Theoretical astronomy is the use of analytical and computational models based on principles from physics and chemistry to describe and explain astronomical objects and astronomical phenomena. Theorists in astronomy endeavor to create theoretical models and from the results predict observational consequences of those models. The observation of a phenomenon predicted by a model allows astronomers to select between several alternate or conflicting models as the one best able to describe the phenomena.
Ptolemy's Almagest, although a brilliant treatise on theoretical astronomy combined with a practical handbook for computation, nevertheless includes compromises to reconcile discordant observations with a geocentric model. Modern theoretical astronomy is usually assumed to have begun with the work of Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), particularly with Kepler's laws. The history of the descriptive and theoretical aspects of the Solar System mostly spans from the late sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century.
Theoretical astronomy is built on the work of observational astronomy, astrometry, astrochemistry, and astrophysics. Astronomy was early to adopt computational techniques to model stellar and galactic formation and celestial mechanics. From the point of view of theoretical astronomy, not only must the mathematical expression be reasonably accurate but it should preferably exist in a form which is amenable to further mathematical analysis when used in specific problems. Most of theoretical astronomy uses Newtonian theory of gravitation, considering that the effects of general relativity are weak for most celestial objects. Theoretical astronomy does not attempt to predict the position, size and temperature of every object in the universe, but by and large has concentrated upon analyzing the apparently complex but periodic motions of celestial objects.
Main article: Astrophysics
"Contrary to the belief generally held by laboratory physicists, astronomy has contributed to the growth of our understanding of physics." Physics has helped in the elucidation of astronomical phenomena, and astronomy has helped in the elucidation of physical phenomena:
Integrating astronomy with physics involves
|Physical interaction||Astronomical phenomena|
|Electromagnetism:||observation using the electromagnetic spectrum|
|black body radiation||stellar radiation|
|synchrotron radiation||radio and X-ray sources|
|inverse-Compton scattering||astronomical X-ray sources|
|acceleration of charged particles||pulsars and cosmic rays|
|Strong and weak interaction:||nucleosynthesis in stars|
|Gravity:||motion of planets, satellites and binary stars, stellar structure and evolution, N-body motions in clusters of stars and galaxies, black holes, and the expanding universe.|
The aim of astronomy is to understand the physics and chemistry from the laboratory that is behind cosmic events so as to enrich our understanding of the cosmos and of these sciences as well.
Main article: Astrochemistry
Astrochemistry, the overlap of the disciplines of astronomy and chemistry, is the study of the abundance and reactions of chemical elements and molecules in space, and their interaction with radiation. The formation, atomic and chemical composition, evolution and fate of molecular gas clouds, is of special interest because it is from these clouds that solar systems form.
Infrared astronomy, for example, has revealed that the interstellar medium contains a suite of complex gas-phase carbon compounds called aromatic hydrocarbons, often abbreviated (PAHs or PACs). These molecules composed primarily of fused rings of carbon (either neutral or in an ionized state) are said to be the most common class of carbon compound in the galaxy. They are also the most common class of carbon molecule in meteorites and in cometary and asteroidal dust (cosmic dust). These compounds, as well as the amino acids, nucleobases, and many other compounds in meteorites, carry deuterium (2H) and isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen that are very rare on earth, attesting to their extraterrestrial origin. The PAHs are thought to form in hot circumstellar environments (around dying carbon rich red giant stars).
The sparseness of interstellar and interplanetary space results in some unusual chemistry, since symmetry-forbidden reactions cannot occur except on the longest of timescales. For this reason, molecules and molecular ions which are unstable on earth can be highly abundant in space, for example the H3+ ion. Astrochemistry overlaps with astrophysics and nuclear physics in characterizing the nuclear reactions which occur in stars, the consequences for stellar evolution, as well as stellar 'generations'. Indeed, the nuclear reactions in stars produce every naturally occurring chemical element. As the stellar 'generations' advance, the mass of the newly formed elements increases. A first-generation star uses elemental hydrogen (H) as a fuel source and produces helium (He). Hydrogen is the most abundant element, and it is the basic building block for all other elements as its nucleus has only one proton. Gravitational pull toward the center of a star creates massive amounts of heat and pressure, which cause nuclear fusion. Through this process of merging nuclear mass, heavier elements are formed. Lithium, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are examples of elements that form in stellar fusion. After many stellar generations, very heavy elements are formed (e.g. iron and lead).
