University of Michigan - Department of Astronomy

Version: emission only

Principles of Spectroscopy

Star light, star bright.



A photon is a small bit of electromagnetic energy sent across space. Photons can be emitted or absorbed by electric charges -- usually an electron.

Electrons absorbing and emitting photons

A hot, dense object contains many "loose" electrons which can emit photons of any energy. However an electron cannot emit a photon with more energy than the electron started with. The light produced by a hot, dense object is called thermal emission and it contains photons of all energies, i.e. light of all colors, or wavelengths. The resulting "rainbow" is called a continuous spectrum. As we heat up an object, we are giving the electrons more kinetic energy, so they become able to emit more energy. The hotter the object becomes,the brighter the continuous spectrum becomes. This is describedby the Stephan-Boltzmann Law:

f = σT4

As the emitting object is heated, the flux, f, of light energy emitted per unit area (the brightness) increases as the temperature, T (measured in Kelvin, K), to the fourth power; σ is called the Stefan-Boltzmann constant, and has the value 5.67x10-8J m-2 K-4. If two hot pokers are the same size, but one is twice as hot as the other, the hotter one will be sixteen times brighter. The same is true of two stars.

As the object heats up and the electrons get more energy, the energy of the typical photon emitted also increases. This means that the continuous spectrum gradually shifts toward shorter wavelengths (higher energies) and therefore looks bluer. This is described by Wien's Law, which says the peak wavelength times the temperature is constant:

λpeak * T = 0.29 cmK

which means that as the temperature, T, of the emitting object increases, the wavelength λpeak where the intensity of the light is the greatest must decrease. A very hot poker will glow with a bluer (shorter wavelength) light while a cooler poker will glow with a redder light.

Continuous Thermal Emission -- Blackbody Curves

Any hot, dense, opaque object can and must produce continuous spectrum across all wavelengths, with the total energy and dominant color described by these two laws. This is sometimes called blackbody radiation or thermal radiation. The object has no choice -- if it's hot, the electrons have energy, so they must emit light. Remember, Wien's law and the Stefan-Boltzmann Law apply only to continuous thermal emission.

So far we've talked about processes involving "loose" electrons that lead to thermal radiation. What about electrons that are part of an atom? In the Bohr model of the atom, electrons orbit a nucleus of protons and neutrons. Each orbit has a different potential energy, just like planetary orbits correspond to particular gravitational potential energies. But according to quantum mechanics, the electrons can only orbit in certain places, which means the electrons can only have certain orbital energies -- these allowed energies are called energy levels.

Energy level schematic

Electrons usually stay in low energy levels, but they can "jump up" to higher energy levels by absorbing a photon or by gaining energy in other ways. If it gains energy by absorbing a photon, it has to have exactly the correct amount of energy -- it has to match the energy difference between the energy levels. Therefore, the atom can only absorb light at a few specific energies, or colors. This is called line absorption. Line absorption occurs when a low-density gas is in front of a hotter, continuous spectrum source. The cooler, low-density gas acts to block the photons which have the right wavelengths, while the other photons travel through the gas unperturbed. This leads to a generally bright spectrum, with dark lines at specific wavelengths. The missing colors are called spectral absorption lines and result in an absorption line spectrum.

The energy-level jumping can also happen in reverse. The electron can "fall down" from a higher energy level to a lower one, emitting a photon with energy equal to the difference between the levels. This is called line emission, because photons are emitted. The spectrum produced is a set of bright emission lines, so it is called an emission line spectrum. This can only occur in a low density gas viewed on its own or in front of a cooler background (if a hot, dense object is in the background, we see line absorption instead of line emission).

Notice that these two processes only involve photons with particular energies that match its energy levels. Since each atom or molecule has a different set of energy levels, each atom or molecule also has a unique set of spectral lines.

