A brief introduction to molecular spectroscopy
The atoms that make up a molecule are not immobile, but oscillate around their equilibrium position. These oscillations are grouped according to how they change the molecular geometry and are called vibrational modes.
The number of possible vibrational modes depends on the exact molecular geometry and the number of atoms in the molecule. At the same time, the molecules can also rotate around their various symmetry axes.
In quantum mechanics, these vibrations and rotations are quantized, that is, the atoms can only oscillate or rotate at very specific frequencies and those frequencies are characterized by quantum numbers; the vibrational quantum states are generally denoted by v; the rotational quantum states generally by J. To go from a certain state to a higher one, the molecule needs to absorb a photon with exactly the right energy; conversely, to go to a lower state the molecule will emit such a photon. For vibrational states, these photon energies are typically in the infrared whereas for pure rotational states, the photon energies are much lower and typically lie in the microwave part of the spectrum. Since the rotational properties however depend on the geometry, each vibrational state has its own set of rotational states.
Due to selection rules, vibrational transitions generally also
involve a rotational transition. Therefore, unlike atoms, molecular
spectra show tremendous structure in their absorption and emission
bands, caused by the superposition of many individual transitions that
are due to changes in the vibrational and rotational states. When
observed at high spectral resolution, these individual transitions are
clearly visible; at lower spectral resolution the transitions blend
into a broader ro-vibrational band. Since the vibrational and
rotational parameters are different for each molecule, these bands are
a unique fingerprint and can be used to reliably identify the presence
of molecules in astronomical objects. This is often of great
importance for understanding the chemistry that occurs in
In most cases, the exact shape of the molecular bands is moreover very sensitive to the local temperature and density. Therefore, if we understand e.g. how the band profile changes with temperature, we can use the molecular bands as distant thermometers and measure the temperature in the same astrophysical environments. The molecular bands can thus be used to study at the same time the chemistry and the physical conditions in many astronomical objects.