Interstellar Medium – The Material Between Stars


– Interstellar Medium

Interstellar Medium

Interstellar Medium is gas and dust between stars, nebulae, and giant molecular clouds (basic building blocks of galaxies in star formation). The four types of matter in interstellar medium are: interstellar dust, interstellar atoms, interstellar molecules, and interstellar snowballs.

Interstellar Dust

  • Interstellar Reddening: dust that scatters blue light and causes stars to look redder
  • Extinction of Obscuration: high dust content that diminishes the brightness of stars, by as much as 25 magnitudes
  • Can be smaller than smoke particles
  • Consists of graphite, silicates, or ices
  • In core of heavy elements (e.g. iron, magnesium), mantle of organic compounds (oxygen, carbon, nitrogen), and outer mantle of ice


  • Radio waves = longest wavelength of electromagnetic waves
  • Brightest optical objects not necessarily the brightest radio objects
  • e.g. Taurus A (Crab Nebula) and Sagittarius A (center of the Milky Way Galaxy)
  • Radio Spectral Line: the frequency or wavelength at which radio noise is slightly more or less intense
    • Hydrogen: 21 centimeter line
    • Radio spectra lines of molecules
      • OH (hydroxide): 1963
      • H20 (water): 1968
      • NH3 (ammonia): 1968
    • Over 50 molecules in interstellar space
    • Gives information on temperature, density, and motion
    • Molecular absorption line in UV

Interstellar Molecules

  • Molecules: two or more atoms bound together (e.g. H2O, CO, CH4, OH, H2, NH3)
  • Give absorption or emission bands
  • Observable in very cold, low density interstellar environments

Interstellar Snowballs

  • Between the sizes of  grains and comets
  • Composed of water, carbon, silicates, and other molecules

Interstellar Regions

  1. HI region: 200 K
  2. HII region: 10,000 K
  3. Molecular clouds: 50% gas in our galaxy
  4. Hot interstellar medium: 1 million K, super-heated gas from expanding supernova blasts (up to 90% of total volume)
  • HI Region
    • High density of neutral hydrogen atoms about a million atoms per cubic centimeter (e.g. Orion Nebula)
    • ~ 200 K
  • HII Region
    • Hydrogen with electron removed; e.g. ionized hydrogen gas (in emission nebulae)
      • Average density of hydrogen elsewhere is 1 atom per cubic centimeter
    • ~ 10,000 K

Stellar Properties

Stars: Stellar Properties

Stars are balls of gas held together by force of gravity and generate energy and light by nuclear fusion.

A star’s “color,” or wavelength gives information on:

  1. Temperature
  2. Composition
  3. Conditions
  4. Motion (Doppler Shift)
  5. Classification Scheme

What to Measure and How to Classify Stars:

  1. Spectroscopy
    • To determine composition
      • Absorption line produced when an electron absorbs a photon; emission line produced when an electron emits a photon
      • Dual nature of light: light behaves as waves (electromagnetic waves) or as particles (photons)
      • High energy electromagnetic waves are high energy photons, low energy electromagnetic waves are low energy photons
      • Energy of a photon defined by: E = hf, where h is Planck’s constant (h = 6.63 x 10 ^ – 34 joules sec) and f is the frequency of the electromagnetic wave
      • Three Types of Spectra:
        • Continuous Spectrum: appears as a rainbow spectrum
        • Emission Spectrum: appears as distinct color lines, characteristic of chemical elements
        • Absorption Spectrum: appears as black lines on a rainbow background, reverse of emission spectrum
    • To determine temperature
      • All objects give off thermal radiation
      • Peak wavelength corresponds to maximum intensity of radiation
      • Peak wavelength of electromagnetic radiation is related to temperature
      • Wien’s Law: W = 0.00290/T
      • As temperature increases, wavelength decreases
      • The hotter an object, the bluer the radiation
    • To determine density
      • The thicker the spectral line, the greater the abundance of the chemical element present
    • To determine motion
      • Doppler shift of spectral lines
      • Red Shift = moving away
      • Blue Shift = moving closer
    • To determine distance
      • Measured in light years (ly) – distance light travels in one year and parsecs (pc) – one parsec is 3.26 light years
      • Parallax: the only direct measure of stellar distance, the angle across the sky that a star seems to move with respect to a background of distant stars) between two observation points at the ends of a baseline of one astronomical unit (A.U.); a star one parsec from Earth has a parallax of one arc second
  2. Brightness
    • Apparent Brightness
      • Affected By: absolute (true) brightness, distance, intervening space, Earth’s atmosphere, and eyes’ visual response
      • Measured by apparent magnitude “m,” relative brightness as seen on Earth; brightest star (m=1) to faintest (m=6); a 1st magnitude star is 100 times brighter than a 6th magnitude star
    • Absolute Brightness
      • Measured by absolute magnitude “M”
      • The magnitude of a star observed from a distance of 10 parsecs (1 parsec = 3.26 light years)
      • Stars further than 10 parsecs would “appear” brighter; M increases
      • Stars closer than 10 parsecs would “appear” dimmer; M decreases
    • m-M = 5 log (r/10)
  3. Distances
    • Distance as the primary factor in the decrease of stellar brightness as perceived on Earth, used to determine absolute brightness
    • Inverse Square Law: the intensity of light varies inversely with the square of the star’s distance from the Earth
  4. Mass and Size
    • MASS: For binary stars, both the period of revolution of one star orbiting the other and the distance between the two stars can be measured
    • SIZE: Diameters of stars can be determined from temperature and luminosity (calculated from absolute brightness) =>  L  =   σ  T^4  A, where L = luminosity, σ = distance, T = temperature, and A = absolute brightness
  5. Classification Scheme
    • Spectral Types: O, B, A, F, G, K, M; subtypes 0 to 9 (e.g. B1, A4, G2, and M0)
    • O stars are more than 10 times hotter than M stars
    • Developed by Annie Jump Cannon in the late 1800’s
  6. H-R Diagram: to study evolutionary tracks

