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Astrophysics

Astrophysics

Astrophysics uses the already understood theories of physics (the study of matter and energy) to describe astronomical (universal) phenomena or events. Astrophysicists try to understand the processes that cause our universe and everything in it to behave the way it does.

Background

For thousands of years, humans observed phenomena in the sky, but had no physical explanation for what they saw. Scientists in the twentieth century, however, have been able to explain many astronomical phenomena in terms of detailed physical theories, relating them to the same chemistry and physics at work in our everyday lives.

Whereas experiments in many other scientific fields can be performed under controlled conditions in a laboratory, astrophysical experiments cannot: the energies and distances involved are simply too great. Even though conditions vary greatly throughout the universe, astrophysicists can observe events in the sky and then develop theories about those events based on the laws that govern our day-to-day experiences on Earth. It is common belief that the laws of physics are consistent throughout the universe.

Processes in the universe

The first astrophysical concept or law to be recognized was the law of gravity. Although it is a very weak force compared to the other fundamental forces of nature, gravity is the dominant factor determining the structure and the fate of the universe. The force of gravity acted over vast distances of space to bring together large structures, such as galaxies, and smaller ones, such as stars and planets. However, scientists generally hold the view that the understanding of the interaction and behavior of atoms marks the true beginning of astrophysics. Indeed, even such enormous objects as stars are governed by the action of atoms.

Importance of instrumentation

Recent advances in space instrumentation have allowed astrophysicists to observe astronomical phenomena that previously had been too far away to see. Large space-based observatories, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, continually lead to major advances in astrophysics by exploring parts of the universe with a sensitivity never before imagined. Space probes, such as the Voyagers, which visited most of the outer planets of our solar system, have provided detailed measurements of the physical environment throughout our solar system. Spectroscopes, optical devices that analyze electromagnetic radiation (energy in the form of waves or particles), have enabled astrophysicists to determine the chemical composition of distant stars or galaxies.

[See also Cosmology; Galaxy; Infrared astronomy; Quasar; Relativity, theory of; Solar system; Star; Sun; Telescope; Ultraviolet astronomy; X-ray astronomy ]

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Astrophysics

Astrophysics


Astrophysics is the analysis of the physical structure and evolution of objects studied by means of astronomical observations (e.g., stars, galaxies, radio sources, X-ray sources, quasi-stellar objects). The physical structure of such objects depends on a balance of gravitation, radiation pressure, and centrifugal forces, while their evolution depends on their initial composition and the reactions that take place between matter and radiation. In particular, nuclear reactions create new elements in the interior of stars and provide their major energy source. Detailed analysis discloses important relations between the color of light emitted by a star and its total radiation output; this relation changes with the age of the star. At its life's end, a star may die in a supernova explosion, or it may end up as a white dwarf star, neutron star, or black hole, depending on its mass.


See also Astronomy; Black Hole; Cosmology, Physical Aspects; Gravitation

george f. r. ellis

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astrophysics

astrophysics Branch of astronomy that studies the physical and chemical nature of celestial bodies and their evolution. Many branches of physics, including nuclear physics, plasma physics, relativity, and spectroscopy, are used to predict properties of stars, planets, and other celestial bodies. Astrophysicists also interpret the information obtained from astronomical studies of the electromagnetic spectrum, including light, X-rays, and radio waves.

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astrophysics

as·tro·phys·ics / ˌastrōˈfiziks/ • n. the branch of astronomy concerned with the physical nature of stars and other celestial bodies, and the application of the laws and theories of physics to the interpretation of astronomical observations. DERIVATIVES: as·tro·phys·i·cal / -ikəl/ adj. as·tro·phys·i·cist / -isist/ n.

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astrophysics

astrophysics, application of the theories and methods of physics to the study of stellar structure, stellar evolution, the origin of the solar system, and related problems of cosmology. The distinction between astrophysics and modern astronomy is disappearing in scientific usage.

