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What is Astrophysics?

Hubble Snaps 'Monkey Head' Nebula
The Hubble mosaic unveils a collection of carved knots of gas and dust in a small portion of the Monkey Head Nebula (also known as NGC 2174 and Sharpless Sh2-252). The nebula is a star-forming region that hosts dusky dust clouds silhouetted against glowing gas.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Astrophysics is a branch of space science that applies the laws of physics and chemistry to explain the birth, life and death of stars, planets, galaxies, nebulae and other objects in the universe. It has two sibling sciences, astronomy and cosmology, and the lines between them blur. 

In the most rigid sense:

  • Astronomy measures positions, luminosities, motions and other characteristics
  • Astrophysics creates physical theories of small to medium-size structures in the universe
  • Cosmology does this for the largest structures, and the universe as a whole. 

In practice, the three professions form a tight-knit family. Ask for the position of a nebula or what kind of light it emits, and the astronomer might answer first. Ask what the nebula is made of and how it formed and the astrophysicist will pipe up. Ask how the data fit with the formation of the universe, and the cosmologist would probably jump in. But watch out — for any of these questions, two or three may start talking at once!

Goals of astrophysics

Astrophysicists seek to understand the universe and our place in it. At NASA, the goals of astrophysics are "to discover how the universe work, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars," according NASA's website.

NASA states that those goals produce three broad questions:

  • How does the universe work?
  • How did we get here?
  • Are we alone?

It began with Newton

While astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, theoretical astrophysics began with Isaac Newton. Prior to Newton, astronomers described the motions of heavenly bodies using complex mathematical models without a physical basis. Newton showed that a single theory simultaneously explains the orbits of moons and planets in space and the trajectory of a cannonball on Earth. This added to the body of evidence for the (then) startling conclusion that the heavens and Earth are subject to the same physical laws. [Related: How Isaac Newton Changed the World]

Perhaps what most completely separated Newton’s model from previous ones is that it is predictive as well as descriptive. Based on aberrations in the Newtonian orbit of Uranus, astronomers predicted the position of a new planet, which was then observed and named Neptune. Being predictive as well as descriptive is the sign of a mature science, and astrophysics is in this category.

Milestones in astrophysics

Because the only way we interact with distant objects is by observing the radiation they emit, much of astrophysics has to do with deducing theories that explain the mechanisms that produce this radiation, and provide ideas for how to extract the most information from it. The first ideas about the nature of stars emerged in the mid-19th century from the blossoming science of spectral analysis, which means observing the specific frequencies of light that particular substances absorb and emit when heated. Spectral analysis remains essential to the triumvirate of space sciences, both guiding and testing new theories.

Early spectroscopy provided the first evidence that stars contain substances also present on Earth. Spectroscopy revealed that some nebulae are purely gaseous, while some contain stars. This later helped cement the idea that some nebulae were not nebulae at all — they were other galaxies! 

In the early 1920s, Cecilia Payne discovered, using spectroscopy, that stars are predominantly hydrogen (at least until their old age). The spectra of stars also allowed astrophysicists to determine the speed at which they move toward or away from Earth. Just like the sound a vehicle emits is different moving toward us or away from us, because of the Doppler shift, the spectra of stars will change in the same way. In the 1930s, by combining the Doppler shift and Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Edwin Hubble provided solid evidence that the universe is expanding. This is also predicted by Einstein’s theory, and together form the basis of the Big Bang Theory.

Also in the mid-19th century, the physicists Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) and Gustav Von Helmholtz speculated that gravitational collapse could power the sun, but eventually realized that energy produced this way would only last 100,000 years. Fifty years later, Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation gave astrophysicists the first clue to what the true source of energy might be (although it turns out that gravitational collapse does play an important role). As nuclear physics, quantum mechanics and particle physics grew in the first half of the 20th century, it became possible to formulate theories for how nuclear fusion could power stars. These theories describe how stars form, live and die, and successfully explain the observed distribution of types of stars, their spectra, luminosities, ages, and other features.

Astrophysics is the physics of stars and other distant bodies in the universe, but it also hits close to home. According to the Big Bang Theory, the first stars were almost entirely hydrogen. The nuclear fusion process that energizes them smashes together hydrogen atoms to form the heavier element helium. In 1957, the husband-and-wife astronomer team of Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, along with physicists William Alfred Fowler and Fred Hoyle, showed how, as stars age, they produce heavier and heavier elements, which they pass on to later generations of stars in ever-greater quantities. It is only in the final stages of the lives of more recent stars that the elements making up the Earth, such as iron (32.1 percent), oxygen (30.1 percent), silicon (15.1 percent), are produced. Another of these elements is carbon, which together with oxygen, make up the bulk of the mass of all living things including us. Thus, astrophysics tells us that, while we are not all stars, we are all stardust.

Ariel Balter has a Ph.D. in physics. He teaches and writes about science. 

Further reading

A History of Astrophysics

The Glassmaker Who Sparked Astrophysics

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