Though the space between the stars is emptier than the best vacuums created on the Earth (those are enclosed spaces devoid of matter, not the household cleaning appliances), there is some material between the stars composed of gas and dust. This material is called the interstellar medium. The interstellar medium makes up between 10 to 15% of the visible mass of the Milky Way. About 99% of the material is gas and the rest is ``dust''. The interstellar medium affects starlight and stars (and planets) form from clouds in the interstellar medium, so it is worthy of study. Also, the structure of the Galaxy is mapped from measurements of the gas.
Dark dusk clouds like these ``Bok globules'' in IC 2948 were once thought to be holes in the sky. The dark clouds block the light from the emission nebula behind.
A dark cloud, Barnard 86, is silhouetted against a starry background. Stars form in the dark clouds. A young cluster, NGC 6520, probably associated with Barnard 86 is seen just to the left of it.
The discovery of the dust is relatively recent. In 1930 R.J. Trumpler (lived 1886--1956) plotted the angular diameter of star clusters vs. the distance to the clusters. He derived the distances from inverse square law of brightness: clusters farther away should appear dimmer. IF clusters all have roughly the same linear diameter L, then the angular diameter q should equal a (constant L) / distance. But he found a systematic increase of the linear size of the clusters with distance.
This seemed unreasonable! It would mean that nature had put the Sun at a special place where the size of the clusters was the smallest. A more reasonable explanation uses the Copernican principle: the Sun is in a typical spot in the Galaxy. It is simply that more distant clusters have more stuff between us and cluster so that they appear fainter (farther away) than they really are. Trumpler had shown that there is dust material between the stars! The extinction of starlight is caused by the scattering of the light out of the line of sight, so less light reaches us.
The 1/l behavior of the scattering indicates that the dust size must be about the wavelength of light (on the order of 10-5 centimeters). Less blue light reaches us, so the object appears redder than it should. This effect is called reddening, though perhaps it should be called ``de-blueing''. If the dust particles were much larger (say, the size of grains of sand), reddening would not be observed. If the dust particles were much smaller (say, the size of molecules), the scattering would behave as 1/l4. Trumpler showed that a given spectral type of star becomes increasingly redder with distance. This discovery was further evidence for dust material between the stars. If the Sun is in a typical spot in the Galaxy, then Trumpler's observation means that more distant stars have more dust between us and them.
You see the same effect when you observe the orange-red Sun close to the horizon. Objects close to the horizon are seen through more atmosphere than when they are close to zenith. At sunset the blues, greens, and some yellow are scattered out of your line of sight to the Sun and only the long waves of the orange and red light are able to move around the air and dust particles to reach your eyes.
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last updated: 25 May 2001