Radiation in Space Gives Clues about the Universe

A sample of telescopes (operating as of February 2013) at wavelengths across the electromagnetic spectrum. Several of these observatories observe more than one band of the EM spectrum. NASA

Astronomy is the study of objects in the universe that radiate (or reflect) energy from across the electromagnetic spectrum. Astronomers study radiation from all objects in the universe. Let's take an in-depth look at the forms of radiation out there.

Image of space, with a colorful cloud surrounding a star that projects beams of light in two directions, with a planet illuminated nearby.
Artwork of a planet orbiting a pulsar. Pulsars are very rapidly spinning neutron stars are the dead cores of massive stars and rotating on their axes often hundreds of times every second. They radiate radio waves and in optical light. Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library (Getty Images)

Importance to Astronomy

In order to completely understand the universe, scientists must look at it across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. This includes the high-energy particles such as cosmic rays. Some objects and processes are actually completely invisible in certain wavelengths (even optical), which is why astronomers look at them in many wavelengths. Something invisible at one wavelength or frequency may be very bright in another, and that tells scientists something very important about it.

Types of Radiation

Radiation describes elementary particles, nuclei, and electromagnetic waves as they propagate through space. Scientists typically reference radiation in two ways: ionizing and non-ionizing.

Ionizing Radiation

Ionization is the process by which electrons are removed from an atom. This happens all the time in nature, and it merely requires the atom to collide with a photon or a particle with enough energy to excite the election(s). When this happens, the atom can no longer maintain its bond to the particle.

Certain forms of radiation carry enough energy to ionize various atoms or molecules. They can cause significant harm to biological entities by causing cancer or other significant health problems. The extent of the radiation damage is a matter of how much radiation was absorbed by the organism.

electromagnetic spectrum
The electromagnetic spectrum show as a function of frequence/wavelength and temperature. Chandra X-Ray Observatory

The minimum threshold energy needed for radiation to be considered ionizing is about 10 electron volts (10 eV). There are several forms of radiation that naturally exist above this threshold:

  • Gamma-rays: Gamma rays (usually designated by the Greek letter γ) are a form of electromagnetic radiation. They represent the highest energy forms of light in the universe. Gamma rays occur from a variety of processes, ranging from activity inside nuclear reactors to stellar explosions called supernovae and highly energetic events known as gamma-ray bursters. Since gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation, they do not readily interact with atoms unless a head-on collision occurs. In this case the gamma ray will "decay" into an electron-positron pair. However, should a gamma ray be absorbed by a biological entity (e.g. a person), then significant harm can be done as it takes a considerable amount of energy to stop such radiation. In this sense, gamma rays are perhaps the most dangerous form of radiation to humans. Luckily, while they can penetrate several miles into our atmosphere before they interact with an atom, our atmosphere is thick enough that most gamma rays are absorbed before they reach the ground. However, astronauts in space lack protection from them, and are limited to the amount of time that they can spend "outside" a spacecraft or space station. While very high doses of gamma radiation can be fatal, the most likely outcome to repeated exposures to above-average doses of gamma-rays (like those experienced by astronauts, for instance) is an increased risk of cancer. This is something that life sciences experts in the world's space agencies study closely.
  • X-rays: x-rays are, like gamma rays, a form of electromagnetic waves (light). They are usually broken up into two classes: soft x-rays (those with the longer wavelengths) and hard x-rays (those with the shorter wavelengths). The shorter the wavelength (i.e. the harder the x-ray) the more dangerous it is. This is why lower energy x-rays are used in medical imaging. The x-rays will typically ionize smaller atoms, while larger atoms can absorb the radiation as they have larger gaps in their ionization energies. This is why x-ray machines will image things like bones very well (they are composed of heavier elements) while they are poor imagers of soft tissue (lighter elements). It is estimated that x-ray machines, and other derivative devices, account for between 35-50% of the ionizing radiation experienced by people in the United States.
  • Alpha Particles: An alpha particle (designated by the Greek letter α) consists of two protons and two neutrons; exactly the same composition as a helium nucleus. Focusing on the alpha decay process that creates them, here's what happens: the alpha particle is ejected from the parent nucleus with very high speed (therefore high energy), usually in excess of 5% of the speed of light. Some alpha particles come to Earth in the form of cosmic rays and may achieve speeds in excess of 10% of the speed of light. Generally, however, alpha particles interact over very short distances, so here on Earth, alpha particle radiation is not a direct threat to life. It is simply absorbed by our outer atmosphere. However, it is a danger for astronauts. 
  • Beta Particles: The result of beta decay, beta particles (usually described by the Greek letter Β) are energetic electrons that escape when a neutron decays into a proton, electron, and anti-neutrino. These electrons are more energetic than alpha particles but less so than high energy gamma rays. Normally, beta particles are not of concern to human health as they are easily shielded. Artificially created beta particles (like in accelerators) can penetrate the skin more readily as they have considerably higher energy. Some places use these particle beams to treat various kinds of cancer because of their ability to target very specific regions. However, the tumor needs to be near the surface as not to damage significant amounts of interspersed tissue.
  • Neutron Radiation: Very high-energy neutrons are created during nuclear fusion or nuclear fission processes. They can then be absorbed by an atomic nucleus, causing the atom to go into an excited state and it can emit gamma-rays. These photons will then excite the atoms around them, creating a chain-reaction, leading to the area to become radioactive. This is one of the primary ways humans are injured while working around nuclear reactors without proper protective gear.

