The 3D animation (above) depicts how the light of a distant star is studied by astronomers. The spectrum of the light provides vital information about the composition and history of stars. Now, let’s look into the history of stellar spectroscopy.
In 1802, William Wollaston noted that the spectrum of sunlight did not appear to be a continuous band of colours, but rather had a series of dark lines superimposed on it. Wollaston attributed the lines to natural boundaries between colours. Joseph Fraunhofer made a more careful set of observations of the solar spectrum in 1814 and found some 600 dark lines, and he specifically measured the wavelength of 324 of them. Many of the Fraunhofer lines in the solar spectrum retain the notations he created to designate them. In 1864, Sir William Huggins matched some of these dark lines in spectra from other stars with terrestrial substances, demonstrating that stars are made of the same materials of everyday material rather than exotic substances. This paved the way for modern spectroscopy.
Since even before the discovery of spectra, scientists had tried to find ways to categorize stars. By observing spectra, astronomers realized that large numbers of stars exhibit a small number of distinct patterns in their spectral lines. Classification by spectral features quickly proved to be a powerful tool for understanding stars.
The current spectral classification scheme was developed at Harvard Observatory in the early 20th century. Work was begun by Henry Draper who photographed the first spectrum of Vega in 1872. After his death, his wife donated the equipment and a sum of money to the Observatory to continue his work. The bulk of the classification work was done by Annie Jump Cannon from 1918 to 1924. The original scheme used capital letters running alphabetically, but subsequent revisions have reduced this as stellar evolution and typing has become better understood.
While the differences in spectra might seem to indicate different chemical compositions, in almost all instances, it actually reflects different surface temperatures. With some exceptions (e.g. the R, N, and S stellar types), material on the surface of stars is “primitive”: there is no significant chemical or nuclear processing of the gaseous outer envelope of a star once it has formed. Fusion at the core of the star results in fundamental compositional changes, but material does not generally mix between the visible surface of the star and its core. Ordered from highest temperature to lowest, the seven main stellar types are O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. Astronomers use one of several mnemonics to remember the order of the classification scheme. O, B, and A type stars are often referred to as early spectral types, while cool stars (G, K, and M) are known as late type stars.
Scientists assumed that the spectral classes represented a sequence of decreasing surface temperatures of the stars, but no one was able to demonstrate this quantitatively. Cecilia Payne, who studied the new science of quantum physics, knew that the pattern of features in the spectrum of any atom was determined by the configuration of its electrons. She showed that Cannon’s ordering of the stellar spectral classes was indeed a sequence of decreasing temperatures and she was able to calculate the temperatures.