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astrophysics

astrophysicsadmix, affix, commix, fix, Hicks, intermix, MI6, mix, nix, Nyx, pix, Pnyx, prix fixe, pyx, Ricks, six, Styx, transfix, Wicks •Aquarobics • radix • appendix •crucifix • suffix • Alex • calyx •Felix, helix •kylix • Horlicks • prolix • spondulicks •hydromechanics • phoenix •Ebonics, onyx •mechatronics • sardonyx •Paralympics • semi-tropics •subtropics • Hendrix •dominatrix, matrix •administratrix • oryx • tortrix •executrix • Beatrix • cicatrix •Essex, Wessex •kinesics • coccyx • Sussex •informatics, mathematics •Dianetics • geopolitics • bioethics •cervix • astrophysics • yikes

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Astrophysics

Astrophysics

Background

Processes in the universe

Importance of instrumentation

Resources

Astrophysics is a branch of astronomy that describes the processes (from birth, evolution, and ending stages of celestial bodies and larger celestial systems) that give rise to the observable features of the universe in terms of previously developed physical theories and laws. It ties together physics and astronomy by describing astronomical phenomena in terms of the physics and chemistry familiar in everyday life. Astrophysicists deal primarily with radiations emitted over the entire length of the electromagnetic spectrum. For instance, they study radiation in order to estimate energy states of atoms, which help to evaluate temperatures and pressures of celestial objects.

Background

Why do the stars shine? How did the Milky Way galaxy form? Will the universe expand forever? These questions are the types of questions asked by astrophysicists in an attempt to understand the processes that cause the universe, and everything in it, to behave in certain ways. From the low-energy gravitational interactions between planets and stars to the violent, high energy processes occurring in the centers of galaxies, astrophysical theories are used to explain what is seen and to understand how phenomena are related.

For thousands of years, astronomy was simply an observational sciencehumans could observe phenomena in the sky, but had no physical explanation for what they saw. Early humans could offer only supernatural explanations for what they observed, which seemed drastically different from what they experienced in everyday life. Only in the twentieth century have scientists been able to explain many astronomical phenomena in terms of detailed physical theories, relating them to the same chemistry and physics at work in everyday lives.

Astrophysical experiments, unlike experiments in many other sciences, cannot be done under controlled conditions or repeated in laboratories; the energies, distances, and time scales involved are simply too great. As a result, astrophysicists are forced into roles as observers, watching events as they happen without being able to control the parameters of the experiment.

For centuries, humans have made such observations and attempted to understand the forces at work. However, how did scientists develop the picture of the universe if they could not reproduce what they saw in the laboratory? Instead of controlling the experiments, they used what data they were able to obtain in order to develop theories based on extensions of the physical laws that govern day-to-day experiences on Earth.

Astrophysics often involves the creation of mathematical models as a means of interpreting observations. This theoretical modeling is important not just for explaining what has already been seen, but also for predicting other observable effects. These models are often based on well-established physics, but often must be simplified, because real astronomical phenomena can be enormously complex.

Processes in the universe

Even looking close to the Earth, within the solar system astrophysics see widely varying conditions. The properties of the rocky planet Mercury, very close to the Sun, differ dramatically from those of the gas giant Saturn, with its complex ring structure, and from the cold, icy dwarf planet Pluto. However, the range of variations found in the solar system is minuscule when compared to that of the stars, galaxies, and more exotic objects such as quasars. The properties of all of these objects, however, can be measured by observation, and an understanding of how they work can be reached by the extension and application of the same physical laws with which scientists are familiar.

The first astrophysical concept or law to be recognized was the law of gravity. Most people are familiar with the force of gravity. Although it is a very weak force compared to the other fundamental forces of nature, it is the dominant factor determining the structure and the fate of the universe. Large structures, such as galaxies, and smaller ones, such as stars and planets, coalesced due to the force of gravity, which acts over vast distances of space.

