Doppler Effect

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Doppler effect is the change in frequency of a wave for an observer moving relative to the source of the wave. It is commonly heard when a vehicle sounding a siren or horn approaches, passes, and recedes from an observer. The received frequency is higher (compared to the emitted frequency) during the approach, it is identical at the instant of passing by, and it is lower during the recession. Doppler effect phenomenon was named after Austrian physicist Christian Doppler who proposed it in 1842.

The relative increase in frequency can be explained as follows. When the source of the waves is moving toward the observer, each successive wave crest is emitted from a position closer to the observer than the previous wave. Therefore each wave takes slightly less time to reach the observer than the previous wave. Therefore the time between the arrival of successive wave crests is reduced, causing an increase in the frequency. While they are traveling, the distance between successive wavefronts is reduced; so the waves "bunch together". Conversely, if the source of waves is moving away from the observer, each wave is emitted from a position farther from the observer than the previous wave, so the arrival time between successive waves is increased, reducing the frequency.

In astronomy, the Doppler effect was originally studied in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Today, the Doppler shift, as it is also known, applies to electromagnetic waves in all portions of the spectrum. Also, because of the inverse relationship between frequency and wavelength, Doppler effect can be discribed in terms of wavelength. Radiation is redshifted when its wavelength increases, and is blueshifted when its wavelength decreases.

Astronomers use Doppler effects to calculate precisely how fast stars and other astronomical objects move toward or away from Earth. For example the spectral lines emitted by hydrogen gas in distant galaxies is often observed to be considerably redshifted. The spectral line emission, normally found at a wavelength of 21 centimeters on Earth, might be observed at 21.1 centimeters instead. This 0.1 centimeter redshift would indicate that the gas is moving away from Earth at over 1,400 kilometers per second (over 880 miles per second).