Astro Glossary

  • Radiation

    Energy that travels through space at the speed of light. The total range of electromagnetic wavelengths and frequencies is called the electromagnetic spectrum. Our eyes are sensitive to a sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum we call visible light, from red to blue. Beyond the blue end, as wavelength decreases and frequency increases, lie ultraviolet light, X-rays, and gamma-rays. In the other direction past red, as wavelength increases and frequency decreases, lies infrared, microwave, and radio regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio waves are the longest, extending on the order of meters, while X-rays and gamma-rays are the shortest, on the order of atomic size. Light wavelengths are measured in microns, millionths of meters. For all forms of electromagnetic radiation, the speed of light must remain constant, regardless of wavelength or frequency.

  • Radio Astronomy

    A very unenergetic wavelength, or frequency, of light. Radio waves are the least energetic form of radiation known. They have wavelengths longer than 10^-3 meters and frequencies less than 10^11 Hz. Radio waves are not harmful to life because they are not strong enough to ionize atoms or destroy cells. While the Earth’s atmosphere shields us from some radio radiation, it does allow radio waves in the vicinity of VHF, UHF, and FM frequencies to pass through. Astronomers study waves that pass through this “radio window” with large radio telescopes or antennas, which resemble giant satellite dishes. Often, many radio antennas are coordinated together to synthesize even bigger telescopes, such as the Very Large Array in New Mexico. In addition to astronomy, radio waves have many useful applications on Earth, such as television and radio broadcasts and RADAR.

  • Radio Galaxies

    A particular type of active galaxy that emits more light at radio wavelengths than at visible wavelengths, also known as a radio-luminous galaxy or radio-loud galaxy. Radio galaxies are driven by non-thermal emission. Radio telescopes show that some radio galaxies, called extended radio galaxies, have lobes of radio emission extending millions of light-years from their nuclei. Centaurus A is a nearby example of an extended radio galaxy that features two outer lobes 650,000 and 1,350,000 light-years in diameter. In contrast, compact radio galaxies emit radio lobes not much larger than the galactic nucleus.

  • red dwarf

  • Red Dwarfs

    Small, cool stars on the main sequence. Red dwarfs constitute the majority of stars and have a mass of less than one-half of the Sun.

  • Red Giants

    A state of stellar evolution beyond the main-sequence life of a star. A red giant core is degenerate ionized helium, surrounded by a shell of hydrogen fusion, that expands the outer atmosphere in response to higher core temperatures. The hydrogen fusing shell eats through the surrounding atmosphere and deposits helium onto the shrinking core. The ballooning atmosphere cools and glows red; hence red giant. The Sun will become a red giant the size of Earth’s orbit in five to six billion years. Once the helium core reaches 100 million degrees, it explosively begins fusing helium. The birth of the active helium core is called the helium flash. The Sun as a red giant will fuse helium for about 2 billion years after the helium flash.

  • Regulus

    A blue-white star in the constellation Leo.

  • Relativity

    Einstein general theory of relativity is the best model for gravity so far, and has been confirmed in experiments and observations. According to the theory, regardless of one’s point of view (as measured by speed and direction), physical law and the speed of light are unchanged. This implies that measurements made in time and space are not absolute, but relative to your particular point of view or reference frame. General relativity led to concepts and theories such as black hole, parallel universes, worm holes, and space-time. Special relativity is Einstein’s rejection of the notion that space and time are absolute, based on the observation that the speed of light is independent of the motion of an observer. No matter how fast someone runs toward you with a flashlight, the speed of the light that flashlight emits will always remain the same. From this foundation, Einstein constructed a revolutionary model of gravity and a universe full of unexpected surprises like black hole, gravity waves, time dilation, and the equivalence of mass and energy: E=Mc^2. Astronomers and astrophysicists regularly use the theoretical tools of special relativity to interpret and analyze light.

  • Retrograde Motion

    The temporary apparent backward motion of a planet in the sky, from east to west, caused by the geometry between the Earth and planet. Due to this geometry, only planets that orbit outside the orbit of the Earth are observed to have retrograde motion.

  • Rigel

    A young blue supergiant star 800 light-years away that marks the right foot of the constellation Orion, the hunter.

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