Much of the evolution of the universe is due to gravitys effects. However, scientists generally hold the view that the understanding of atomic processes marks the true beginning of astrophysics. Indeed, even such enormous objects as stars are governed by the interaction and behavior of atoms. Thus, it is often said that astrophysics began in the early decades of the twentieth century, when quantum mechanics and atomic physics were born.

Importance of instrumentation

Scientists learn about distant objects by measuring the properties that they can observe directlyfor example, by detecting emissions from the objects. The most common measurements are of electromagnetic radiation, extending from radio waves through visible wavelengths to high-energy gamma rays. Each time a class of objects has been studied in a new wavelength region, astrophysicists gain insights into composition, structure, and properties. Emissions from each wavelength region are generated by and affected by different processes and so provide fresh understanding of the object. For this reason, the development of new instrumentation has been crucial to the development of astrophysics.

The development of space instrumentation that can detect photons before they are obscured by the Earths atmosphere has been critical to the understanding of the universe. Large space-based observatories, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, continually spawn major advances in astrophysics due to their ability to study the universe over specific regions of the electromagnetic spectrum with unprecedented sensitivity. In addition, probes such as the Voyagers, which visited most of the outer planets of the solar system, have provided detailed measurements of the physical environment throughout the solar system. The use of spectroscopy, which can determine the chemical composition of distant objects from their wavelength distribution, is a particularly important tool of the astrophysicist.

In addition to the photons of electromagnetic radiation, emitted particles can be detected. These can be protons and electrons, the constituents of ordinary matter on Earth (though often with extremely high energies), or ghostly neutrinos, which only weakly interact with matter on Earth (and are thus extremely difficult to detect) but help scientists learn about the nuclear reactions that power stars.

Astrophysics proceeds through hypothesis, prediction, and testing (via observation); its common belief is that laws of physics are consistent throughout the universe. These laws of physics have served us well, and scientists are most skeptical of proposed explanations that violate them.

See also Cosmology; Gamma-ray astronomy; Infrared astronomy; Pulsar; Quasar; Relativity, general; Relativity, special; Spectral classification of stars; Spectral lines; Star; Telescope; Ultraviolet astronomy; X-ray astronomy.

Resources

BOOKS

Bacon, Dennis Henry, and Percy Seymour. A Mechanical History of the Universe. London: Philip Wilson Publishing, Ltd., 2003.

Harland, David Michael. The Big Bang: A View from the 21st Century. London and New York: Springer, 2003.

Kaufmann, William J. III, and Neil F. Comins. Discovering the Universe. 7th ed. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2005.

Kundt, Wolfgang. Astrophysics: A New Approach. Berlin and New York: Springer, 2005.

Mallary, Michael. Our Improbable Universe: A Physicist Considers How We Got Here. New York: Thunders Mouth Press, 2004.

David Sahnow

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Astrophysics

ASTROPHYSICS

Astrophysics is the branch of physics that attempts to understand the structure and evolution, appearance and behavior, of astronomical objects, especially those outside the solar system, including stars and galaxies, assemblages of these, and the material between them. Study of the universe as a whole is sometimes included but is more often given the separate name cosmology. Subdisciplines include (1) nuclear astrophysics, focused on nuclear reactions as energy sources in stars and as synthesizers of the chemical elements, nearly all of which are made in stars and stellar explosions; (2) high-energy astrophysics, which studies objects such as supernovae, pulsars, quasars, X-ray sources, radio galaxies, and astrophysical black holes (where the energy per particle or photon or the total energy is much larger than in typical stars and galaxies, and where strong magnetic fields, motions at close to the speed of light, and strong gravitational fields often occur); (3) particle astrophysics, whose main topic is the evidence for the existence and behavior of particles other than protons, neutrons, electrons, and photons (light) in stars, galaxies, and the universe; and (4) plasma astrophysics, which is concerned with low-density, very hot gases in the coronae of our sun and other stars, in the ejecta from supernovae and other cosmic explosions, and in interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic medium.

