A Far And Dusty Traveler

Cathleen takes the mic. “Quick coffee and scone break, folks, then Jim will continue our ‘IR, Spitzer And The Universe‘ symposium.” <pause> “OK, we’re back in business. Jim?”

“Thanks, Cathleen. Well, we’ve discussed finding astronomical molecules with infra-red. Now for a couple of other IR applications. First up — looking at things that are really far away. Everyone here knows that the Universe is expanding, right?”

<general murmur of assent, although the probably-an-Art-major looks startled>

“Great. Because of the expansion, light from a far-away object gets stretched out to longer wavelengths on its way to us. Say a sodium atom shot a brilliant yellow-gold 590-nanometer photon at us, but at the time the atom was 12.5 million lightyears away. By the time that wave reaches us it’s been broadened to 3540 nanometers, comfortably into the infra-red. Distant things are redder, sometimes too red to see with an optical telescope. The Spitzer Space Telescope‘s infra-red optics let us see those reddened photons. And then there’s dust.”

<voice from the crowd> “Dust?”

Cosmic dust, pretty much all the normal matter that’s not clumped into stars and planets. Some of it is leftovers from early times in the Universe, but much of it is stellar wind. Stars continuously spew particles in their normal day-to-day operation. There’s a lot more of that when one explodes as a nova or supernova. Dust particles come in all sizes but most are smaller than the ones in tobacco smoke.”

<same voice> “If they’re so small, why do we care about them?”

“Two reasons. First, there’s a lot of them. Maybe only a thousand particles per cubic kilometer of space, but there’s a huge number of cubic kilometers in space and they add up. More important is what the dust particles are made of and where we found them. Close inspection of the dust is like doing astronomical archaeology, giving us clues about how stars and galaxies evolved.”

<Vinnie, skeptical as always> “So what’s infra-red got to do with dust?”

“Depends on what kind of astronomy you’re interested in. Dust reflects and emits IR light. Frequency patterns in the light can tell us what that dust made of. On the other hand there’s the way that dust doesn’t interact with infra-red.”

<several voices> “Wait, what?”

The Milky Way from Black Rock Desert NV
By Steve Jurvetson via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

“If Al’s gotten his video system working … ah, he has and it does. Look at this gorgeous shot of the Milky Way Galaxy. See all the dark areas? That’s dust blocking the visible light. The scattered stars in those areas are simply nearer to us than the clouds. We’d like to study what’s back beyond the clouds, especially near the galaxy’s core. That’s a really interesting region but the clouds block its visible light. Here’s the neat part — the clouds don’t block its infra-red light.”

<other voices> “Huh?” “Why wouldn’t they?”

“It’s the size of the waves versus the size of the particles. Take an extreme case — what’s the wavelength of Earth’s ocean tides?”

<Silence, so I speak up.> “Two high tides a day, so the wavelength is half the Earth’s circumference or about 12’500 miles.”

“Right. Now say you’re at the beach and you’re out there wading and the water’s calm. Would you notice the tide?”

“No, rise or fall would be too gentle to affect me.”

“Now let’s add a swell whose peak-to-peak wavelength is about human-height scale.”

“Whoa, I’d be dragged back and forth as each wave passes.”

“Just for grins, let’s replace that swell with waves the same height but only a millimeter apart. Oh, and you’re wearing SCUBA equipment.”

“Have mercy! Well, I should be able to stand in place because I wouldn’t even feel the peaks and troughs as separate waves, just a foamy massage. Thanks for the breathing assistance, though.”

“You’re welcome, and thanks for helping with the thought experiment. Most cosmic dust particles are less than 100 nanometers across. Infra-red wavelengths run 100 to 1000 times longer than that. Infra-red light from those cloud-hidden stars just curves around particles that can stop visible lightwaves cold. Spitzer Space Telescope and its IR-sensitive kin provide deeper and further views than visible light allows.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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