Stars’ home

A few weeks ago we talked about radio telescopes and said that they were very important for the study of different astrophysical phenomena. Today, we are going to talk about the interstellar medium and will see that, in some cases, radio telescopes are useful to study it.

When we look at the sky, we see with a naked eye a lot of stars and still there are many more. In some cases, we can distinguish other objects that have a magnitude enough to see them with a naked eye, like nebulae or galaxies, but if we look at them without knowing what we are looking at, we may mix them up with unremarkable stars due to we cannot distinguish their shape and extension. However when we look at a region where we don’t see anything, we may think that it is an empty region, but actually it is not empty at all.

Between stars, it exists what it is called the interstellar medium and, although we don’t see it, it is impressive and deserves being studied because of what it implies: it is the place where the stars are born.

Interstellar medium is primarily made of gas, concretely hydrogen gas which is the main component; although it also contains traces of other “heavier” chemical components like helium, carbon, nitrogen or oxygen among others, which are in very small quantities. The reason why these heavier elements exist is that the interstellar medium is not only the place where stars are born, but also the place where they die. When a star evolves, it generates heavier elements in its interior through nuclear fusion processes. When the star dies, like in the case of a supernova, it spreads these elements that are incorporated to the interstellar medium.

The hydrogen we find in the interstellar medium can be in three different states: neutral hydrogen or HI, molecular hydrogen or H2 and ionized hydrogen or HII. To understand these three states, we have to know that hydrogen is the simplest atom because it only has a nucleus made of one proton and an electron bound to it. When hydrogen has this simple structure it is called neutral hydrogen and when it is ionized, that is, when the atom has been given enough energy to provoke that the electron is released from the electrical attraction of the proton is called ionized hydrogen. The third state, the molecular hydrogen, is formed when two hydrogen atoms are bound sharing their respective electrons.

The presence and abundance of these states determines the existence of three types of regions, which are named as: atomic gas regions or HI regions, molecular gas regions or H2 regions and ionized gas regions or HII regions.

HI regions are very cold areas (with minimum temperatures around 30K) which are studied using the 21 cm line of the electromagnetic spectrum which is the range of radio wavelengths, and thus studied using radio telescopes. There can be regions in the sky where, when observing them in visible wavelengths, we don’t see anything, but if we observe them in the 21 cm line, we see that wherever we point the radio telescope we will always detect a signal.

This signal corresponds with a photon emitted when the spins of the electrons and protons are return to a state where they are not aligned after having been aligned, for instance, because of a collision between atoms. The fact that this line can be observed, regardless of the direction we observe, is a proof that atomic hydrogen is everywhere.

We can also use the Doppler Effect to determine how HI regions move. If the 21 cm line is shifted to the part of the spectrum where there are longer wavelengths, it means that the region is approaching us and if it is shifted to the shorter wavelengths part, it means that it is moving away from us. These observations provide us with information, for example, about the rotation of the Galaxy around its centre.


The sky in the 21cm line (Source: NASA APOD. Credits: J. Dickey (UMn), F. Lockman (NRAO), SkyView)

Also, when we observe the sky in the visible part, we see that there are areas densely populated with stars, but between them it seems that there are empty spaces and areas completely dark. These regions are actually molecular hydrogen and dust clouds, being the dust the responsible for the darkness. Molecular hydrogen regions are even colder than HI regions (around a minimum temperature of 10 K, but more dense). These regions are very important because it is inside them where the stars are born. Sadly, there is not a specific line, as in the case of HI region, to observe them. In fact, it is quite difficult to observe molecular hydrogen because H2 is a molecule without a dipolar moment and does not present lines similar to the 21 cm line (concretely it does not present rotational lines. It does have vibrational lines, but it is necessary a very high energy to produce transitions that generate these lines. These conditions are not present in every part of the cloud, only in the proximity of stars being formed which provides very little information about the rest of the cloud).

If the dust prevents us to observe in the visible part of the spectrum and there is not a clear line to observe in the radio wavelengths, how can we observe these regions?

As we have mentioned before, there other heavier elements in the interstellar medium and these elements form molecules that, although its abundance is lower, they let us observe the interior of these clouds. One of these molecules is the Carbon monoxide (CO) which has a net dipolar moment and thus emits rotational lines that can be observed using radio telescopes. Ammonia (NH3) also helps us to look at the inside of these clouds. In this way we can study the environment where the stars are born through its density and temperature, for example.


Barnard 68. A molecular cloud (Source: NASA APOD. Credits. FORS Team, 8.2-meter VLT Antu, ESO)

When stars, in the interior of molecular clouds, are being formed, they are young and with a lot of energy and thus they emit very high energy radiation (in the range of ultraviolet wavelengths) what ionizes the hydrogen in the clouds and becomes HII. HII regions are thus very hot. Even though, the interstellar dust does not permit us to observe the interior of the clouds and we have to, again, use radio telescopes. The radiation these brand new stars emits provokes, in the HII regions, the generation of bremsstrahlung radiation (braking radiation). This radiation appears when an electron approaches an atom of ionized hydrogen which makes that the electron is deviated from its trajectory emitting a radiation that, because there is a lot of electron approaching a lot of protons at different distances, makes to appear a continuous spectrum of radiation. In this case the bremsstrahlung radiation is studied in the range of X-Rays and thus we do not use radio telescopes to study it, however combining the X-rays information with the one in X-Rays when studying molecular clouds, the information obtained is very valuable.


Messier 17 or Omega Nebulae. An HII region (Source: NASA APOD. Crédits: Subaru Telescope (NAOJ), Hubble Space Telescope, Color data: Wolfgang Promper, Processing: Robert Gendler)

As we have seen, there are many things that our eyes cannot see with a naked eye or even using conventional telescopes. The interstellar medium is, in many aspects, an unsolved mystery. Either using radio telescopes or any other type of detectors, we still have a long way to go. Meanwhile we can enjoy some of the beautiful images that other telescopes have gathered throughout the years, like one of my favorites The Orion Nebula.


M42 or Orion Nebula (Source: NASA APOD. Credits: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (STScI/ESA) et al.)

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