Stars and Nucleosynthesis

Stars, of which the Sun is quite typical, derive most of their energy from nuclear reactions, predominately the fusion of hydrogen to helium. They have lifetimes ranging from a few million years, for the biggest and brightest, to about 10 billion years for solar type stars, and up to 100 billion years or more for the tiniest and faintest. Most stars, indeed most of the matter in the universe, is, by weight, about three-quarters hydrogen and one-quarter helium, with only 1 or 2 percent of all the other elements. Oxygen, carbon, neon, magnesium, silicon, iron, sulfur, and nitrogen are the most abundant (notice they are also the biologically important ones), and uranium, thorium, and tantalum are among the rarest. The vast majority of stars are smaller and fainter than the Sun. The ones seen on a dark night are not a fair sample and include many of the rare, very bright stars, which are far away from the Earth.

Stars form, usually in groups or clusters, from clouds of gas and dust in the interstellar medium of galaxies. The gas is mostly molecular hydrogen, and the dust is mostly carbon compounds, silicates, and ices. The clouds are turbulent and pervaded by magnetic fields. The details of star formation involve complex interactions among rotation, gas flow, turbulence, and magnetic fields and are not completely understood.

In contrast, theoretical understanding of the structure and evolution of stars, once they have formed, is on quite solid ground, based in laboratory measurements of nuclear reaction rates and of how atoms and molecules behave when light shines on them. The structure is expressed in a set of differential equations, which can be solved numerically and integrated forward in time to describe changes in the brightness and colors of stars as hydrogen is gradually transformed to helium. The Sun is currently about 30 percent brighter than when it formed and began hydrogen fusion or burning, and about five billion years in the future, it will become still brighter but redder (a red giant). It will end by fusing helium to carbon (C) and oxygen (O) and puffing off its outer layer to leave a dense core of C and O, called a white dwarf.

More massive stars continue on to the fusion of carbon, neon, oxygen, and silicon, producing cores of nickel, iron, cobalt, and other intermediate mass elements, which then collapse, leaving a neutron star (so-called because it is made mostly of neutrons, with only about 1 percent protons and electrons) or a black hole (so-called because its escape velocity exceeds the speed of light c , and light cannot get out).

The most abundant elements, hydrogen and helium, are (mostly) left from the early universe. Those from carbon to germanium in the periodic table are made by fusion reactions from which evolved, massive stars derive some of their energy. Lithium, beryllium, and boron are produced when cosmic rays strike atoms of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen in the interstellar medium. And all of the elements heavier than iron and its neighbors in the periodic table come from the capture of neutrons by iron "seeds," followed by beta decays, late in the lives of stars and in their explosions. Energy is absorbed in these reactions, and the elements so made are all rather rare (hence the price of gold).

Stellar astrophysics is, for the most part, a consumer of information from atomic, nuclear, and particle physics, though it has been a donor in the past. For instance, it showed that fusion reactions must be possible, and it also showed that atoms like carbon have particular properties, before these properties had been measured in the laboratory. During the first half of the twentieth century, several elementary particles were recognized among cosmic ray secondaries before they had been produced on Earth. Close to the end of the century, it became clear that the deficit of neutrinos coming to the Earth from the Sun, relative to the numbers calculated, had been trying for more than 30 years say something about neutrinos, rather than about the Sun.

White Dwarfs, Neutron Stars, and Stellar Black Holes

White dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes are the three expected end points of stellar evolution. Table 1 compares some of their properties. There is observational evidence for all of them, including single white dwarfs and neutron stars, and ones with normal stars as binary companions, bound to them by gravitation, and for black holes in binary systems. Single black holes must surely exist, but unless one came very close to the solar system or passed across our line of sight to a normal star and bent the light rays coming to us, we would not be aware of them. There have been tentative detections of a few such gravitational lensing events, implying black holes with masses about six times that of the Sun, close to what is found in the black hole binaries.

