Diffuse interstellar bands (DIBs) are absorption features seen in the spectra of astronomical objects in our galaxy. They are caused by the absorption of light by the interstellar medium. About 100 bands are seen, in ultraviolet, visible and infrared wavelengths.
Much astronomical work relies on the study of spectra - the light from astronomical objects dispersed using a prism or, more usually, a diffraction grating. A typical stellar spectrum will consist of a continuum, containing absorption lines, each of which is attributed to a particular atomic energy level transition in the atmosphere of the star.
All astronomical objects are affected by extinction, the absorption of photons by the interstellar medium. Interstellar absorption predominantly affects the whole spectrum in a continuous way, rather than causing absorption lines, but in 1922 astronomer Mary Lea Heger first observed a number of line-like absorption features which seemed to be interstellar in origin.
Their interstellar nature was shown by the fact that the strength of the observed absorption was roughly proportional to the extinction, and that in objects with widely differing radial velocities the absorption bands were not affected by Doppler shifting, implying that the absorption was not occurring in or around the object concerned. The name Diffuse Interstellar Band, or DIB for short, was coined to reflect the fact that the absorption features are much broader than the normal absorption lines seen in stellar spectra.
The first DIBs observed were those at wavelengths 578.0 and 579.7 nanometres. Other strong DIBs are seen at 628.4, 661.4 and 443.0 nm. The 443.0 nm DIB is particularly broad at about 1.2 nm across - typical intrinsic stellar absorption features are 0.1 nm or less across.
Later spectroscopic studies at higher spectral resolution and sensitivity revealed more and more DIBs; a catalogue of them in 1975 contained 25 known DIBs, and a decade later the number known had more than doubled. Today over 300 have been detected, but none - identified.
In recent years, very high resolution spectrographs on the world's most powerful telescopes have been used to observe and analyse DIBs. Spectral resolutions of 0.005 nm are now routine using instruments at observatories such as the European Southern Observatory at Cerro Paranal, Chile, and the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Australia, and at these high resolutions, many DIBs are found to contain considerable sub-structure.
The great problem with DIBs, apparent from the earliest observations, was that their central wavelengths did not correspond with any known spectral lines of any ion or molecule, and so the material which was responsible for the absorption could not be identified. A large number of theories were advanced as the number of known DIBs grew, and determining the nature of the absorbing material (the 'carrier') became a crucial problem in astrophysics.
One important observational result is that the strengths of most DIBs are not correlated with each other. This means that there must be many carriers, rather than one carrier responsible for all DIBs. Also significant is that the strength of DIBs is broadly correlated with the extinction. Extinction is caused by dust in the interstellar medium, and so DIBs are likely to be also due to dust or something related to it.
The existence of sub-structure in DIBs supports the idea that they are caused by molecules. In a molecule containing, say, three carbon atoms, some of the carbon will be in the form of the carbon-13 isotope, so that while most molecules will contain three carbon-12 atoms, some will contain two C12 atoms and one C13 atom, much less will contain one C12 and two C13s, and a very small fraction will contain three C13 molecules. Each of these forms of the molecule will create an absorption line at a slightly different rest wavelength.
The most likely candidate molecules for producing DIBs are thought to be large carbon-bearing molecules, which are common in the interstellar medium. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, long carbon-chain molecules, and fullerenes are all potentially important. However, fully identifying the molecules responsible for each DIB is still very much a work in progress.