Let's summarize what are known as "Kirchoff's Laws." First, a hot, dense gas (or a solid or liquid) has free electrons and will emit a continuous spectrum, with the brightness and typical color described by the Stefan-Boltzmann and Wien Laws. Second, a low-density gas along the line of sight to a hotter continuous radiation source will absorb photons of specific energies, leaving an absorption line spectrum. Third, a low-density gas viewed alone or in front of a cool background will produce an emission line spectrum.

As photons travel outwards from the center of the sun, where the density and temperature are high enough to allow fusion, they are constantly absorbed and re-emitted by the atoms in the sun.  Eventually they get to the outer edge of the sun, called the photosphere, which is where the sun changes from being opaque to being transparent. The photospere, then, is the layer where all the photons we see originate. The transparent region above the photosphere is called the atmosphere of the sun and has two major layers. The cooler thin layer abover the photospher is the chromospher. Above that is the increadably hot and thin Corona.

One photon by itself can't tell us much about the photosphere or atmosphere, but by looking at all the photons together, astronomers can gain information about the temperature, density, and chemical composition of the sun. This is done by looking at the spectrum of the light -- the number of photons (i.e. the brightness) at each wavelength.  Similarly, the characteristics of the spectra we will look at in the lab will tell us information about the sources of light we will use.

Line Emission

Now we will look at "discharge tubes," which are each filled with a low-density gas made of a single kind of atom. Running an electric current through the discharge tube gives the electrons energy and kicks them up to a high energy level. The electrons quickly fall back to their original energy level, giving off a photon with a wavelength determined by the difference in energy between the levels. Most of these photons leave the gas without interacting with other atoms allowing us to view them. This is similar to the process that occurs in the low-density, incredibly hot outer most regions of stars called the corona and in low-density, gas clouds in space called emission nebulae.

Fist look at the tube with the power off and note where there are opaque solids.  Then turn on the power and observe where the light is actually emitted.

  1. (Prediction)What kind of light-source are you looking at: thin gas, opaque gas, solid, or liquid (circle one)?  According to Kirchoff’s laws, what type of spectrum should this produce?

There should be a spectroscope set up to observe the spectrum.  A slit is aligned with the light source that allows light to travel down to the diffraction grating at the eyepiece.  The spectrum is projected onto a scale to the left of the light source. Observe the spectrum through the spectroscope. 

  1. (Observation)What kind of spectrum is it: continuous, line emission or absorption (circle one)?  How did you identify it as this type of spectrum?

  2. Observe the spectrum of at least three of the discharge tubes, including hydrogen. Roughly sketch what you see, labeling the element's name and the colors of the brightest lines. Compare these to the chart of emission lines in the classroom.  PLEASE TURN OFF THE DISCHARGE TUBES WHEN NOT IN USE (but leave the sodium lamp on)

    element: Hydrogen H

    emission chart


    emission chart


    emission chart

  1. Observe the unknown element.  Sketch its spectrum, then use the chart to identify it.
  2. element:

    emission chart

  3. How could astronomers use emission lines from an object?

  4. The hydrogen atom has only one electron, but when you look through the spectroscope, you see several emission lines.  Explain how this is possible (how are several lines generated and why can you see all of them if there is only one electron per atom)

Note that you can adjust the width of the slit with a screw on the front of the spectroscope.  Observe the neon, argon or unknown discharge tubes through the grey spectroscope.  Open the slit wide (but don’t take the screw out!), and then begin to close it slowly while looking at the spectrum.

  1. How does the resolution of crowded emission lines change as you close the slit?

  2. How does the overall intensity of the spectrum change as you close the slit?

  3. Suppose you are observing a bright star and a faint star with your spectroscope. How would you set the slit to obtain high-resolution spectra of these stars? What would happen to the intensity? Knowing this, would it be easier to obtain a high-resolution spectrum of a bright star or a faint star? Explain.

  4. Find an image of an emission nebula and compare it to the discharge tubes. What is the primary gas in an emission nebula? How can you tell just from the picture?

updated: 7/9/10 by SAM

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