Single neutron stars are most conspicuous when they are young and so have strong magnetic fields and short rotation periods. These cause beams of radio waves (and sometimes visible light and X rays) to sweep around like searchlight beams, which sometimes intersect the Earth. They are called pulsars. The best known is part of the remnant of a supernova explosion, seen in 1054 c.e., and called the Crab Nebula.

When white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes have binary companions, their masses can be measured, using Newton's laws of gravity, the same way as ordinary stars. Indeed having a mass too large for a neutron star (more than about three times that of the Sun) is part of the "signature" of a black hole. In addition, because the three are all very compact, material falling down onto or into them gets very hot and can radiate brightly, often at X-ray wavelengths.

A binary companion can supply gas to be accreted, some of which may also undergo nuclear reactions. The combination of accretion energy and nuclear energy is responsible for the many kinds of astronomical events and sources that occur in these binaries. Examples are nova explosions, X-ray binaries, some kinds of supernovae, and (probably) gamma-ray bursters. All of these are bright enough to be studied throughout our own galaxy and in those nearby; the supernovae and gamma-ray bursters can be seen even when they are in very distant galaxies (but they are rare).

The measured masses, sizes, rotation periods, and surface temperatures of some neutron stars are very close to the maximum or minimum possible according to calculations. It has been suggested that

TABLE 1

Properties of White Dwarfs, Neutron Stars, and Black Holes
Black Holes
PropertyWhite DwarfsNeutron Stars (Stellar)
credit: Courtesy of Virginia Trimble.
Masses
(solar unites)0.4-1.41.2-2.26-10
Interior
compositionHe, C + O, O + Ne + Mg99 percent neutronsCannot tell
ProgenitorVery large or
star masses≤8-10≥8-10otherwise unusual
Example orPulsars, e.g.,Some MACHO events
evidencesirius BCP 0529 in Crab(gravitational lensing)
BinaryNovae and otherX-ray binaries,X-ray binaries,
phenomenacataslysmic variablese.g., Cen X-1e.g., Cyg X-1
Luminosity
solar units10-4-10Up to 104Up to 105
RotationMinutes to1.55 msec toNone (but disks
periodscenturieshoursmsec to minutes)
SurfaceNone (but fields
megnetic fields≤ 10-4-108.5 G108-1014 Gattached to disks)
Gravitational
redshifts from1-3 × 10-40.25infinite
surfce
Escape velocity-4,000 km/sec200,000 km/secc

the more extreme cases may be made not of pure neutrons but, at least at the centers, primarily of pions or even strange quarks.

Galaxies and Dark Matter

Galaxies as now seen are assemblages of stars—anything from a million to 1012 or more—often with 5 to 25 percent residual gas that is still forming stars. Galaxies come in a couple of characteristic shapes, called elliptical and spiral, and many others are irregular in appearance, either because there has not been time for gravitational processes to smooth them out or because they have been involved in a collision or near miss with another galaxy in the past few hundred million years. Both sorts of irregular galaxies are seen to be more common when looking back into the past by looking far away. This and other evidence indicate that galaxy formation was largely complete billions of years ago, though interactions (and star formation) are still going on. Small elliptical galaxies (called dwarf spheroidals) are the commonest sort of galaxy. Large spirals are the prettiest and so the kind most often shown in pictures.

Our galaxy is the Milky Way, a large spiral galaxy. It is part of a group including another large spiral (the Andromeda Nebula) and about three dozen smaller galaxies, called the Local Group (LG). The LG, in turn, is on the outskirts of a supercluster, whose center is a cluster of more than 1,000 large galaxies. It can be seen by looking through the star pattern of Virgo and so is called the Virgo Cluster. Hierarchical structure of galaxies, groups, clusters, and superclusters is typical. There seem to be no isolated galaxies (nor, for that matter, no more than a very few isolated stars, probably kicked out of their galaxies).

