21 cm line

From Academic Kids

In physics and astronomy, the 21 cm line is the name for a highly forbidden emission line of hydrogen. This emission line is often observed by radio astronomers to study both our own Galaxy and external galaxies.

History

During the 1930s, it was noticed that there was a radio 'hiss' that varied on a daily cycle and appeared to be extraterrestrial in origin. After initial suggestions that this was due to the Sun, it was observed that the radio waves seemed to be coming from the centre of the Galaxy. These discoveries were published in 1940 and were seen by Professor J.H. Oort who knew that significant advances could be made in astronomy if there were emission lines in the radio part of the spectrum. He referred this to Dr Hendrik van de Hulst who, in 1944, discovered that neutral hydrogen could produce radiation at a frequency of 1420.4058 MHz due to two closely spaced energy levels in the ground state of the hydrogen atom.

The 21cm line (1420.4058 MHz) was first observed in 1951 by Ewen and Purcell who were closely followed by Muller and Oort and Christiansen and Hindman. After 1952 the first maps of the neutral hydrogen in the Galaxy were made and revealed, for the first time, the spiral structure of the Milky Way.

Physics

The lowest orbital energy state of atomic hydrogen has hyperfine splitting arising from the spins of the proton and electron changing from a parallel to antiparallel configuration. This transition is highly forbidden with an extremely small probability of 2.9×10−15 s−1. This means that the time for a single atom of neutral hydrogen to undergo this transition is around 10 million (107) years and so is unlikely to be seen in a laboratory on Earth. However, as the total number of atoms of neutral hydrogen in the interstellar medium is very large, this emission line is easily observed by radio telescopes.

The line has an extremely small natural width because of its long lifetime, so most broadening is due to doppler shifts caused by the motion of the emitting regions relative to the observer.

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