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Spectroscopy uses the principle first suggested by Isaac Newton, that white light is a combination of many different colors of light, and a prism can be used to separate white light into a rainbow called a spectrum (plural: spectra). In 1814 Joseph von Fraunhofer shone sunlight through a prism, then magnified the spectrum. He was surprised to see over 600 fine, dark lines in the Sun's spectrum. These lines are called spectral lines.

About 50 years later, Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff used a gas burner invented by Bunsen (a Bunsen burner) which produced a clean flame with no color of its own. They added different substances to the flame, then passed the emitted light through a prism. They soon discovered that each chemical element produces its own unique pattern of spectral lines.

When a substance is very hot, it will emit light at all wavelengths in a continuous spectrum. If a continuous spectrum of light passes through a gas cloud, atoms in that gas will absorb certain wavelengths of light. The rest of the light will pass right through the cloud. So in this case astronomers would see an absorption line spectrum, where certain wavelengths of light have been absorbed by the gas. When astronomers view a spectrum from a gas that does not have a light source behind it, they will see the wavelengths that the gas emits. This is called an emission line spectrum. Absorption lines and emission lines will be in the same place for the same gas. These lines can be explained by the behavior of electrons in an atom.

Image split into 3 parts. Part 1 shows the spectrum from a light source. Part 2 shows light passing through a gas cloud, and the spectrum now shows an absorption line. Part 3 shows the emission line of the gas cloud.

Example of absorption and emission spectra.

Electron Energy Levels

Light can be thought of as both a wave and a particle. A particle of light is called a photon, but has many properties of a wave such as wavelength and frequency.

To understand the spectral lines they were observing, scientists needed to develop a better model of the atom than they had at the time. Niels Bohr studied the spectra of hydrogen and was the first to come up with an explanation that fit with observations. He proposed that electrons in an atom can only exist at certain distances or energy levels from the nucleus, and that because they can only exist in certain levels, electrons around the nucleus of an atom can only absorb certain wavelengths of light, which give them enough energy to move further away from the nucleus. An electron will usually stay in a higher energy level for a very short time (10-8 seconds) before dropping down to a lower energy level and emitting a photon of the same energy it absorbed.

Diagram of an electron initially in a low energy level around a nucleus. Part 1: Most photons can't be absorbed by the electron and pass straight through the atom with no change. Part 2: When the electron absorbs a photon with the right amount of energy, it becomes excited and moves to a higher energy level. Step 3: The excited electron releases a photon of the same wavelength it absorbed as it returns to the more stable lower energy level.

Diagram showing the movement of an electron in an atom as it absorbs and emits a photon. Image credit: Alice Hopkinson, LCO


Astronomers use spectrographs attached to telescopes to view the spectral lines of stars and other celestial objects. A spectrograph combines either a prism or diffraction grating to spread the light from a source into its spectrum. It then has a detector, usually a CCD, to record the spectrum.

Photo of two scientists stood next to a spectrograph on LCO's 2-meter telescope

Image: LCO

Astronomers use computers to analyze the spectra and create graphs such as this one from a nearby supernova:

Supernova spectrum graph

Applications of Spectroscopy

Astronomers can compare the spectral lines they observe to the spectral lines of known elements to learn about the chemical composition and temperature of astronomical objects. They can also study the motion of astronomical objects, because objects that are moving towards an observer will emit wavelengths compressed slightly towards the blue wavelengths (called blueshift) and objects moving away will emit wavelengths slightly stretched towards the red wavelengths (called redshift). This is because of the Doppler effect. This principle can be used to study the motion of galaxies, to find stars that are in binary star systems, or stars with planets orbiting them.

More information

For more information on how spectroscopy works and what astronomers use spectroscopy for, please consider watching this fascinating 17 minute talk by Garik Israelian about what astronomers are currently discovering using spectroscopy:

TED talk | Garik Israelian: What's Inside a Star?

Other Resources:

Very inexpensive spectrograph kits available from the Solar Center at Stanford University.

An excellent simulation of electrons absorbing photons of various wavelengths.

This animation from PhET Interactive Simulations illustrates how electrons absorb and emit photons.

  • Go to the Hydrogen atom simulation.
  • Click on the play button and to start the simulation.
  • In the simulation, use the selector in the top left to choose "Prediction."
  • Select "Bohr."
  • Turn on the power to the electron gun (click the red button on the drawing) and observe the simulation.