The largest structures have sizes about ten times our distance from the Virgo cluster (100 to 200 megaparsecs in the units actually used in astrophysics or 300 to 600 light-years in the units of science fiction and some well-meaning introductory books). The large-scale distribution of galaxies and clusters is more like sheets and filaments in a honeycomb, sponge, or foam than like matzoh balls in chicken soup. The space between the galaxies is very empty, with a density less than that of the space between the stars by a factor of 100,000 or more. On the other hand, while stars in the Milky Way are separated by distances that are millions of times their own sizes, galaxies in clusters are separated by only about ten times their diameters.

The process of galaxy formation is much less well understood than is star formation because there is a critical part of the physics about which very little is known. From 1922 onward, astronomers have gradually become aware, and forced themselves to accept, that the total masses of galaxies, clusters, and superclusters are very much larger than would have been supposed by adding up the masses of the stars and gas that contribute to their emission of light, radio waves, and X rays. This so-called dark matter reveals itself by exerting gravitational forces on the stars and galaxies we see, on the gas between them, and even on the very light rays that pass through clusters of galaxies (a process called gravitational lensing). The evidence therefore comes from measuring the motions of stars and galaxies, from the temperatures of X-ray emitting gas in elliptical galaxies and clusters, and from images of lensed galaxies and quasars (Figure 1).

The evidence is both internally consistent and quite strong for quasars. Alternative interpretations of the data have been attempted, but involve significant changes in the behavior of gravitation, which would have to differ from the familiar Newtonian and Einsteinian (general relativistic) versions very profoundly and in ways that probably disagree with other kinds of astrophysical data. The gradual increase in ratio of dark to luminous material as one looks on larger and larger scales, from cores of galaxies to their outskirts and to pairs, groups, clusters, and superclusters, means that the dark stuff is spread more uniformly through space than is the luminous stuff. Indeed, it would have been reasonable to guess that there would be still more dark matter entirely outside the largest structures seen. This does not seem to be the case.

Strangely, although the evidence for dark matter is very compelling, very little is known of its nature or behavior. This is a major stumbling block in trying to model the formation of galaxies and larger-scale structures, since these must arise by gravitational amplification of subtle variations in the density of matter when the universe was young. And most of the gravitational

FIGURE 1

attraction will come from the dark matter, whatever it is, because there is more of it than there is of ordinary matter. Thus it is possible to provide a table of dark matter candidates (Table 2), but no actual laboratory examples of dark matter, though searches for various sorts have been under way since about 1980.

Of course old white dwarfs and brown dwarfs (like stars but too small in mass for nuclear reactions to light them up) also exist, but there are too few of them to constitute most of the dark matter. Similarly, the evidence for small, but nonzero, rest mass for neutrinos is quite strong, but they are also not most of the dark matter. This leaves the field for the "cold" dark matter candidates (axions or WIMPs, also called neutralinos, lowest-mass-supersymmetric-particles, etc.), topological defects like monopoles, and the cosmological constant (also called quintessence).

Quasars, Other Active Galaxies, and Galactic Black Holes

The light of normal galaxies comes largely from stars and so is emitted by the whole body of the galaxy. About 1 percent of galaxies (at present, but much larger billions of years ago) display much larger luminosities in light, X rays, radio waves, or some combination, that either comes directly from a tiny core or nucleus of the galaxy or is clearly powered by streams of fast-moving particles from the nucleus. These are the active galaxies.

The main types of active galaxies are radio galaxies (ellipticals with blobs of radio-emitting plasma far outside their visible limits, connected to the nuclei by jets), quasars (also strong radio sources but with cores emitting more visible light than all the rest of the galaxy by a factor of 100 or more), quasi-stellar objects (QSO) (like quasars but without radio emission), blazars (QSOs with very rapid changes in luminosity and structure), and Seyfert galaxies (spirals with cores about as bright as the rest of the galaxy).

When the radio galaxies and quasars were first recognized between 1954 and 1963, it was suggested that they might be collisions between normal galaxies and galaxies made of antimatter. This would have been very important as evidence about the symmetry between matter and antimatter, but it was the wrong answer because it predicted strong emission in gamma rays, which is not seen. The rapid firing of many supernova explosions in galactic centers also did not fit all the observations. What has turned out to work is the presence of a massive black hole at the center of an active galaxy, accreting stars and gas from its surroundings and using some of the energy that is released by the accretion to accelerate relativistic particles and amplify magnetic fields. These, in turn, radiate the photons we see.