    Non-ionizing Radiation

    While ionizing radiation (above) gets all the press about being harmful to humans, non-ionizing radiation can also have significant biological effects. For instance, non-ionizing radiation can cause things like sunburns. Yet, it is what we use to cook food in microwave ovens. Non-ionizing radiation can also come in the form of thermal radiation, which can heat material (and hence atoms) to high enough temperatures to cause ionization. However, this process is considered different than kinetic or photon ionization processes.

    radio telescopes
    The Karl Jansky Very Large Array of radio telescopes is located near Socorro, New Mexico. This array focuses on radio emissions from a variety of objects and processes in the sky. NRAO/AUI
    • Radio Waves: Radio waves are the longest wavelength form of electromagnetic radiation (light). They span 1 millimeter to 100 kilometers. This range, however, overlaps with the microwave band (see below). Radio waves are produced naturally by active galaxies (specifically from the area around their supermassive black holes), pulsars and in supernova remnants. But they are also created artificially for the purposes of radio and television transmission.
    • Microwaves: Defined as wavelengths of light between 1 millimeter and 1 meter (1,000 millimeters), microwaves are sometimes considered to be a subset of radio waves. In fact, radio astronomy is generally the study of the microwave band, as longer wavelength radiation is very difficult to detect as it would require detectors of immense size; hence only a few peer beyond the 1-meter wavelength. While non-ionizing, microwaves can still be dangerous to humans as it can impart a large amount of thermal energy to an item due to its interactions with water and water vapor. (This is also why microwave observatories are typically placed in high, dry places on Earth, as to lessen the amount of interference that water vapor in our atmosphere can cause to the experiment.
    • Infrared Radiation: Infrared radiation is the band of electromagnetic radiation that occupies wavelengths between 0.74 micrometers up to 300 micrometers. (There are 1 million micrometers in one meter.) Infrared radiation is very close to optical light, and therefore very similar techniques are used to study it. However, there are some difficulties to overcome; namely infrared light is produced by objects comparable to "room temperature". Since electronics used to power and control infrared telescopes will run at such temperatures, the instruments themselves will give off infrared light, interfering with data acquisition. Therefore the instruments are cooled using liquid helium, so as to lessen extraneous infrared photons from entering the detector. Most of what the Sun emits that reaches Earth's surface is actually infrared light, with the visible radiation not far behind (and ultraviolet a distant third).
    infrared astronomy
    An infrared view of a cloud of gas and dust made by Spitzer Space Telescope. The "Spider and Fly" Nebula is a star-forming region and Spitzer's infrared view shows structures in the cloud affected by a cluster of newborn stars. Spitzer Space Telescope/NASA
    • Visible (Optical) Light: The range of wavelengths of visible light is 380 nanometers (nm) and 740 nm. This is the electromagnetic radiation that we are able to detect with our own eyes, all other forms are invisible to us without electronic aids. Visible light is actually only a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is why it is important to study all other wavelengths in astronomy as to get a complete picture of the universe and to understand the physical mechanisms that govern the heavenly bodies.
    • Blackbody Radiation: A blackbody is an object that emits electromagnetic radiation when it is heated, the peak wavelength of light produced will be proportional to the temperature (this is known as Wien's Law). There is no such thing as a perfect blackbody, but many objects like our Sun, the Earth and the coils on your electric stove are pretty good approximations.
    • Thermal Radiation: As particles inside of a material move due to their temperature the resulting kinetic energy can be described as the total thermal energy of the system. In the case of a blackbody object (see above) the thermal energy can be released from the system in the form of electromagnetic radiation.

      Radiation, as we can see, is one of the fundamental aspects of the universe. Without it, we would not have light, heat, energy, or life.