun, the Earth is at a distance of
152.1 million km and speeding around its orbit at 29.3 km s‑1
At closest approach the distance is 147.1 million km. Use Kepler’s
second law to find the speed at this distance.
22 Of the two telescopes Galileo built, shown in Figure 10.50, which
would have given the larger image and which would have given
the brighter image?
23 The largest refracting telescope built has a lens with a diameter
of 40 inches and a focal length of 19.5 m.
a how much greater is its light-gathering power than a
standard 6-inch diameter lens?
b What is its magnification when using an eyepiece with a
focal length of 20 mm?
24 Commonly sold binoculars are rated as 8 × 30 or 7 × 50. The
first number is the magnification of the eyepiece lens and the
second is the diameter of the objective.
a Which pair of binoculars would magnify the most?
b Which would have the brightest image, and how much
brighter would the image be?
25 Most astronomers don’t spend much time peering through
a telescope on cold dark nights any more. What do they do
26 What is the connection between radio waves and light waves?
how old is the universe? Will it last forever? are there
other universes? how was the earth formed? Is there
other intelligent life in the galaxy? Will we ever travel
to the stars? these and many more such questions interest
not just professional astronomers and astrophysicists,
but almost anyone who has looked up in the night sky and
wondered about our origins and destiny. In this study we will
find fairly good answers to some of our questions, we will
gain tantalising glimpses of possible answers to others, and
we will discover more questions we hadn’t even thought of!
physics is the fascinating story of a great human
adventure—the search for ways in which we can understand
our world. It has been spectacularly successful in many areas.
When we casually flip a switch to watch the tV news we don’t
often think of all the physicists who made this possible—
Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, hertz and einstein, to name just
a few. None of these people had television in mind when they
explored the natural world—that was just one of the less
important by-products of their work. What was important
to them was understanding some of the basic principles on
which the universe works. as students of physics we are
privileged to be able to share a little of the excitement of that
achievement. astrophysics, the attempt to answer some
of the very biggest questions, is a fascinating mix of basic
physics, the very latest theories and new technology. the
development of ‘silicon electronics’ along with space travel
has given us methods of seeing our universe in ways never
before even dreamed of. the photograph of the Omega Nebula
shows just one example. the Omega Nebula ‘star factory’ is a
huge cloud of dust and molecular gases in which massive
stars are forming and gradually boiling off the dark shroud of
carbon-based smoke-sized dust. We know this as the result
of the work of many astrophysicists down through the ages.
hopefully, in this short study you will gain some glimpses
of this exciting area of physics—and become part of this
great adventure of discovery.
you will have covered material from the study of
• the properties of stars: distance, apparent and
intrinsic brightness, and spectral type
• the Sun, our star: characteristics and the source
of its energy
• the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram: the nature
and evolution of stars
• galaxies: types, distances, Hubble and red shifts
• theories of the formation of the universe,
galaxies, stars and planets.
by the end of this chapter
On completion of this chapter, you should be able
to describe and explain methods used to gather
information about stars and other astronomical
objects and apply this information to models of the
nature and origin of the universe.
chapter 11 astrophysics
Astrophysics is about some of the biggest questions we can ask: What is
the universe? How and why did the conditions for life to evolve occur?
The early astronomers thought the stars all lay in the ‘realm of the gods’,
just beyond the planets that were circling the Earth—which was stationary,
the centre of the universe. Galileo realised both that the Earth circled the
Sun and that the stars must be much further away than the planets, or
they would show apparent movement as the Earth revolved around the
Sun. By Newton’s time it was realised that the stars were possibly other
‘suns’ and therefore must be huge distances away or they would appear
much brighter. Newton calculated that if Sirius, the brightest star in the
sky, was about the same intrinsic (actual) brightness as the Sun then it must
be about a million times further away. Many people, however, refused to
believe that stars could be suns. For thousands of years it was believed
that they were ‘heavenly’ objects quite unlike anything in the solar system,
and located just beyond the orbit of Saturn. Distances such as Galileo and
Newton were suggesting were simply incomprehensible. So where are the
stars, and what are they?
Far far away
The only way the astronomers who followed Galileo could measure the
distance to the stars was to look for parallax in their positions as the Earth
moved around the Sun. The idea is shown in Figure 11.1. As the Earth
moves around its orbit the closer star should appear to move in relation to
those further away. The same idea can be seen if you simply look out the
window and move your head from side to side: the window frame moves
‘against’ you while the background moves ‘with’ you.
Various 18th century astronomers attempted to measure the annual
parallax of some bright stars (which they thought more likely to be
closer). In 1729 James Bradley announced that if there was any parallax
in the positions of stars it was less than 1 arc second (see Physics file on
page 392). He calculated that they must be at least 400 000 times further
away than the Sun (i.e. 400 000 AU). Along with Newton’s calculation for
Sirius (1 million AU) this meant that attempting to measure the distances
to stars seemed futile and so there were few attempts for the rest of the
Figure 11.1 the parallax movement of a close
star relative to the background ‘fixed’ stars. the
parallax angle p is half the total apparent shift
although it is not necessary to have taken the
astronomy detailed study in order to take this one,
some of the ideas from that study are assumed
and expanded upon here. If you have done
some astronomy in your junior science, or have
simply taken an interest in the subject you will
have no trouble with this topic. however, we do
suggest that a browse through the content of the
astronomy study could help to set the scene for
the ideas covered here.
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