Evidence for the black holes and their masses (from about a million to perhaps as much as 10 billion solar masses) comes from (1) the large luminosities, (2) the rapid variability, (3) the strong concentration of light in a cusp at the very center, and (4) the large velocities of stars and gas in that central cusp. Simple calculations show that a quasar can last for at most 1 percent of the age of the universe, and observations show that they were much

TABLE 2

Dark Matter Candidates
Type Properties Comments
credit: Courtesy of Virginia Trimble.
Old while dwarfsBaryonicKnown to exist = 5 percent of total
brown dwarfs
Neutrinos withHot dark matterAlmost certainly exist,
m ≠ 0(large velocities when galaxies from)= 5 percent of total
AxionsParticle m « electron mass.Predicted by theories beyond the
Cold (i.e. small velocitiesStandard Model; could be
When galaxies from)20-35 percent of total
WIMPs, neutralinosParticle m ≈ protonPredicted by theories beyond the
lowest massmassStandard Model; could be
supersymmetricCold.20-35 percent of total
partners,inos
Monopoles, stringsSeeds for galaxy formationPredicted by symmetry breaking
domain wallsat phase changes; small fraction of
texturestotal
CosmologicalPressure negativeCould be 60-79 percent of total;
constant, quintessence,some observational evidence in
of dark energyfavor

commoner in the past. Thus "dead quasars" (that is, black holes that are not currently accreting very much and so are not very bright) are expected inside many normal galaxies. The strongest evidence comes from the Milky Way, where the motions of the stars and gas near the center indicate that there is a central core of about three million solar masses, too compact to be anything except a single, massive black hole.

See also:Big Bang; Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation; Cosmic Rays; Cosmological Constant; Cosmology; Hubble Constant; Inflation; Neutrino, Solar; Supernovae

Bibliography

Cox, A. N. Allen's Astrophysical Quantities, 4th ed. (Springer-Verlag, New York, 2000).

Lang, K. R. Astrophysical Data, 2nd ed. (Springer-Verlag, New York, 1992).

Lang, K. R. Astrophysical Formulae, 3rd ed. (Springer-Verlag, New York, 1999).

Trimble, V. "Existence and Nature of Dark Matter in the Universe." Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics25 , 425–472 (1987).

Virginia Trimble

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Astrophysics

Astrophysics

Astrophysics describes the processes that give rise to the observable features of our universe in terms of previously developed physical theories. It ties together physics and astronomy by describing astronomical phenomena in terms of the physics and chemistry we are familiar with in our everyday life.


Background

Why do the stars shine? How did our galaxy form? Will the universe expand forever? These are the types of questions asked by astrophysicists in an attempt to understand the processes which cause our universe, and everything in it, to behave the way it does. From the low-energy gravitational interactions between planets and stars, to the violent, high energy processes occurring in the centers of galaxies, astrophysical theories are used to explain what we see, and to understand how phenomena are related.

For thousands of years, astronomy was simply an observational science—humans could observe phenomena in the sky, but had no physical explanation for what they saw. Early humans could offer only supernatural explanations for what they observed, which seemed drastically different from what they experienced in everyday life. Only in the twentieth century have scientists been able to explain many astronomical phenomena in terms of detailed physical theories, relating them to the same chemistry and physics at work in our everyday lives.

Astrophysical experiments, unlike experiments in many other sciences, cannot be done under controlled conditions or repeated in a laboratory; the energies, distances, and time scales involved are simply too great. As a result, astrophysicists are forced into the role of observer, watching events as they happen without being able to control the parameters of the experiment.

