In physics and optics, the Fraunhofer lines are a set of spectral lines named after the German physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787–1826). The lines were originally observed as dark features (absorption lines) in the optical spectrum of the Sun.
In 1802, the English chemist William Hyde Wollaston was the first person to note the appearance of a number of dark features in the solar spectrum. In 1814, Fraunhofer independently rediscovered the lines and began a systematic study and careful measurement of the wavelength of these features. In all, he mapped over 570 lines, and designated the principal features with the letters A through K, and weaker lines with other letters.  Modern observations of sunlight can detect many thousands of lines.
About 45 years later Kirchhoff and Bunsen noticed that several Fraunhofer lines coincide with characteristic emission lines identified in the spectra of heated elements. It was correctly deduced that dark lines in the solar spectrum are caused by absorption by chemical elements in the Solar atmosphere. Some of the observed features were identified as telluric lines originating from absorption in oxygen molecules in the Earth's atmosphere.
The Fraunhofer lines are typical spectral absorption lines. These dark lines are produced whenever a cold gas is between a broad spectrum photon source and the detector. In this case a decrease in the intensity of light in the frequency of the incident photon is seen as the photons are absorbed, then re-emitted in random directions, which are mostly in directions different from the original one. This results in an absorption line, since the narrow frequency band of light initially traveling toward the detector, has been effectively scattered in other directions. Absorption lines are produced even during reflection from an illuminated cold gas, since after reflection there is still the opportunity for a selective absorption (and re-scatter) between the point of reflection and the detector. By contrast, if the detector sees photons emitted directly from a glowing gas, then the detector often sees photons emitted in a narrow frequency range by quantum emission processes in atoms in the hot gas, resulting in an emission line. In the Sun, Fraunhofer lines are seen from gas in the outer regions of the Sun, which are too cold to directly produce emission lines of the elements they represent.
The major Fraunhofer lines, and the elements they are associated with, are shown in the following table:
The Fraunhofer C, F, G', and h lines correspond to the alpha, beta, gamma and delta lines of the Balmer series of emission lines of the hydrogen atom. The D1 and D2 lines form the well-known "sodium doublet", the centre wavelength of which (589.29 nm) is given the designation letter "D". This historical designation for this line has stuck and is given to all the transitions between the ground state and the first excited state of the other alkali atoms as well. The D1 and D2 lines correspond to the fine splitting of the excited states. This may be confusing because the excited state for this transition is the P-state of the alkali and should not be confused with the higher D-states.
Note that there is disagreement in the literature for some line designations; e.g., the Fraunhofer d-line may refer to the cyan iron line at 466.814 nm, or alternatively to the yellow helium line (also labeled D3) at 587.5618 nm. Similarly, there is ambiguity with reference to the e-line, since it can refer to the spectral lines of both iron (Fe) and mercury (Hg). In order to resolve ambiguities that arise in usage, ambiguous Fraunhofer line designations are preceded by the element with which they are associated (e.g., Mercury e-line and Helium d-line).
- William Hyde Wollaston (1802) "A method of examining refractive and dispersive powers, by prismatic reflection," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 92: 365-380; see especially p. 378.
- Hearnshaw, J.B. (1986). The analysis of starlight. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 27. ISBN 0-521-39916-5.
- Joseph Fraunhofer (1814 - 1815) "Bestimmung des Brechungs- und des Farben-Zerstreuungs - Vermögens verschiedener Glasarten, in Bezug auf die Vervollkommnung achromatischer Fernröhre" (Determination of the refractive and color-dispersing power of different types of glass, in relation to the improvement of achromatic telescopes), Denkschriften der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu München (Memoirs of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Munich), 5: 193-226; see especially pages 202-205 and the plate following page 226.
- Jenkins, Francis A.; White, Harvey E. (1981). Fundamentals of Optics (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill. p. 18. ISBN 0-07-256191-2
- Gustav Kirchhoff (1859) "Ueber die Fraunhofer'schen Linien" (On Fraunhofer's lines), Monatsbericht der Königlichen Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (Monthly report of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin), 662-665.
- Gustav Kirchhoff (1859) "Ueber das Sonnenspektrum" (On the sun's spectrum), Verhandlungen des naturhistorisch-medizinischen Vereins zu Heidelberg (Proceedings of the Natural History / Medical Association in Heidelberg), 1 (7) : 251-255.
- G. Kirchhoff (1860). "Ueber die Fraunhofer'schen Linien". Annalen der Physik 185 (1): 148–150. Bibcode:1860AnP...185..148K. doi:10.1002/andp.18601850115.
- G. Kirchhoff (1860). "Ueber das Verhältniss zwischen dem Emissionsvermögen und dem Absorptionsvermögen der Körper für Wärme und Licht". Annalen der Physik 185 (2): 275–301. Bibcode:1860AnP...185..275K. doi:10.1002/andp.18601850205.
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