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Supernova Chemistry


Students will observe visible spectra of known elements and identify an unknown element or combination of elements by visible spectra.

Grade level

Grades 9 - 12


Astronomy, Chemistry, and Physics



    Students should be proficient in Algebra, especially in the areas of pattern recognition and the metric system of measurement.


    Students should have had an introduction to the electromagnetic spectrum, the concepts of wavelength, frequency, and quantization of energy. Students should be proficient at making observations, making measurements, discovering patterns, and drawing conclusions from those observations, measurements, and patterns.


Students view the slide presentation "The Sky at Many Wavelengths" and write at least five questions about the ideas presented in this slide show. The slide set can be ordered from:

Society of the Pacific at:

    Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP)
    390 Ashton Avenue
    San Francisco CA 94112
    Phone: 415-337-1100
    For Orders: 1-800-335-2624

Crab Nebula at many wavelengths

Alternatively, students can view the High-Energy Astrophysics Learning Center's Multiwavelength Astronomy page on the Crab Nebula.

The teacher should ask each group of students to share two or three of their questions with the rest of the class.


  • 10 spectroscopes (Science Kit 45492 or 16525)
  • 5 spectrum tubes (Science Kit 62999-01 -62999-55) (one of these should be mercury)
  • 1 incandescent light bulb
  • 1 "plant grow" light bulb
  • 1 Compact Fluorescent light fixture
  • 4 Chemical Light Sticks (each lasts four hours)
  • 1 Standard Fluorescent light tube
  • 5 Spectrum tube power supplies (Science Kit 62999 26)
  • 10 Packages of colored pencils
Science Kit ( is a leading supplier of science materials and equipment to science teachers throughout the U.S. Ordering information is available via their website.


Electromagnetic radiation is characterized by its wavelength, frequency, and intensity. These measurable quantities can be used to determine the temperature, density, and composition of the matter that emits the radiation. These measurable quantities can also be used to understand the events which trigger the release of the radiation. When Isaac Newton passed a beam of sunlight through a prism in 1666, a continuous spectrum of light was seen. Light began to reveal its secrets, and a special window of understanding was opened for the first time. Analysis of this kind of information gives scientists a window to study the atom and the stars. This window is called spectroscopy.

During the nineteenth century, experimenters found that the dark lines in the Sun's spectrum and the bright lines in the spectra of incandescent gases in the laboratory matched. The window opened a little wider. During the early twentieth century useful models of the atom emerged which are still used to explain the special signature of spectral lines each element emits when heated or energized by electrical discharge. As our window inside the atom widened so did our ability to analyze all types of radiation emitted by stellar objects. Detection devices have become steadily more sophisticated giving us more information about objects which are not even visible with the best telescopes on Earth.

X-ray spectrum of Cas A

X-ray measurements provide the most direct probes of astrophysical environments with temperatures exceeding one million degrees Kelvin. Such temperatures are encountered frequently in the cosmos... in supernovae, binary accretion, stellar coronae, and so on. Here, we are interested in what X-ray spectroscopy can tell us about supernova explosions.

Supernova explosions are believed to be the primary mechanism for the production and dispersal of heavy elements into the interstellar medium (ISM). They are also believed to be the origin of cosmic rays. The quest to understand these processes has driven the development of X-ray spectroscopy.

The X-ray spectrum of a supernova contains lines emitted from the non-equilibrium, shocked gas sent out into space by the explosion. Examining the intensity and width of a line, the relative appearance of resonance, intercombination, and forbidden lines from a given element, and the underlying continuum energy... all of these things give us insight into the extreme conditions resulting from a supernova explosion. They can lead us to an understanding of where all of the heavy elements in our Universe came from, and how they got to be where they are now.

* Give me a basic description of supernovae and their remnants
* Give me a more advanced description of supernovae and their remnants


1 day for engagement and pre-lab discussion, 1 day for data collection, and 1 day for post-lab discussion or writing of a lab report.

Teacher Notes

Student Handout


This experiment was adapted from "Spectroscopy Lab", Chemistry Laboratory Manual, Prentice Hall, 1996, pp. 61-66.

Imagine the Universe is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Acting Project Leader: Dr. Barbara Mattson
All material on this site has been created and updated between 1997-2012.

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