For centuries, humans have made such observations and attempted to understand the forces at work. But how did scientists develop our picture of the universe if they could not reproduce what they see in the laboratory? Instead of controlling the experiments, they used what data they were able to obtain in order to develop theories based on extensions of the physical laws which govern our day-to-day experiences on Earth .

Astrophysics often involves the creation of mathematical models as a means of interpreting observations. This theoretical is important not just for explaining what has already been seen, but also for predicting other observable effects. These models are often based on well-established physics, but often must be simplified, because real astronomical phenomena can be enormously complex.


Processes in the universe

Even looking close to the Earth, in our own solar system we see widely varying conditions. The properties of the rocky planet Mercury, very close to the Sun , differ dramatically from those of the gas giant Saturn , with its complex ring structure, and from the cold, icy Pluto . But the range of variations found in our solar system is minuscule when compared to that of the stars, galaxies, and more exotic objects such as quasars. The properties of all of these objects, however, can be measured by observation, and an understanding of how they work can be reached by the extension and application of the same physical laws with which we are familiar.

The first astrophysical concept or law to be recognized was the law of gravity. We are all familiar with the force of gravity. Although it is a very weak force compared to the other fundamental forces of nature, it is the dominant factor determining the structure and the fate of the universe. Large structures, such as galaxies, and smaller ones, such as stars and planets, coalesced due to the force of gravity, which acts over vast distances of space .

Much of the evolution of our universe is due to gravity's effects. However, scientists generally hold the view that the understanding of atomic processes marks the true beginning of astrophysics. Indeed, even such enormous objects as stars are governed by the interaction and behavior of atoms . Thus it is often said that astrophysics began in the early decades of the twentieth century, when quantum mechanics and atomic physics were born.

Importance of instrumentation

Scientists learn about distant objects by measuring the properties that we can observe directly—by detecting emissions from the objects. The most common measurements are of electromagnetic radiation , extending from radio waves , through visible wavelengths to high energy gamma rays. Each time a class of objects has been studied in a new wavelength region, astrophysicists gain insights into composition, structure, and properties. Emissions from each wavelength region are generated by and affected by different processes, and so provide fresh understanding of the object. For this reason, the development of new instrumentation has been crucial to the development of astrophysics.

The development of space instrumentation that can detect photons before they are obscured by the Earth's atmosphere has been critical to our understanding of the universe. Large space-based observatories, such as the Hubble Space Telescope , continually spawn major advances in astrophysics due to their ability to study the universe over specific regions of the electromagnetic spectrum with unprecedented sensitivity. In addition, probes such as the Voyagers, which visited most of the outer planets of our solar system, have provided detailed measurements of the physical environment throughout our solar system. The use of spectroscopy , which can determine the chemical composition of distant objects from their wavelength distribution, is a particularly important tool of the astrophysicist.

In addition to the photons of electromagnetic radiation, emitted particles can be detected. These can be protons and electrons, the constituents of ordinary matter on Earth (though often with extremely high energies), or ghostly neutrinos, which only weakly interact with matter on Earth (and are thus extremely difficult to detect), but help us learn about the nuclear reactions which power stars.

Astrophysics proceeds through hypothesis, prediction, and test (via observation), its common belief being that laws of physics are consistent throughout the universe. These laws of physics have served us well, and scientists are most skeptical of proposed explanations that violate them.

See also Cosmology; Gamma-ray astronomy; Infrared astronomy; Pulsar; Quasar; Relativity, general; Relativity, special; Spectral classification of stars; Spectral lines; Star; Telescope; Ultraviolet astronomy; X-ray astronomy.

Resources

books

Audouze, Jean, Guy and Israël, eds. The Cambridge Atlas ofAstronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Bacon, Dennis Henry, and Percy Seymour. A Mechanical History of the Universe. London: Philip Wilson Publishing, Ltd., 2003.

Introduction to Astronomy and Astrophysics. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.

Kaufmann, William J. III. Discovering the Universe. 2nd ed. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1990.

Pasachoff, Jay M. Contemporary Astronomy. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders College Publishing, 1989.


David Sahnow

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