Polarization in astronomy

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Polarization is an important phenomenon in astronomy.

The polarization of starlight, first observed by Hiltner and Hall in 1949, has been used to trace interstellar magnetic fields. Polarization occurs in various celestial bodies and phenomena, including the Sun, quasars, active galaxies, and cosmic microwave background (CMB). Circular and linear polarization in sunlight is due to magnetic regions on the Sun's surface and anisotropic scattering, among other factors. Polarization in the CMB reveals information about the early universe's physics, with B-mode and E-mode components providing insights into gravitational wave influences. Additionally, the polarization of astronomical sources has been suggested to be responsible for the chirality found in biological molecules on Earth.


The polarization of starlight was first observed by the astronomers William Hiltner and John S. Hall in 1949. Subsequently, Jesse Greenstein and Leverett Davis, Jr. developed theories allowing the use of polarization data to trace interstellar magnetic fields. Though the integrated thermal radiation of stars is not usually appreciably polarized at source, scattering by interstellar dust can impose polarization on starlight over long distances. Net polarization at the source can occur if the photosphere itself is asymmetric, due to limb polarization. Plane polarization of starlight generated at the star itself is observed for Ap stars (peculiar A type stars).[1]


Both circular and linear polarization of sunlight has been measured. Circular polarization is mainly due to transmission and absorption effects in strongly magnetic regions of the Sun's surface. Another mechanism that gives rise to circular polarization is the so-called "alignment-to-orientation mechanism". Continuum light is linearly polarized at different locations across the face of the Sun (limb polarization) though taken as a whole, this polarization cancels. Linear polarization in spectral lines is usually created by anisotropic scattering of photons on atoms and ions which can themselves be polarized by this interaction. The linearly polarized spectrum of the Sun is often called the second solar spectrum. Atomic polarization can be modified in weak magnetic fields by the Hanle effect. As a result, polarization of the scattered photons is also modified providing a diagnostics tool for understanding stellar magnetic fields.[1]

Other sources[edit]

The polarization in the quasar 3C 286 measured with ALMA

Polarization is also present in radiation from coherent astronomical sources due to the Zeeman effect (e.g. hydroxyl or methanol masers).

The large radio lobes in active galaxies and pulsar radio radiation (which may, it is speculated, sometimes be coherent) also show polarization.

Apart from providing information on sources of radiation and scattering, polarization also probes the interstellar magnetic field in our galaxy as well as in radio galaxies via Faraday rotation.[2]: 119, 124 [3]: 336–337  In some cases it can be difficult to determine how much of the Faraday rotation is in the external source and how much is local to our own galaxy, but in many cases it is possible to find another distant source nearby in the sky; thus by comparing the candidate source and the reference source, the results can be untangled.

Cosmic microwave background[edit]

The polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) is also being used to study the physics of the very early universe.[4][5] CMB exhibits 2 components of polarization: B-mode (divergence-free like magnetic field) and E-mode (curl-free gradient-only like electric field) polarization. The BICEP2 telescope located at the South Pole helped in the detection of B-mode polarization in the CMB. The polarization modes of the CMB may provide more information about the influence of gravitational waves on the development of the early universe.

It has been suggested that astronomical sources of polarised light caused the chirality found in biological molecules on Earth.[6]

An artist's impression of how a filter allows only polarised light through
An animation showing how a planet's atmosphere polarises light from its parent star. Comparing the starlight with the light reflected from the planet gives information about the planet's atmosphere.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Egidio Landi Degl'Innocenti (2004). Polarization in Spectral Lines. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. ISBN 1-4020-2414-2.
  2. ^ Vlemmings, W. H. T. (Mar 2007). "A review of maser polarization and magnetic fields". Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union. 3 (S242): 37–46. arXiv:0705.0885. Bibcode:2007IAUS..242...37V. doi:10.1017/s1743921307012549. S2CID 5704623.
  3. ^ Hannu Karttunen; Pekka Kröger; Heikki Oja (27 June 2007). Fundamental Astronomy. Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-34143-7.
  4. ^ Boyle, Latham A.; Steinhardt, PJ; Turok, N (2006). "Inflationary predictions for scalar and tensor fluctuations reconsidered". Physical Review Letters. 96 (11): 111301. arXiv:astro-ph/0507455. Bibcode:2006PhRvL..96k1301B. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.96.111301. PMID 16605810. S2CID 10424288.
  5. ^ Tegmark, Max (2005). "What does inflation really predict?". Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. 0504 (4): 001. arXiv:astro-ph/0410281. Bibcode:2005JCAP...04..001T. doi:10.1088/1475-7516/2005/04/001. S2CID 17250080.
  6. ^ Clark, S. (1999). "Polarised starlight and the handedness of Life". American Scientist. 97 (4): 336–43. Bibcode:1999AmSci..87..336C. doi:10.1511/1999.4.336. S2CID 221585816.

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