Hydrogen line

Hydrogen line

The hydrogen line, 21 centimetre line or HI line refers to the electromagnetic radiation spectral line that is created by a change in the energy state of neutral hydrogen atoms. This electromagnetic radiation is at the precise frequency of 1420.405751786 MHz,[1] which is equivalent to the vacuum wavelength of 21.10611405413 cm in free space. This wavelength or frequency falls within the microwave radio region of the electromagnetic spectrum, and it is observed frequently in radio astronomy, since those radio waves can penetrate the large clouds of interstellar cosmic dust that are opaque to visible light.

The microwaves of the hydrogen line come from the atomic transition between the two hyperfine levels of the hydrogen 1s ground state with an energy difference of 5.87433 µeV.[2] The frequency of the quanta that are emitted by this transition between two different energy levels is given by the Planck-Einstein relation.


  • Cause 1
  • Discovery 2
  • Uses 3
    • In radio astronomy 3.1
    • In cosmology 3.2
    • In terrestrial remote sensing[ 3.3 ]
    • Possible uses for SETI 3.4
  • See also 4
  • References 5
    • Cosmology 5.1
  • External links 6


The ground state of neutral Hydrogen consists of a spherically symmetric electron cloud bound to a proton. Both the electron and the proton have intrinsic magnetic dipole moments ascribed to their spin, whose interaction results in a slight increase in energy when the spins are parallel, and a decrease when antiparallel. The fact that only parallel and antiparallel states are allowed is a result of the quantum mechanical discretization of the total angular momentum of the system. When the spins are parallel, the magnetic dipole moments are antiparallel (because the electron and proton have opposite charge), thus one would naively expect this configuration to actually have lower energy just as two magnets will align so that the north pole of one is closest to the south pole of the other. This logic fails here because the electron is not spatially displaced from the proton, but encompasses it, and the magnetic dipole moments are best thought of as tiny current loops. As parallel currents attract, it is clear why the parallel magnetic dipole moments (i.e. antiparallel spins) have lower energy.[3]

This transition is highly forbidden with an extremely small rate of 2.9×10−15 s−1, and a lifetime of around 10 million (107) years. A spontaneous occurrence of the transition is unlikely be seen in a laboratory on Earth, but it can be artificially induced using a hydrogen maser. It is commonly observed in astronomical settings such as hydrogen clouds in our galaxy and others. Owing to its long lifetime, the line has an extremely small natural width, so most broadening is due to Doppler shifts caused by bulk motion or nonzero temperature of the emitting regions.


During the 1930s, it was noticed that there was a radio 'hiss' that varied on a daily cycle and appeared to be extraterrestrial in origin. After initial suggestions that this was due to the Sun, it was observed that the radio waves seemed to be coming from the centre of the Galaxy. These discoveries were published in 1940 and were seen by Jan Oort who knew that significant advances could be made in astronomy if there were emission lines in the radio part of the spectrum. He referred this to Hendrik van de Hulst who, in 1944, predicted that neutral hydrogen could produce radiation at a frequency of 1420.4058 MHz due to two closely spaced energy levels in the ground state of the hydrogen atom.

The 21 cm line (1420.4 MHz) was first detected in 1951 by Ewen and Purcell at Harvard University,[4] and published after their data was corroborated by Dutch astronomers Muller and Oort,[5] and by Christiansen and Hindman in Australia. After 1952 the first maps of the neutral hydrogen in the Galaxy were made and revealed, for the first time, the spiral structure of the Milky Way.


In radio astronomy

The spectral line appears within the radio spectrum (in the microwave window to be exact). Electromagnetic energy in this range can easily pass through the Earth's atmosphere and be observed from the Earth with little interference.

Assuming that the hydrogen atoms are uniformly distributed throughout the galaxy, each line of sight through the galaxy will reveal a hydrogen line. The only difference between each of these lines is the doppler shift that each of these lines has. Hence, one can calculate the relative speed of each arm of our galaxy. The rotation curve of our galaxy has also been calculated using the 21-cm hydrogen line. It is then possible to use the plot of the rotation curve and the velocity to determine the distance to a certain point within the galaxy.

Hydrogen line observations have also been used indirectly to calculate the mass of galaxies, to put limits on any changes over time of the universal gravitational constant and to study dynamics of individual galaxies.

In cosmology

The line is of great interest in big bang cosmology because it is the only known way to probe the "dark ages" from recombination to reionization. Including the redshift, this line will be observed at frequencies from 200 MHz to about 9 MHz on Earth. It potentially has two applications. First, by mapping the intensity of redshifted 21 centimeter radiation it can, in principle, provide a very precise picture of the matter power spectrum in the period after recombination. Second, it can provide a picture of how the universe was reionized, as neutral hydrogen which has been ionized by radiation from stars or quasars will appear as holes in the 21 centimeter background.

