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Abundances of the elements

Absorption lines of a majority of the known chemical elements have now been identified in the spectra of the Sun and stars. If we see lines of iron in a star’s spectrum, for example, then we know immediately that the star must contain iron.

Note that the absence of an element’s spectral lines does not necessarily mean that the element itself is absent. As we saw, the temperature and pressure in a star’s atmosphere will determine what types of atoms are able to produce absorption lines. Only if the physical conditions in a star’s photosphere are such that lines of an element should (according to calculations) be there can we conclude that the absence of observable spectral lines implies low abundance of the element.

Suppose two stars have identical temperatures and pressures, but the lines of, say, sodium are stronger in one than in the other. Stronger lines mean that there are more atoms in the stellar photosphere absorbing light. Therefore, we know immediately that the star with stronger sodium lines contains more sodium. Complex calculations are required to determine exactly how much more, but those calculations can be done for any element observed in any star with any temperature and pressure.

Of course, astronomy textbooks such as ours always make these things sound a bit easier than they really are. If you look at the stellar spectra such as those in [link] , you may get some feeling for how hard it is to decode all of the information contained in the thousands of absorption lines. First of all, it has taken many years of careful laboratory work on Earth to determine the precise wavelengths at which hot gases of each element have their spectral lines. Long books and computer databases have been compiled to show the lines of each element that can be seen at each temperature. Second, stellar spectra usually have many lines from a number of elements, and we must be careful to sort them out correctly. Sometimes nature is unhelpful, and lines of different elements have identical wavelengths, thereby adding to the confusion. And third, as we saw in the chapter on Radiation and Spectra , the motion of the star can change the observed wavelength of each of the lines. So, the observed wavelengths may not match laboratory measurements exactly. In practice, analyzing stellar spectra is a demanding, sometimes frustrating task that requires both training and skill.

Studies of stellar spectra have shown that hydrogen makes up about three-quarters of the mass of most stars. Helium is the second-most abundant element, making up almost a quarter of a star’s mass. Together, hydrogen and helium make up from 96 to 99% of the mass; in some stars, they amount to more than 99.9%. Among the 4% or less of “heavy elements,” oxygen, carbon, neon, iron, nitrogen, silicon, magnesium, and sulfur are among the most abundant. Generally, but not invariably, the elements of lower atomic weight are more abundant than those of higher atomic weight.

Take a careful look at the list of elements in the preceding paragraph. Two of the most abundant are hydrogen and oxygen (which make up water); add carbon and nitrogen and you are starting to write the prescription for the chemistry of an astronomy student. We are made of elements that are common in the universe—just mixed together in a far more sophisticated form (and a much cooler environment) than in a star.

Questions & Answers

which planet orbits the closest?
Alastair Reply
What is the angle between Earth's equator and the Celestial equator? In the drawing they seem pretty similar. Thank you for this study resource.
Chuck Reply
Describe the spectrum of each of the following: starlight reflected by dust, a star behind invisible interstellar gas, and an emission nebula
shakila Reply
If the Oort cloud contains 1012 comets, and ten new comets are discovered coming close to the Sun each year, what percentage of the comets have been “used up” since the beginning of the solar system?
Day Reply
what is spectral type of sun
Akshat Reply
what everyone asking here? and who answers for them?
Shashi Reply
highest frequency wavelengh
Kathy Reply
may I know which Kingdom shows largest diversity
Arpita Reply
or students should post tough likely questions
Adepitan Reply
for example questions on demand functions and etc
Adepitan Reply
are there no ways we can get tough questions to answer
Adepitan Reply
What do you mean?
Amman Reply
excellent book bro.... keep it up.... if I find any query i will ask u.... thanks
rao Reply
Hi! I'm a bit confused, what is this
Sizakele Reply
They hsve new set of questions every time they test us. i do revision with the tutorials they give us answer extra questions from their moodle site but every time i write exams there will be few not even 10% of the questions are they. most of the time i guess. They give us three lectures who do not
Phumza Reply

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Source:  OpenStax, Astronomy. OpenStax CNX. Apr 12, 2017 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11992/1.13
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