How do stars form? How long do they live? And how do they die? Stop and think how hard it is to answer these questions.
Stars live such a long time that nothing much can be gained from staring at one for a human lifetime. To discover how stars evolve from birth to death, it was necessary to measure the characteristics of many stars (to take a celestial census, in effect) and then determine which characteristics help us understand the stars’ life stories. Astronomers tried a variety of hypotheses about stars until they came up with the right approach to understanding their development. But the key was first making a thorough census of the stars around us.
- 18.1: Measuring Stellar Masses
- To understand the properties of stars, we must make wide-ranging surveys. We find the stars that appear brightest to our eyes are bright primarily because they are intrinsically very luminous, not because they are the closest to us. Most of the nearest stars are intrinsically so faint that they can be seen only with the aid of a telescope. Stars with low mass and low luminosity are much more common than stars with high mass and high luminosity.
- 18.2: Measuring Stellar Masses
- The masses of stars can be determined by analysis of the orbit of binary stars—two stars that orbit a common center of mass. In visual binaries, the two stars can be seen separately in a telescope, whereas in a spectroscopic binary, only the spectrum reveals the presence of two stars. Stellar masses range from about 1/12 to more than 100 times the mass of the Sun (in rare cases, going to 250 times the Sun’s mass). Objects with masses between 1/12 and 1/100 that of the Sun are called brown dwarfs
- 18.3: Diameters of Stars
- The diameters of stars can be determined by measuring the time it takes an object (the Moon, a planet, or a companion star) to pass in front of it and block its light. Diameters of members of eclipsing binary systems (where the stars pass in front of each other) can be determined through analysis of their orbital motions.
- 18.4: The H-R Diagram
- The Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, or H–R diagram, is a plot of stellar luminosity against surface temperature. Most stars lie on the main sequence, which extends diagonally across the H–R diagram from high temperature and high luminosity to low temperature and low luminosity. The position of a star along the main sequence is determined by its mass. High-mass stars emit more energy and are hotter than low-mass stars on the main sequence.
Thumbnail: Stars come in a variety of sizes, masses, temperatures, and luminosities. This image shows part of a cluster of stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud (catalog number NGC 290). Located about 200,000 light-years away, NGC 290 is about 65 light-years across. Because the stars in this cluster are all at about the same distance from us, the differences in apparent brightness correspond to differences in luminosity; differences in temperature account for the differences in color. The various colors and luminosities of these stars provide clues about their life stories. (credit: modification of work by E. Olszewski (University of Arizona), European Space Agency, NASA).
Contributors and Attributions
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).