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Each activity or resource is labeled by access mode:

Requires computer access
Requires downloading from the Web
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Main Topics & Concepts
  • Every celestial object has a unique spectrum; a light fingerprint
  • Every element or compound emits and absorbs at characteristic, wavelengths.
  • Astronomers learn about composition of objects by separating the light into its constituent wavelengths using prisms or gratings.
  • Instruments detect and record the intensity at many points along the resulting spectrum. These images are also referred to as spectra.
  • Thermal sources such as stars produce continuum spectra, sometimes with the addition of emission or absorption lines at more discrete wavelengths.
This topic applies to California state standards 2f in 9th grade Earth Science and 4e in 9th grade Physical Science. 
Science Probe Text
Science Probe II § 8.1 The Early Search for the Elements, § 8.2 Structure of the Atom
Science Probe I § 14.4 The Color and Temperature of Stars

Activity Access Description
S P I I:
Activity  8E Spectra of Elements
Students use a classroom spectroscope to observe various light sources. They compare the spectra of elements with those of thermal sources, such as the sun or a light bulb.
SP I: Activity 14F /Colors of Light Sources
 Similar to 8E. Discussion questions focus on how astronomers might use spectra.

Activities & Lessons
Activity Access Description
Life Cycles of Stars Information/Activity book


NASA/Imagine the Universe!


Blackbody Radiation & Wien's Law Black body spectra of stars. Introduces the concept of a continuum spectrum from a thermal source (star) with a characteristic temperature.

Use online or download PDF. Activities are brief and math based. Students will need some of the informational sections of the booklet to do each one.

Other"Life Cycles" activities are referred in other parts of this curriculum.

Desktop Stars, Part II

Center for Particle Astrophysics

web Students use a simple spectroscope to determine wavelengths of emissions from gas discharge tubes, and from a therma source (fluorescent light).


web Combines hands-on activities with Web investigations of NASA astronomy missions at various EM wavelengths.
EUVE Guest Investigator Puzzle


web Students learn basics about spectroscopy, emission, and absorption, then match actual EUV spectra with spectra of known stars. 


web Students use interactive models of intensity graphs to study spectra of elements, the sun, and absorbing stained glass.


web Students use spectra from the EUVE satellite to identify various mystery sources as one of several star types. Similar to GI Puzzle lesson, above.

How Astronomers Use Spectra to LEarn About the Sun and Other Stars


Solar EUV Research Telescope and Spectrograph

webbook This is a frames site. Click on the link next to the school bus near the bottom of the lefthand navigation frame. Pages reproduce a booklet on light basics, the electromagnetic spectrum and spectroscopy, with exercises, a solar spectrum to analyse from a wavelength table, and answer keys.

Supernova Chemistry

NASA/Imagine the Universe!

web Students use laboratory sources to view visible spectra of known several elements.  They use this knowledge to identify an unkown combination of elements in another spectrum.
Xray Spectroscopy and the Chemistry of Supernova Remnants, Part III, Background on Spectroscopy and Activity: Graphing Spectra

NASA/Imagine the Universe!

paperweb  Part III introduces spectroscopy in the context of studying xray emissions from supernova remnants. Xray production is also featured.

Access the first two items in Part II using links from the guide's outline page (linked at left).

Students will need some basic knowledge of chemistry and scientific notation.

Xray Spectroscopy and the Chemistry of Supernova Remnants, Part IV

Activity: Identifying Elements in Supernova Remnants

NASA/Imagine the Universe!

webpaper  Students test their knowledge by identifying elements with weights up through iron in "simulated" x-ray spectra. The materials for this activity can be printed from the site and the activity done without computers. A good authentic assessment of students' understanding of spectral histograms.

Access this item in Part IV of the guide using link from the guide's outline page (linked at left).

*Astronomical Society of the Pacific Ordering info $$

** Science Education Gateway at UC Berkeley

Resources Access Description
 Periodic Table of the Elements

Los Alamos National Laboratory

web Great interactive chemistry tool; each element has its own page of information, and the tale itself has links to pages on chemistry basics, the CRC Handbook of Chemisty and Physcis.