Theoretical astronomers use a wide variety of tools which include analytical models (for example, polytropes to approximate the behaviors of a star) and computational numerical simulations. Each has some advantages. Analytical models of a process are generally better for giving insight into the heart of what is going on. Numerical models can reveal the existence of phenomena and effects that would otherwise not be seen.
Astronomy theorists endeavor to create theoretical models and figure out the observational consequences of those models. This helps observers look for data that can refute a model or help in choosing between several alternate or conflicting models.
Theorists also try to generate or modify models to take into account new data. Consistent with the general scientific approach, in the case of an inconsistency, the general tendency is to try to make minimal modifications to the model to fit the data. In some cases, a large amount of inconsistent data over time may lead to total abandonment of a model.
Topics studied by theoretical astronomers include:
Astrophysical relativity serves as a tool to gauge the properties of large scale structures for which gravitation plays a significant role in physical phenomena investigated and as the basis for black hole (astro)physics and the study of gravitational waves.
Some widely accepted and studied theories and models in astronomy, now included in the Lambda-CDM model are the Big Bang, Cosmic inflation, dark matter, and fundamental theories of physics.
A few examples of this process:
|Physical process||Experimental tool||Theoretical model||Explains/predicts|
|Gravitation||Radio telescopes||Self-gravitating system||Emergence of a star system|
|Nuclear fusion||Spectroscopy||Stellar evolution||How the stars shine and how metals formed|
|The Big Bang||Hubble Space Telescope, COBE||Expanding universe||Age of the Universe|
|Quantum fluctuations||Cosmic inflation||Flatness problem|
|Gravitational collapse||X-ray astronomy||General relativity||Black holes at the center of Andromeda Galaxy|
|CNO cycle in stars|
Dark matter and dark energy are the current leading topics in astronomy, as their discovery and controversy originated during the study of the galaxies.
Of the topics approached with the tools of theoretical physics, particular consideration is often given to stellar photospheres, stellar atmospheres, the solar atmosphere, planetary atmospheres, gaseous nebulae, nonstationary stars, and the interstellar medium. Special attention is given to the internal structure of stars.
The observation of a neutrino burst within 3 h of the associated optical burst from Supernova 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) gave theoretical astrophysicists an opportunity to test that neutrinos and photons follow the same trajectories in the gravitational field of the galaxy.
A general form of the first law of thermodynamics for stationary black holes can be derived from the microcanonical functional integral for the gravitational field. The boundary data
are the thermodynamical extensive variables, including the energy and angular momentum of the system. For the simpler case of nonrelativistic mechanics as is often observed in astrophysical phenomena associated with a black hole event horizon, the density of states can be expressed as a real-time functional integral and subsequently used to deduce Feynman's imaginary-time functional integral for the canonical partition function.
Reaction equations and large reaction networks are an important tool in theoretical astrochemistry, especially as applied to the gas-grain chemistry of the interstellar medium. Theoretical astrochemistry offers the prospect of being able to place constraints on the inventory of organics for exogenous delivery to the early Earth.
"An important goal for theoretical astrochemistry is to elucidate which organics are of true interstellar origin, and to identify possible interstellar precursors and reaction pathways for those molecules which are the result of aqueous alterations." One of the ways this goal can be achieved is through the study of carbonaceous material as found in some meteorites. Carbonaceous chondrites (such as C1 and C2) include organic compounds such as amines and amides; alcohols, aldehydes, and ketones; aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons; sulfonic and phosphonic acids; amino, hydroxycarboxylic, and carboxylic acids; purines and pyrimidines; and kerogen-type material. The organic inventories of primitive meteorites display large and variable enrichments in deuterium, carbon-13 (13C), and nitrogen-15 (15N), which is indicative of their retention of an interstellar heritage.
The chemical composition of comets should reflect both the conditions in the outer solar nebula some 4.5 × 109 ayr, and the nature of the natal interstellar cloud from which the Solar System was formed. While comets retain a strong signature of their ultimate interstellar origins, significant processing must have occurred in the protosolar nebula. Early models of coma chemistry showed that reactions can occur rapidly in the inner coma, where the most important reactions are proton transfer reactions. Such reactions can potentially cycle deuterium between the different coma molecules, altering the initial D/H ratios released from the nuclear ice, and necessitating the construction of accurate models of cometary deuterium chemistry, so that gas-phase coma observations can be safely extrapolated to give nuclear D/H ratios.
While the lines of conceptual understanding between theoretical astrochemistry and theoretical chemical astronomy often become blurred so that the goals and tools are the same, there are subtle differences between the two sciences. Theoretical chemistry as applied to astronomy seeks to find new ways to observe chemicals in celestial objects, for example. This often leads to theoretical astrochemistry having to seek new ways to describe or explain those same observations.