However, 21 centimeter experiments are very difficult. Ground based experiments to observe the faint signal are plagued by interference from television transmitters and the ionosphere, so they must be very secluded and careful about eliminating interference if they are to succeed. Space based experiments, even on the far side of the Moon (which should not receive interference from terrestrial radio signals), have been proposed to compensate for this. Little is known about other effects, such as synchrotron emission and free-free emission on the galaxy. Despite these problems, 21 centimeter observations, along with space-based gravity wave observations, are generally viewed as the next great frontier in observational cosmology, after the cosmic microwave background polarization.

In terrestrial remote sensing

The Soil Moisture & Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite's main scientific instrument Microwave Imaging Radiometer with Aperture Synthesis (MIRAS) uses the 1400-1427 MHz frequencies (including 1420.406 MHz) to monitor the ocean surface salinity and the soil moisture of the Earth. The choice of HI band results from: (1) much better radiative signature of salinity and moisture in microwave than in higher frequencies, and (2) no electromagnetic interference from anthropogenic sources, as HI is reserved for radioastronomy.

Possible uses for SETI

The Pioneer plaque, attached to the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft, portrays the hyperfine transition of neutral hydrogen and used the wavelength as a standard scale of measurement. For example, the height of the woman in the image is displayed as eight times 21 cm, or 168 cm. Similarly the frequency of the hydrogen spin-flip transition was used for a unit of time in a map to Earth included on the Pioneer plaques and also the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. On this map, the position of the Sun is portrayed relative to 14 pulsars whose rotation period circa 1977 is given as a multiple of the frequency of the hydrogen spin-flip transition. It is theorized by the plaque's creators that an advanced civilization would then be able to use the locations of these pulsars to locate the Solar System at the time the spacecraft were launched.

The 21 cm hydrogen line is considered a favorable frequency by the [6] Similarly, Pyotr Makovetsky proposed SETI use a frequency which is equal to either:

\pi \times 1420.40575177 \text{ MHz} = 4.46233627 \text{ GHz}


2 \pi \times 1420.40575177 \text{ MHz} = 8.92467255 \text{ GHz}

Since pi is a transcendental number, such a frequency couldn't possibly be produced in a natural way as a harmonic, and would clearly signify its artificial origin. Such a signal would not be jammed by the HI line itself, or by any of its harmonics.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Darling, Jeremy (September 2004). "A Laboratory for Constraining Cosmic Evolution of the Fine‐Structure Constant: Conjugate 18 Centimeter OH Lines toward PKS 1413+135 at z = 0.24671" (PDF). The Astrophysical Journal 612 (1): 59.  
  2. ^ "The Hydrogen 21-cm Line".  
  3. ^ D. J. Griffiths, "Hyperfine Splitting in the Ground State of Hydrogen", Am. J. Physics 50, 8 (1982)
  4. ^ Ewan, H.I.; E.M. Purcell (September 1951). "Observation of a line in the galactic radio spectrum" (PDF). Nature 168 (4270): 356.  
  5. ^ Muller, C.A.; J.H. Oort (September 1951). "The Interstellar Hydrogen Line at 1,420 Mc./sec., and an Estimate of Galactic Rotation" (PDF). Nature 168 (4270): 357–358.  
  6. ^ Basalla, George (2006). Civilized Life in the Universe.  
  7. ^ Makovetsky P. Smotri v koren' (in Russian)


  • P. Madau, A. Meiksin and M. J. Rees, "21-cm Tomography of the Intergalactic Medium at High Redshift", Astrophysical Journal 475, 429 (1997) arXiv:astro-ph/9608010.
  • B. Ciardi, P. Madau, "Probing Beyond the Epoch of Hydrogen Reionization with 21 Centimeter Radiation", Astrophysical Journal 596, 1 (2003) arXiv:astro-ph/0303249.
  • M. Zaldarriaga, S. Furlanetto and L. Hernquist, "21 Centimeter Fluctuations from Cosmic Gas at High Redshifts", Astrophysical Journal 608, (2004) 608 arXiv:astro-ph/0311514.
  • X. Chen and J. Miralda-Escudé, "Observing the Reionization Epoch Through 21 Centimeter Radiation", Mon. Not. Roy. Astron. Soc. 347, 187 (2004) arXiv:astro-ph/0303395.
  • A. Loeb and M. Zaldarriaga, "Measuring the Small-Scale Power Spectrum of Cosmic Density Fluctuations Through 21 cm Tomography Prior to the Epoch of Structure Formation", Phys. Rev. Lett. 92, 211301 (2004) arXiv:astro-ph/0312134.
  • M. G. Santos, A. Cooray and L. Knox, "Multifrequency analysis of 21 cm fluctuations from the Era of Reionization", Astrophysical Journal 625, 575 (2005) arXiv:astro-ph/0408515.
  • R. Barkana and A. Loeb, "Detecting the Earliest Galaxies Through Two New Sources of 21cm Fluctuations", Astrophysical Journal 626, 1 (2005) arXiv:astro-ph/0410129.

External links

  • The story of Ewen and Purcell's discovery of the 21 cm line
  • Ewen and Purcell's original paper in Nature
  • PAST experiment, arXiv:astro-ph/0404083.
  • LOFAR experiment
  • Mileura Widefield Array experiment
  • Square Kilometer Array experiment