The sound of a siren on an emergency vehicle changes as it passes you: it shifts from higher to lower pitch. As the vehicle moves toward you, the sound waves are pushed together. As the vehicle moves past you, the waves are spread apart. Though redshift involves light instead of sound, a similar principle operates in both situations.
Expansion of the Universe
After discovering that there are galaxies beyond the Milky Way, Edwin Hubble went on to measure the distance to hundreds of other galaxies. His data would eventually show how the universe is changing, and would even yield clues as to how the universe formed.
If you look at a star through a prism, you will see a spectrum, or a range of colors through the rainbow. The spectrum will have specific dark bands where elements in the star absorb light of certain energies. By examining the arrangement of these dark absorption lines, astronomers can determine the composition of elements that make up a distant star. In fact, the element helium was first discovered in our Sun — not on Earth — by analyzing the absorption lines in the spectrum of the Sun.
While studying the spectrum of light from distant galaxies, astronomers noticed something strange. The dark lines in the spectrum were in the patterns they expected, but they were shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, as shown in Figure below. This shift of absorption bands toward the red end of the spectrum is known as redshift.
Redshift is a shift in absorption bands toward the red end of the spectrum. What could make the absorption bands of a star shift toward the red?
Redshift occurs when the light source is moving away from the observer or when the space between the observer and the source is stretched. What does it mean that stars and galaxies are redshifted? When astronomers see redshift in the light from a galaxy, they know that the galaxy is moving away from Earth.
If galaxies were moving randomly, would some be redshifted but others be blueshifted? Of course. Since almost every galaxy in the universe has a redshift, almost every galaxy is moving away from Earth.
The Expanding Universe
Edwin Hubble combined his measurements of the distances to galaxies with other astronomers’ measurements of redshift. From this data, he noticed a relationship, which is now called Hubble’s Law: the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving away from us. What could this mean about the universe? It means that the universe is expanding.
Figure below shows a simplified diagram of the expansion of the universe. One way to picture this is to imagine a balloon covered with tiny dots to represent the galaxies. When you inflate the balloon, the dots slowly move away from each other because the rubber stretches in the space between them. If you were standing on one of the dots, you would see the other dots moving away from you. Also, the dots farther away from you on the balloon would move away faster than dots nearby.
In this diagram of the expansion of the universe over time, the distance between galaxies gets bigger over time, although the size of each galaxy stays the same.
An inflating balloon is only a rough analogy to the expanding universe for several reasons. One important reason is that the surface of a balloon has only two dimensions, while space has three dimensions. But space itself is stretching out between galaxies, just as the rubber stretches when a balloon is inflated. This stretching of space, which increases the distance between galaxies, is what causes the expansion of the universe.
One other difference between the universe and a balloon involves the actual size of the galaxies. On a balloon, the dots will become larger in size as you inflate it. In the universe, the galaxies stay the same size; only the space between the galaxies increases.
- Almost every galaxy is moving away from us.
- The spectrum from stars is shifted toward the red; this is known as red-shift and is evidence that the universe is expanding.
- Hubble's Law states that the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving away from us.
- How did Hubble determine that the universe is expanding?
- How do astronomers determine the composition of distant stars?
- What is the significance of the idea that the universe is expanding?
Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.
- What is the advantage of a space telescope over a ground-based telescope?
- What does dark energy do?
- What is the Hubble Deep Field?
- What are Cephied variables?
- What are the Cephieds used for?
- What happens to light as it reaches us?
- What is the Doppler effect?
- What is red shift?
- What is Hubble's law?
- What causes red shift in galaxies moving away from us?
- How is red shift measured?
- What is the successor for the Hubble Space Telescope? What will it allow scientists to do?