Science Questions, Anybody? (#2)

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Most of the time, when I publish posts on this blog, I choose a topic and write about it in the hopes that you’re curious about it. But I also want to know what you are curious about—always.

I want to call your attention to the “Got Questions?” link up in the menu.

This link will take you to a page that invites you to submit a question. Anything about science, anything you’re curious about, just type it out and hit “Submit!” My door is always open, so to speak—that page will always be available.

I’ll still send out posts like this one asking for your questions. But I want you to know that you never have to wait to ask a question. Science is all about being inquisitive, and you should never have to wait for me to prompt you. But you can, if you want 😉

Anyway, this is another “Science Questions” post—you’re welcome to ask whatever you want in the comments below. I’ll address your questions in the order they’re submitted and let you know when the post is published.

And please, by all means head over to my “Got Questions?” page. I want to know what you’re curious about. I want to answer your questions. Most of all, I want this blog to be a place where you feel free to wonder. A curious mind is a healthy thing!

Remember, everyone—there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. I promise to answer anything you ask to the best of my ability.

Questions, anyone?

Spectroscopic Binary Stars

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Consider a solar system far different from our own. A solar system governed by two suns, and consisting of planets we can only dream of.

Would it surprise you to hear that, based on recent discoveries, that might actually be the norm?

The surroundings we grow up in determine our outlook on the world, and this is never more true than with our solar system. Our eight planets (though some would vehemently insist upon nine) and their parent star are all we know.

But what if I told you that most of the stars you see when you look up at the night sky have companions? And often, these companions are impossible to detect by visual means.

So how do we know they exist? Continue reading

Visual Binary Stars

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Here’s a visual binary that just about stretches the limits of the definition. It’s a star, though you’ll never see it like this with the naked eye. Specifically, this is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

But if you look closely on the top left, you’ll see a tiny dot just peeking out from behind Sirius’s brilliance. That’s Sirius B, this bright star’s faint companion. Together, they’re known as Sirius A and Sirius B.

It’s tradition for astronomers to name all the stars in a system the same thing, but it also makes sense. Most of them aren’t obvious. You might look at some ordinary-looking star in the sky, say…Antares. But as it turns out, Antares has a barely-visible companion.

The visibility of visual binaries has a wide range. Consider the famous double star in the Big Dipper, Mizar. Continue reading

Binary Stars

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We know how big stars are; they range from the size of the Earth to over a thousand times the size of the sun (which is in itself over one hundred times the size of the Earth). We know they’re huge.

But how massive are they?

Yes, that’s a different thing.

A pingpong ball and a golf ball are close to the same size, but a golf ball is much more massive—in that it has more stuff in it. A pingpong ball is hollow and easily tossed; a golf ball has more matter in it and will hit the ground with a harder thunk.

Stars are similar. They have a wide range of sizes, but nothing I’ve described thus far has told us about their masses. That is, how much stuff is in them? Are they like puffy gaseous balls, or are they more dense, like planets?

The best way to learn about stars’ masses is by studying binary stars. But what exactly are binary stars? Continue reading

Star Types Demystified

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By now, I’ve introduced you to a lot of different ways to classify stars.

Months ago, I talked about the different spectral classes—O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. Even before that, I told you about apparent visual magnitude, our ranking system for how bright stars appear to the naked eye.

More recently, we explored absolute visual magnitude and the related absolute bolometric magnitude and luminosity. All these are related to a star’s actual brightness, not just how bright they seem to be from Earth.

And last but not least, we talked about the H-R diagram and how to rank stars by their luminosity classification.

In short, it may seem like sorting stars is a complicated business. But it’s not really. And here, I intend to give you an overview to put all this together. Continue reading

What Makes a Star Blue?

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Albireo is the distinctive double star in the head of the constellation Cygnus. You can find it yourself if you look for the Summer Triangle amid the dusty trail of the Milky Way across the night sky.

The brighter, orange star of Albireo is a K3-class bright giant. That means it’s just a few thousand Kelvins (Celsius degrees plus 273) cooler than the sun. But it’s also larger—70 times the sun’s radius—and that makes it brighter than you would expect.

The blue star, on the other hand, is a B8-class dwarf. It has only about 3.5 times the sun’s radius, although it’s hotter by about 7422 Kelvins.

Neither star in Albireo is particularly unusual. There are doubtless millions, even billions, of other stars similar to each one. But Albireo certainly offers us the most striking contrast. Bright blue and red stars don’t often appear so close together.

But what exactly gives these stars their distinctive colors? Continue reading

How Far Are the Stars?

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Stars don’t look small because they’re really the size of pinholes in a blanket. The smallest are the size of Earth. The largest have 128,865,170 times Earth’s diameter.

They look small in the sky because they’re distant. It’s for the same reason you can tell how far away your surroundings are by how small they appear; you know the mountains on the horizon are far away because they look shorter than your house.

The nearest star to our solar system is 4.3 light-years away. But what exactly is a light-year?

Light seems to travel instantaneously from your flashlight to the nearest surface, but it actually has a finite speed. In one second, it travels 299,792 km—fast enough to wrap itself around Earth’s equator 7.5 times.

In one year, light covers 9,460,730,472,580.8 kilometers, enough to wrap around the sun’s equator 2160.5 times. Four times that is the distance to the nearest star.

But how do we know this? Continue reading

Star Luminosity Classes

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What do you think it would mean for a star to be in a specific luminosity class? I mean…does that mean they go to school to learn how to be bright?

(Ha, ha…yeah, I know, bad astronomy pun.)

Well…not quite.

Stars can be sorted in a lot of ways—and a good thing, too, because there are literally trillions upon trillions of them. Astronomers would be lost if we couldn’t sort them into groups to study.

They can be sorted according to spectral type (composition and temperature), apparent visual magnitude (how bright they look to the naked eye from Earth), and absolute visual magnitude (how bright they would look to the naked eye from ten parsecs away).

They can also be sorted according to their absolute bolometric magnitude (how bright they would look from ten parsecs away if the human eye could see all types of radiation).

And…they can even be sorted according to their luminosity. Continue reading

Just How Big Are Stars?

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Tell me about the stars you see in this image.

They look like billions of little pinpricks of light, right? It’s hard to imagine that each one of these is probably the size of the sun…or much larger. And the sun, by the way, is about 109 times Earth’s diameter.

So if you thought those stars were small…not so.

It makes sense that they would be very large. Their light reaches us from many light years away, with the nearest star 4.3 light years away and the most distant one likely trillions.

In order to radiate that far out and stay bright enough to speckle the night, they would have to be very luminous, and that means having a large surface area, even if they’re not particularly hot.

So how do we know how big the stars are? Continue reading

The H-R Diagram

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There are 250 billion stars in our galaxy alone. Many are much like the sun, labeled with the Latin sol for “sun” in this diagram. But many more are not quite what we might expect stars to be like, after living under the light of a white G2 star our whole lives.

Wait a second. White G2? Since when is the sun white? And what the heck does G2 mean?

I’m talking about its spectral type—a classification system that organizes stars by their temperatures, determined by what they’re made of. The sequence is O, B, A, F, G, K, and M, in order from hottest to coolest. The sun is a fairly cool star.

But the thing is, the spectral types don’t actually tell you anything about how bright the star is, how big it is, how luminous it is…I could go on.

So how can we make things easy for ourselves and classify stars according to spectral type, size, and luminosity all at the same time? Continue reading