The hydrogen line, 21 centimeter 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 1420.40575177 MHz, 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. The frequency of the quanta that are emitted by this transition between two different energy levels is given by Planck’s equation.
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.