Spectral index

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

In astronomy, the spectral index of a source is a measure of the dependence of radiative flux density on frequency. Given frequency \nu and radiative flux S, the spectral index \alpha is given implicitly by

S\propto\nu^\alpha.

Note that if flux does not follow a power law in frequency, the spectral index itself is a function of frequency. Rearranging the above, we see that the spectral index is given by

\alpha \! \left( \nu \right) = \frac{\partial \log S \! \left( \nu \right)}{\partial \log \nu}.

Spectral index is also sometimes defined in terms of wavelength \lambda. In this case, the spectral index \alpha is given implicitly by

S\propto\lambda^\alpha,

and at a given frequency, spectral index may be calculated by taking the derivative

\alpha \! \left( \lambda \right) =\frac{\partial \log S \! \left( \lambda \right)}{\partial \log \lambda}.

The opposite sign convention is sometimes employed,[1] in which the spectral index is given by

S\propto\nu^{-\alpha}.

The spectral index of a source can hint at its properties. For example, using the positive sign convention, a spectral index of 0 to 2 at radio frequencies indicates thermal emission, while a steep negative spectral index typically indicates synchrotron emission.

Spectral Index of Thermal emission[edit]

At radio frequencies (i.e. in the low-frequency, long-wavelength limit), where the Rayleigh–Jeans law is a good approximation to the spectrum of thermal radiation, intensity is given by

B_\nu(T) \simeq \frac{2 \nu^2 k T}{c^2}.

Taking the logarithm of each side and taking the partial derivative with respect to \log \, \nu yields

\frac{\partial \log B_\nu(T)}{\partial \log \nu} \simeq 2.

Using the positive sign convention, the spectral index of thermal radiation is thus \alpha \simeq 2 in the Rayleigh-Jeans regime. The spectral index departs from this value at shorter wavelengths, for which the Rayleigh-Jeans law becomes an increasingly inaccurate approximation, tending towards zero as intensity reaches a peak at a frequency given by Wien's displacement law. Because of the simple temperature-dependence of radiative flux in the Rayleigh-Jeans regime, the radio spectral index is defined implicitly by[2]

S \propto \nu^{\alpha} T.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Burke, B.F., Graham-Smith, F. (2009). An Introduction to Radio Astronomy, 3rd Ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, ISBN 978-0-521-87808-1, page 132.
  2. ^ "Radio Spectral Index". Wolfram Research. Retrieved 2011-01-19.