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Portal:Radiation astronomy

Radiation astronomy
This image is a composite of several types of radiation astronomy: radio, infrared, visual, ultraviolet, soft and hard X-ray. Credit: NASA.

Radiation astronomy is astronomy applied to the various extraterrestrial sources of radiation, especially at night. It is also conducted above the Earth's atmosphere and at locations away from the Earth, by satellites and space probes, as a part of explorational (or exploratory) radiation astronomy.

Seeing the Sun and feeling the warmth of its rays is probably a student's first encounter with an astronomical radiation source. This will happen from a very early age, but a first understanding of the concepts of radiation may occur at a secondary educational level.

Radiation is all around us on top of the Earth's crust, regolith, and soil, where we live. The study of radiation, including radiation astronomy, usually intensifies at the university undergraduate level.

And, generally, radiation becomes hazardous, when a student embarks on graduate study.

Cautionary speculation may be introduced unexpectedly to stimulate the imagination and open a small crack in a few doors that may appear closed at present. As such, this learning resource incorporates some state-of-the-art results from the scholarly literature.

The laboratories of radiation astronomy are limited to the radiation observatories themselves and the computers and other instruments (sometimes off site) used to analyze the results.

Selected resource
This is a real visual image of the red giant Mira by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: Margarita Karovska (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and NASA.

“A red giant is a luminous giant star The outer atmosphere is inflated and tenuous, making the radius immense and the surface temperature low, somewhere from 5,000 K and lower. The appearance of the red giant is from yellow orange to red, including the spectral types K and M, but also class S stars and most carbon stars. The most common red giants are the so-called red giant branch stars (RGB stars). Another case of red giants are the asymptotic giant branch stars (AGB). To the AGB stars belong the carbon stars of type C-N and late C-R. The stellar limb of a red giant is not sharply-defined, as depicted in many illustrations. Instead, due to the very low mass density of the envelope, such stars lack a well-defined photosphere. The body of the star gradually transitions into a 'corona' with increasing radii.

More resources...
Selected lecture

Electromagnetic forces

The electric vectors of PKS0521-36 show clear structure and alignment. Credit: Keel.

"The emission of electromagnetic radiation from a superluminal (faster-than-light in vacuo) charged particle [is such] that no physical principle forbids emission by extended, massless superluminal sources. A polarization current density (dP/dt; see Maxwell's fourth equation) can provide such a source; the individual charged particles creating the polarization do not move faster than c, the speed of light, and yet it is relatively trivial to make the envelope of the polarization current density to do so."[1]

The "emitted radiation has many unusual characteristics, including: (i) the intensity of some components decays as the inverse of the distance from the source, rather than as 1/(distance)2 (i.e. these components are non-spherically-decaying); (ii) the emission is tightly beamed, the exact direction of the beam depending on the source speed; and (iii) the emission contains very high frequencies not present in the synthesis of the source. Note that the non-spherically decaying components of the radiation do not violate energy conservation. They result from the reception, during a short time period, of radiation emitted over a considerably longer period of (retarded) source time; their strong electromagnetic fields are compensated by weak fields elsewhere [1]."[1]

The "emission occupies a very small polar angular width of order 0.8 degrees in the far field. Based on these findings, we suggest that a superluminal source could act as a highly directional transmitter of MHz or THz signals over very long distances."[1]

"The magnetic field is well-ordered in many jets, as shown by polarization measurements. Synchrotron radiation can be very highly polarized (50%) if the field is globally ordered, and some sources [approach] this level. The electric vectors show clear structure and alignment; an especially common pattern is for the field lines to be along the jet in the inner portions and transition to an azimuthal configuration farther out. This is seen in [PKS0521-36 at 2 cm]."[2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 J. Singleton, A. Ardavan, H. Ardavan, J. Fopma and D. Halliday (2005). Non-spherically-decaying radiation from an oscillating superluminal polarization current: possible low-power, deep-space communication applications in the MHz and THz bands, 16th International Symposium on Space Terahertz Technology (PDF). p. 117. Retrieved 2014-03-18.
  2. Bill Keel (October 2003). Jets, Superluminal Motion, and Gamma-Ray Bursts. Tucson, Arizona USA: University of Arizona. Retrieved 2014-03-19.
Selected theory

Theoretical astronomy

This image is a theory for the interior of the Sun. Credit: Pbroks13.

