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Physics LibreTexts

17: Analyzing Starlight

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?

  • 17.1: 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.
  • 17.2: 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.
  • 17.3: 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.
  • 17.4: 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.
  • 17.E: Analyzing Starlight (Exercises)

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).