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How Solar Systems Speak to Us

14 Oct 2018, 18:07 UTC
How Solar Systems Speak to Us
(200 words excerpt, click title or image to see full post)

How do we know what’s going on in protoplanetary disks? Visible light telescopes don’t reveal much, because the thick dust obscures their view. Luckily, each kind of molecule in a protoplanetary disk broadcast at unique sets of wavelengths that can be detected by radio telescopes.
How do molecules broadcast their presence to us? When molecules collide or react, they emit energy in the form of light. But molecules naturally emit radio waves on their own, based on their temperature and the arrangement of their protons and electrons. The quantum structure of each molecule determines the very precise wavelength of light or set of wavelengths that each kind of molecule can emit. Scientists refer to these sets of wavelengths as spectra—a molecule’s signature. And we can test it back on Earth in the lab. So when we tune our radio telescopes to the far reaches of our galaxy, we know what we’re looking for.
Viewing protoplanetary disks involves a collaborative effort between telescopes that specialize in different functions. The National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope, which sees longer wavelengths, can figure out where matter is concentrated. The Very Large Array can see large dust particles, which makes the VLA good for ...

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