Theoretical astronomy at its simplest is the definition of terms to be applied to astronomical entities, sources, and objects.

Def. an "expanse of space that seems to be [overhead] like a dome"[1] is called a sky.

Computer simulations are usually used to represent astronomical phenomena.

Part of the fun of theory is extending the known to what may be known to see if knowing is really occurring, or is it something else.

The laboratories of astronomy are limited to the observatories themselves. The phenomena observed are located in the heavens, far beyond the reach, let alone control, of the astronomical observer.[2] “So how can one be sure that what one sees out there is subject to the same rules and disciplines of science that govern the local laboratory experiments of physics and chemistry?”[2] “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” - Albert Einstein.[2]


  1. Philip B. Gove, ed. (1963). Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam Company. p. 1221. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Narlikar JV (1990). Pasachoff JM, Percy JR, ed. Curriculum for the Training of Astronomers ‘’In: The Teaching of astronomy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Selected topic


A spectrum is taken of blue sky clearly showing solar Fraunhofer lines and atmospheric water absorption band. Credit: Remember the dot.

"[P]referential absorption of sunlight by ozone over long horizon paths gives the zenith sky its blueness when the sun is near the horizon".[1]

"For quenched galaxies, the Hα absorption trough is deep and can be traced through the nucleus and along the major axis. It extends to a radius at or beyond 2 Rd [where Rd is the galaxy disk scale length] in all but three cases. This makes it possible to determine a velocity width from the optical spectrum as is done for emission line flux, with appropriate corrections between stellar and gas velocities (see discussion in Paper I, also Neistein, Maoz, Rix, & Tonry, 1999). In the few cases where a velocity width can also be measured from the H I data, it is found to be in good agreement with that taken from the Hα absorption line flux."[2]


  1. Craig F. Bohren. Atmospheric Optics (PDF).
  2. Nicole P. Vogt and Martha P. Haynes, Riccardo Giovanelli, and Terry Herter (June 2004). "M/L, Hα Rotation Curves, and HI Gas Measurements for 329 Nearby Cluster and Field Spirals. III. Evolution in Fundamental Galaxy Parameters". The Astronomical Journal 127 (6): 3325-37. doi:10.1086/420703. Retrieved 2013-12-20. 
Selected image
Nike-Black Brant VC XQC launch.gif

A launch of the Black Brant 8 Microcalorimeter at the turn of the century as a part of the joint undertaking by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center known as the X-ray Quantum Calorimeter (XQC) project. Credit: Dan McCammon at Wisconsin and by Andrew Szymkowiak and Scott Porter at Goddard.

Selected lesson

First cyan source in Caelum

This is an image of NGC 1679 in Caelum. It is a spiral galaxy located two degrees south of Zeta Caeli. Credit: NASA/ESA (Wikisky).

The first cyan source in Caelum is unknown.

This is a lesson in map reading, coordinate matching, and searching. It is also a project in the history of cyan astronomy looking for the first astronomical cyan source discovered in the constellation of Caelum.

Nearly all the background you need to participate and learn by doing you've probably already been introduced to at a secondary level.

Some of the material and information is at the college or university level, and as you progress in finding cyan sources, you'll run into concepts and experimental tests that are an actual search.

To succeed in finding a cyan source in Caelum is the first step. Next, you'll need to determine the time stamp of its discovery and compare it with any that have already been found. Over the history of cyan astronomy a number of sources have been found, many as point sources in the night sky. These points are located on the celestial sphere using coordinate systems. Familiarity with these coordinate systems is not a prerequisite. Here the challenge is geometrical, astrophysical, and historical.

NGC 1679 in the image at left appears to contain some cyan, probably as a result of a mixture of light blue and yellow.

