Neutral hydrogen consists of a single proton orbited by a single electron. As well as their orbital motion, the proton and electron also have spin. Classically, this is analogous to rotational motion (like the Earth rotating on its axis as it orbits the Sun), but as they are quantum particles the concept has a slightly different meaning. The spin of the electron and proton can be in either direction - in the classical analogy they are rotating clockwise or anticlockwise around a given axis. They may both have their spin oriented in the same direction or in opposite directions. Because of magnetic interactions between the particles, a hydrogen atom that has the spins of the electron and proton aligned in the same direction (parallel) has slightly more energy than one where the spins of the electron and proton are in opposite directions (anti-parallel). The lowest orbital energy state of atomic hydrogen has hyperfine splitting arising from the spins of the proton and electron changing from a parallel to antiparallel configuration. This transition is highly forbidden with an extremely small probability of 2.9×10−15 s−1. This means that the time for a single isolated atom of neutral hydrogen to undergo this transition is around 10 million (107) years and so is unlikely to be seen in a laboratory on Earth. However, as the total number of atoms of neutral hydrogen in the interstellar medium is very large, this emission line is easily observed by radio telescopes. Also, the lifetime can be considerably shortened by collisions with other hydrogen atoms and interaction with the cosmic microwave background.
The line has an extremely small natural width because of its long lifetime, so most broadening is due to doppler shifts caused by the motion of the emitting regions relative to the observer.
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 Professor J.H. 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 Dr Hendrik van de Hulst who, in 1944, discovered 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 21cm line (1420.4 MHz) was first detected in 1951 by Ewen and Purcell at Harvard University, and published after their data was corroborated by Dutch astronomers Muller and Oort, 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.
Luckily, 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.
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.
The 21 cm Hydrogen line is considered a favorable frequency to search for signals from another civilization, as part of the SETI program. The original paper by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison proposed just such a search in their paper, Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.