Light and Black Body Radiation

Light is composed of mass-less infinitesimal particles called photons that travel at the speed of light (300,000,000 m/s).

Electromagnetic Spectrum

THE ELECTROMAGNETIC SPECTRUM: depicts the different wavelengths and energies of light

Radio Waves –> Microwaves –> Infrared Light –> Visible Light (ROYGBIV) –> Ultraviolet Radiation –> X-Rays –> Gamma Rays (longest –> shortest wavelengths, lowest –> highest energies)

  • The Electromagnetic Spectrum and Stellar Spectra = continuous spectrum (energy emission over a  broad range of wavelengths – curve)
  • Laser = line spectrum (energy emission at a narrow range of wavelength – peak)

Black-bodies at Different Temperatures

A “black-body” is an object which absorbs all light incident on it and doesn’t reflect or transmit any light. Black bodies are perfect emitters of light. Their classification depends only on temperature, and not other properties such as chemical composition; hence, black-body radiation is also “thermal” radiation. In 1900, Max Planck discovered that a black body emits an energy spectrum of light. Black body radiation includes lava flow (800 K), incandescent light bulbs – tungsten wire heated (2,800 K). Comparing two black bodies of different temperatures, the hotter black-body will: 1) emit more radiation (more luminous); 2) emit more photons; 3) peaks at shorter wavelengths; 4) have a bluer color. Measuring the shape of a star’s spectrum can reveal the star’s temperature.

Wien’s Lawγ peak = 2,900 μm K/ T; using the wavelength of the black-body’s spectrum’s peak to determining the star’s surface temperature

Luminosity: amount of energy radiated by an object per second, in Watts

Brightness: how bright an object appears as seen by an observer; also known as flux received from the star

Stefan- Boltzmann LawL = σT4 x surface area, where L = luminosity, T = temperature, and σ = 5.67 x 10-8 W/ (m²•K4), Stefan-Boltzmann constant; to determine a star’s luminosity

 Apparent Brightness: how bright stars appear to the observer; depends on luminosity and distance

  • considering a set of photons that emerge at the same moment from the star’s surface, the spherical shell of photons is 4∏r², where r = distance from the star
  • L/4∏r² (L = luminosity) = energy per second per surface area of photons
  • apparent brightness or flux: b = L/4∏r²

Absolute Brightness: considering temperature and mass and disregarding distance, how bright the stars actually are


The Atom

The Atom and Its Subatomic Particles

  • Subatomic particles: Electrons (-), Protons (+), and Neutrons (neutral)
  • The mass of a proton is 1830 times the mass of an electron; the mass of a proton is approximately equal to the mass of a neutron
  • While protons and neutrons form the atom’s nucleus, electrons have discrete energy levels in atom
  • The electron can only be on energy levels, not in between
  • Outer orbits have higher energy than inner orbits
  • Most of the space within an atom is empty!

Absorption/ Emission: Photons

Photons: Emission and Absorption

  • Photons are emitted in random fashion (cascade from level to level or all at once – from current level to the ground state, or the lowest energy level, the closest to the nucleus)
  • Absorption of a photon causes the electron to a higher energy level
  • A photon can only be absorbed if its energy is equal to the difference in energy between two energy levels
  • An electron can only stay in a higher energy level for a very short time
  • Ionization: If a photon is large enough, it can kick the electron out of the atom
  • Recombination: When a free electron becomes bound to an atom
  • Electrons give up energy by emitting a photon

Emission Lines from Gas Clouds

Emission Line Spectrum

  • A dilute (non-opaque) gas cloud is not a back-body emitter
  • Atoms in a hot, dilute cloud of ionized gas will emit a characteristic pattern of spectra lines (Emission Line Spectrum)

Absorption Line Spectra

Absorption Spectrum

  • Normal stars have absorption lines
  • Black-body radiation originates from the star’s interior