Selected quiz

Empirical radiation astronomy quiz

This is a volcanic bomb found in the Mojave Desert National Preserve by Rob McConnell. Credit: Wilson44691.

Empirical radiation astronomy is a lecture about an approach to understanding radiation astronomy phenomena. It is an adjunct lecture for the astronomy department course on the principles of radiation astronomy.

You are free to take this quiz based on empirical radiation astronomy at any time.

To improve your score, read and study the lecture, the links contained within, listed under See also, External links, and in the {{astronomy resources}} template. This should give you adequate background to get 100 %.

As a "learning by doing" resource, this quiz helps you to assess your knowledge and understanding of the information, and it is a quiz you may take over and over as a learning resource to improve your knowledge, understanding, test-taking skills, and your score.

Suggestion: Have the lecture available in a separate window.

To master the information and use only your memory while taking the quiz, try rewriting the information from more familiar points of view, or be creative with association.

Enjoy learning by doing!

Selected laboratory

Electric orbits

Main source: Electric orbits
Electrons in a beam are moving in a circle in a magnetic field (cyclotron motion). Lighting is caused by excitation of atoms of gas in a bulb. Credit: Marcin Białek.

This laboratory is an activity for you to calculate an electric or magnetic orbit of an astronomical object. While it is part of the astronomy course principles of radiation astronomy, it is also independent.

Some suggested entities to consider are electric fields, magnetic fields, mass, charge, Euclidean space, Non-Euclidean space, or spacetime.

Okay, this is an astronomy orbits laboratory, specifically to try out electric/magnetic orbits and where possible compare them to those calculated using gravity.

Yes, this laboratory is structured.

I will provide an example of an electric/magnetic orbit. The rest is up to you.

Please put any questions you may have, and your laboratory results, you'd like evaluated, on the laboratory's discussion page.

Enjoy learning by doing!

Selected problems

Energy phantoms

Main source: Energy phantoms
This is an optical image in the visual range of Theta Ursae Majoris. It is listed in SIMBAD as an F7V spectral type star with a parallax of 74.19 mas. Credit: Aladin at SIMBAD.

Students start from specific situations of motion, determine how to calculate energy and convert units, then evaluate types of energy.

Def. a quantity that denotes the ability to do work and is measured in a unit dimensioned in mass × distance²/time² (ML²/T²) or the equivalent is called energy.

Def. a physical quantity that denotes ability to push, pull, twist or accelerate a body which is measured in a unit dimensioned in mass × distance/time² (ML/T²): SI: newton (N); CGS: dyne (dyn) is called force.

In astronomy we estimate distances and times when and where possible to obtain forces and energy.

The key values to determine in both force and energy are (L/T²) and (L²/T²). Force (F) x distance (L) = energy (E), L/T² x L = L²/T². Force and energy are related to distance and time using proportionality constants.

Every point mass attracts every single other point mass by a force pointing along the line intersecting both points. The force is proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them:[1]


  • F is the force between the masses,
  • G is the gravitational constant,
  • m1 is the first mass,
  • m2 is the second mass, and
  • r is the distance between the centers of the masses.
The diagram shows two masses attracting one another. Credit: Dna-Dennis.

In the International System of Units (SI) units, F is measured in newtons (N), m1 and m2 in kilograms (kg), r in meters (m), and the constant G is approximately equal to 6.674×10−11
 N m2 kg−2

Observationally, we may not know the origin of the force.

Coulomb's law states that the electrostatic force experienced by a charge, at position , in the vicinity of another charge, at position , in vacuum is equal to:

where is the electric constant and is the distance between the two charges.

Coulomb's constant is

where the constant is called the permittivity of free space in SI units of C2 m−2 N−1.

For reality, is the relative (dimensionless) permittivity of the substance in which the charges may exist.

The energy for this system is

where is the displacement.


  1. - Proposition 75, Theorem 35: p.956 - I.Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman, translators: Isaac Newton, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Preceded by A Guide to Newton's Principia, by I. Bernard Cohen. University of California Press 1999 ISBN 0-520-08816-6 ISBN 0-520-08817-4
  2. CODATA2006.
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