The new era of chemical astronomy had to await the clear enunciation of the chemical principles of spectroscopy and the applicable theory.
Supernova radioactivity dominates light curves and the chemistry of dust condensation is also dominated by radioactivity. Dust is usually either carbon or oxides depending on which is more abundant, but Compton electrons dissociate the CO molecule in about one month. The new chemical astronomy of supernova solids depends on the supernova radioactivity:
Like theoretical chemical astronomy, the lines of conceptual understanding between theoretical astrophysics and theoretical physical astronomy are often blurred, but, again, there are subtle differences between these two sciences. Theoretical physics as applied to astronomy seeks to find new ways to observe physical phenomena in celestial objects and what to look for, for example. This often leads to theoretical astrophysics having to seek new ways to describe or explain those same observations, with hopefully a convergence to improve our understanding of the local environment of Earth and the physical Universe.
Nuclear matrix elements of relevant operators as extracted from data and from a shell-model and theoretical approximations both for the two-neutrino and neutrinoless modes of decay are used to explain the weak interaction and nuclear structure aspects of nuclear double beta decay.
New neutron-rich isotopes, 34Ne, 37Na, and 43Si have been produced unambiguously for the first time, and convincing evidence for the particle instability of three others, 33Ne, 36Na, and 39Mg has been obtained. These experimental findings compare with recent theoretical predictions.
Main category: Time in astronomy
See also: Time in physics
Until recently all the time units that appear natural to us are caused by astronomical phenomena:
High precision appears problematic:
Some of these time standard scales are sidereal time, solar time, and universal time.
Main article: International Atomic Time
From the Systeme Internationale (SI) comes the second as defined by the duration of 9 192 631 770 cycles of a particular hyperfine structure transition in the ground state of caesium-133 (133Cs). For practical usability a device is required that attempts to produce the SI second (s) such as an atomic clock. But not all such clocks agree. The weighted mean of many clocks distributed over the whole Earth defines the Temps Atomique International; i.e., the Atomic Time TAI. From the General theory of relativity the time measured depends on the altitude on earth and the spatial velocity of the clock so that TAI refers to a location on sea level that rotates with the Earth.
Main article: Ephemeris time
Since the Earth's rotation is irregular, any time scale derived from it such as Greenwich Mean Time led to recurring problems in predicting the Ephemerides for the positions of the Moon, Sun, planets and their natural satellites. In 1976 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) resolved that the theoretical basis for ephemeris time (ET) was wholly non-relativistic, and therefore, beginning in 1984 ephemeris time would be replaced by two further time scales with allowance for relativistic corrections. Their names, assigned in 1979, emphasized their dynamical nature or origin, Barycentric Dynamical Time (TDB) and Terrestrial Dynamical Time (TDT). Both were defined for continuity with ET and were based on what had become the standard SI second, which in turn had been derived from the measured second of ET.
See also: Dynamical time scale
During the period 1991–2006, the TDB and TDT time scales were both redefined and replaced, owing to difficulties or inconsistencies in their original definitions. The current fundamental relativistic time scales are Geocentric Coordinate Time (TCG) and Barycentric Coordinate Time (TCB). Both of these have rates that are based on the SI second in respective reference frames (and hypothetically outside the relevant gravity well), but due to relativistic effects, their rates would appear slightly faster when observed at the Earth's surface, and therefore diverge from local Earth-based time scales using the SI second at the Earth's surface.
The currently defined IAU time scales also include Terrestrial Time (TT) (replacing TDT, and now defined as a re-scaling of TCG, chosen to give TT a rate that matches the SI second when observed at the Earth's surface), and a redefined Barycentric Dynamical Time (TDB), a re-scaling of TCB to give TDB a rate that matches the SI second at the Earth's surface.
For a star, the dynamical time scale is defined as the time that would be taken for a test particle released at the surface to fall under the star's potential to the centre point, if pressure forces were negligible. In other words, the dynamical time scale measures the amount of time it would take a certain star to collapse in the absence of any internal pressure. By appropriate manipulation of the equations of stellar structure this can be found to be
where R is the radius of the star, G is the gravitational constant, M is the mass of the star and v is the escape velocity. As an example, the Sun dynamical time scale is approximately 1133 seconds. Note that the actual time it would take a star like the Sun to collapse is greater because internal pressure is present.
The 'fundamental' oscillatory mode of a star will be at approximately the dynamical time scale. Oscillations at this frequency are seen in Cepheid variables.