Everything we know about stars—how they are born, what they are made of, how far away they are, how long they live, and how they will die—we learn by decoding the messages contained in the light and radiation that reaches Earth. What questions should we ask, and how do we find the answers?
We can begin our voyage to the stars by looking at the night sky. It is obvious that stars do not all appear equally bright, nor are they all the same color. To understand the stars, we must first determine their basic properties, such as what their temperatures are, how much material they contain (their masses), and how much energy they produce. Since our Sun is a star, of course the same techniques, including spectroscopy, used to study the Sun can be used to find out what stars are like. As we learn more about the stars, we will use these characteristics to begin assembling clues to the main problems we are interested in solving: How do stars form? How long do they survive? What is their ultimate fate?
- 10.1: The Brightness of Stars
- The total energy emitted per second by a star is called its luminosity. How bright a star looks from the perspective of Earth is its apparent brightness. The apparent brightness of a star depends on both its luminosity and its distance from Earth. Thus, the determination of apparent brightness and measurement of the distance to a star provide enough information to calculate its luminosity.
- 10.2: Colors of Stars
- Stars have different colors, which are indicators of temperature. The hottest stars tend to appear blue or blue-white, whereas the coolest stars are red. A color index of a star is the difference in the magnitudes measured at any two wavelengths and is one way that astronomers measure and express the temperature of stars.
- 10.3: The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
- The differences in the spectra of stars are principally due to differences in temperature, not composition. The spectra of stars are described in terms of spectral classes. In order of decreasing temperature, these spectral classes are O, B, A, F, G, K, M, L, T, and Y. These are further divided into subclasses numbered from 0 to 9. The classes L, T, and Y have been added recently to describe newly discovered star-like objects—mainly brown dwarfs—that are cooler than M9. Our Sun has is a G2 type.
- 10.4: Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
- Analyzing the spectrum of a star can teach us all kinds of things in addition to its temperature. We can measure its detailed chemical composition as well as the pressure in its atmosphere. From the pressure, we get clues about its size. We can also measure its motion toward or away from us and estimate its rotation.
- 10.5: Measuring Stellar Masses Part 1
- 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.
- 10.6: Measuring Stellar Masses Part 2
- 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; 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.
- 10.7: 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.
- 10.8: 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.
- 10.9: Fundamental Units of Distance
- Early measurements of length were based on human dimensions, but today, we use worldwide standards that specify lengths in units such as the meter. Distances within the solar system are now determined by timing how long it takes radar signals to travel from Earth to the surface of a planet or other body and then return.
- 10.10: Surveying the Stars
- For stars that are relatively nearby, we can “triangulate” the distances from a baseline created by Earth’s annual motion around the Sun. Half the shift in a nearby star’s position relative to very distant background stars, as viewed from opposite sides of Earth’s orbit, is called the parallax of that star and is a measure of its distance. Parallax measurements are a fundamental link in the chain of cosmic distances.
- 10.11: Variable Stars- One Key to Cosmic Distances
- Cepheids and RR Lyrae stars are two types of pulsating variable stars. Light curves of these stars show that their luminosities vary with a regularly repeating period. RR Lyrae stars can be used as standard bulbs, and cepheid variables obey a period-luminosity relation, so measuring their periods can tell us their luminosities. Then, we can calculate their distances by comparing their luminosities with their apparent brightnesses, allowing us to measure distances to these stars.
- 10.12: The H-R and Cosmic Distances
- Stars with identical temperatures but different pressures (and diameters) have somewhat different spectra. Spectral classification can therefore be used to estimate the luminosity class of a star as well as its temperature. As a result, a spectrum can allow us to pinpoint where the star is located on an H–R diagram and establish its luminosity. This, with the star’s apparent brightness, again yields its distance. The various distance methods can be used to check one against another.
Thumbnail: This long time exposure shows the colors of the stars. The circular motion of the stars across the image is provided by Earth’s rotation. The various colors of the stars are caused by their different temperatures. (credit: modification of work by ESO/A.Santerne).
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).