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       How Astronomers Work

Professional astronomers usually have access to powerful telescopes, detectors, and computers. Most work in astronomy includes three parts, or phases. Astronomers first observe astronomical objects by guiding telescopes and instruments to collect the appropriate information. Astronomers then analyze the images and data. After the analysis, they compare their results with existing theories to determine whether their observations match with what theories predict, or whether the theories can be improved. Some astronomers work solely on observation and analysis, and some work solely on developing new theories.

Astronomy is such a broad topic that astronomers specialize in one or more parts of the field. For example, the study of the solar system is a different area of specialization than the study of stars. Astronomers who study our galaxy, the Milky Way, often use techniques different from those used by astronomers who study distant galaxies. Many planetary astronomers, such as scientists who study Mars, may have geology backgrounds and not consider themselves astronomers at all. Solar astronomers use different telescopes than nighttime astronomers use, because the Sun is so bright. Theoretical astronomers may never use telescopes at all. Instead, these astronomers use existing data or sometimes only previous theoretical results to develop and test theories. An increasing field of astronomy is computational astronomy, in which astronomers use computers to simulate astronomical events. Examples of events for which simulations are useful include the formation of the earliest galaxies of the universe or the explosion of a star to make a supernova.

Astronomers learn about astronomical objects by observing the energy they emit. These objects emit energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation travels throughout the universe in the form of waves and can range from gamma rays, which have extremely short wavelengths, to visible light, to radio waves, which are very long. The entire range of these different wavelengths makes up the electromagnetic spectrum.

Astronomers gather different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation depending on the objects that are being studied. The techniques of astronomy are often very different for studying different wavelengths. Conventional telescopes work only for visible light and the parts of the spectrum near visible light, such as the shortest infrared wavelengths and the longest ultraviolet wavelengths. Earth's atmosphere complicates studies by absorbing many wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma-ray astronomy, X-ray astronomy, infrared astronomy, ultraviolet astronomy, radio astronomy, visible-light astronomy, cosmic-ray astronomy, gravitational-wave astronomy, and neutrino astronomy all use different instruments and techniques.

TOP Observation

Observational astronomers use telescopes or other instruments to observe the heavens. The astronomers who do the most observing, however, probably spend more time using computers than they do using telescopes. A few nights of observing with a telescope often provide enough data to keep astronomers busy for months analyzing the data.

TOP Optical Astronomy

Until the 20th century, all observational astronomers studied the visible light that astronomical objects emit. Such astronomers are called optical astronomers, because they observe the same part of the electromagnetic spectrum that the human eye sees. Optical astronomers use telescopes and imaging equipment to study light from objects. Professional astronomers today hardly ever actually look through telescopes. Instead, a telescope sends an object's light to a photographic plate or to an electronic light-sensitive computer chip called a charge-coupled device, or CCD. CCDs are about 50 times more sensitive than film, so today's astronomers can record in a minute an image that would have taken about an hour to record on film.

Telescopes may use either lenses or mirrors to gather visible light, permitting direct observation or photographic recording of distant objects. Those that use lenses are called refracting telescopes, since they use the property of refraction, or bending, of light. The largest refracting telescope is the 40-in (1-m) telescope at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, founded in the late 19th century. Lenses bend different colors of light by different amounts, so different colors focus slightly differently. Images produced by large lenses can be tinged with color, often limiting the observations to those made through filters. Filters limit the image to one color of light, so the lens bends all of the light in the image the same amount and makes the image more accurate than an image that includes all colors of light. Also, because light must pass through lenses, lenses can only be supported at the very edges. Large, heavy lenses are so thick that all the large telescopes in current use are made with other techniques.

Reflecting telescopes, which use mirrors, are easier to make than refracting telescopes and reflect all colors of light equally. All the largest telescopes today are reflecting telescopes. The largest single telescopes are the Keck telescopes at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. The Keck telescope mirrors are 394 in (10.0 m) in diameter. Mauna Kea Observatory, at an altitude of 4,205 m (13,796 ft), is especially high. The air at the observatory is very clear, so many major telescope projects are located there.

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST), a reflecting telescope that orbits Earth, has returned the clearest images of any optical telescope. The main mirror of the HST is only 94 in (2.4 m) across, far smaller than that of the largest ground-based reflecting telescopes. Turbulence in the atmosphere makes observing objects as clearly as the HST can see impossible for ground-based telescopes. HST images of visible light are about five times finer than any produced by ground-based telescopes. Giant telescopes on Earth, however, collect much more light than the HST can. Examples of such giant telescopes include the twin 32-ft (10-m) Keck telescopes in Hawaii and the four 26-ft (8-m) telescopes in the Very Large Telescope array in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile (the nearest city is Antofagasta, Chile). Often astronomers use space- and ground-based telescopes in conjunction. See also Space Telescope.

Astronomers usually share telescopes. Many institutions with large telescopes accept applications from any astronomer who wishes to use the instruments, though others have limited sets of eligible applicants. The institution then divides the available time among successful applicants and assigns each astronomer an observing period. Astronomers can collect data from telescopes remotely. Data from Earth-based telescopes can be sent electronically over computer networks. Data from space-based telescopes reach Earth through radio waves collected by antennas on the ground.

