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18: The Stars: A Celestial Census

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.

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)