TOP Gamma-Ray and X-Ray Astronomy

Gamma rays have the shortest wavelengths. Special telescopes in orbit around Earth, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, gather gamma rays before Earth's atmosphere absorbs them. X rays, the next shortest wavelengths, also must be observed from space. NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory (CXO) is a school-bus-sized spacecraft scheduled to begin studying X rays from orbit in 1999. It is designed to make high-resolution images. See also Gamma-Ray Astronomy; X-Ray Astronomy.

TOP Ultraviolet Astronomy

Ultraviolet light has wavelengths longer than X rays, but shorter than visible light. Ultraviolet telescopes are similar to visible-light telescopes in the way they gather light, but the atmosphere blocks most ultraviolet radiation. Most ultraviolet observations, therefore, must also take place in space. Most of the instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) are sensitive to ultraviolet radiation (see Ultraviolet Astronomy). Humans cannot see ultraviolet radiation, but astronomers can create visual images from ultraviolet light by assigning particular colors or shades to different intensities of radiation.

TOP Infrared Astronomy

Infrared astronomers study parts of the infrared spectrum, which consists of electromagnetic waves with wavelengths ranging from just longer than visible light to 1,000 times longer than visible light. Earth's atmosphere absorbs infrared radiation, so astronomers must collect infrared radiation from places where the atmosphere is very thin, or from above the atmosphere. Observatories for these wavelengths are located on certain high mountaintops or in space (see Infrared Astronomy). Most infrared wavelengths can be observed only from space. Every warm object emits some infrared radiation. Infrared astronomy is useful because objects that are not hot enough to emit visible or ultraviolet radiation may still emit infrared radiation. Infrared radiation also passes through interstellar and intergalactic gas and dust more easily than radiation with shorter wavelengths. Further, the brightest part of the spectrum from the farthest galaxies in the universe is shifted into the infrared. The Next Generation Space Telescope, which NASA plans to launch in 2006, will operate especially in the infrared.

TOP Radio Astronomy

Radio waves have the longest wavelengths. Radio astronomers use giant dish antennas to collect and focus signals in the radio part of the spectrum (see Radio Astronomy). These celestial radio signals, often from hot bodies in space or from objects with strong magnetic fields, come through Earth's atmosphere to the ground. Radio waves penetrate dust clouds, allowing astronomers to see into the center of our galaxy and into the cocoons of dust that surround forming stars.

TOP Study of Other Emissions

Sometimes astronomers study emissions from space that are not electromagnetic radiation. Some of the particles of interest to astronomers are neutrinos, cosmic rays, and gravitational waves. Neutrinos are tiny particles with no electric charge and very little or no mass. The Sun and supernovas emit neutrinos. Most neutrino telescopes consist of huge underground tanks of liquid. These tanks capture a few of the many neutrinos that strike them, while the vast majority of neutrinos pass right through the tanks.

Cosmic rays are electrically charged particles that come to Earth from outer space at almost the speed of light. They are made up of negatively charged particles called electrons and positively charged nuclei of atoms. Astronomers do not know where most cosmic rays come from, but they use cosmic-ray detectors to study the particles. Cosmic-ray detectors are usually grids of wires that produce an electrical signal when a cosmic ray passes close to them.

Gravitational waves are a predicted consequence of the general theory of relativity developed by German-born American physicist Albert Einsteina. Since the 1960s astronomers have been building detectors for gravitational waves. Older gravitational-wave detectors were huge instruments that surrounded a carefully measured and positioned massive object suspended from the top of the instrument. Lasers trained on the object were designed to measure the object's movement, which theoretically would occur when a gravitational wave hit the object. At the end of the 20th century, these instruments had picked up no gravitational waves. Gravitational waves should be very weak, and the instruments were probably not yet sensitive enough to register them. In the 1970s and 1980s American physicists Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse observed indirect evidence of gravitational waves by studying systems of double pulsars. A new generation of gravitational-wave detectors, developed in the 1990s, uses interferometers to measure distortions of space that would be caused by passing gravitational waves.

Some objects emit radiation more strongly in one wavelength than in another, but a set of data across the entire spectrum of electromagnetic radiation is much more useful than observations in any one wavelength. For example, the supernova remnant known as the Crab Nebula has been observed in every part of the spectrum, and astronomers have used all the discoveries together to make a complete picture of how the Crab Nebula is evolving.

TOP Analysis and Theory

Whether astronomers take data from a ground-based telescope or have data radioed to them from space, they must then analyze the data. Usually the data are handled with the aid of a computer, which can carry out various manipulations the astronomer requests. For example, some of the individual picture elements, or pixels, of a CCD may be slightly more sensitive than others. Consequently, astronomers sometimes take images of blank sky to measure which pixels appear brighter. They can then take these variations into account when interpreting the actual celestial images. Astronomers may write their own computer programs to analyze data or, as is increasingly the case, use certain standard computer programs developed at national observatories or elsewhere.

Often an astronomer uses observations to test a specific theory. Sometimes, a new experimental capability allows astronomers to study a new part of the electromagnetic spectrum or to see objects in greater detail or through special filters. If the observations do not verify the predictions of a theory, the theory must be discarded or, if possible, modified.

Contributed By: Jay M. Pasachoff, A.B., A.M., Ph.D.
Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Hopkins Observatory, Williams College. Author of Astronomy: From the Earth to the Universe, 6th ed.; Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, 4th ed.; Fire in the Sky; and Nearest Star: The Exciting Science of Our Sun

"Astronomy," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2002 © 1997-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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