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

How Lightning Strikes

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There’s a saying that “lightning strikes whatever’s tallest.” But this is only partly true. Tall objects do attract lightning bolts, but there’s a second condition for lightning to strike: electrical conductivity.

Meaning, a lightning bolt will only strike an object that can become electrically charged.

There’s another common misconception out there, though the Google search I did reveals that knowledge of the truth is comfortingly widespread. If you were to catch sight of a lightning bolt, would you say it strikes upward or downward?

That is, does lightning start at the ground or in the clouds?

I heard from multiple reliable sources that lightning strikes from the ground up, but the video you’ll see below would seem to contradict that. I wasn’t satisfied with the results of my search, so I did some more digging.

Continue reading

The Starlight We Can’t See

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Find yourself a dark, unpolluted night sky on a clear night free of clouds, and you are very likely to look up into the heavens and see a sight quite like this. It’s what we see of the Milky Way, our galaxy.

When I’m at an astronomy event with a sky like the one above, I find it absolutely incredible. Do you notice how the stars don’t all look the same?

A couple are startlingly bright, there are numerous stars that are somewhat dimmer, and if you look really hard, you notice that even the dark night background is sprinkled with stars so faint they can barely be seen.

But what if I told you that you’re not even seeing the half of it? Continue reading

What Causes the Lunar Phases?

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We see it almost every night of our lives. For thousands of years, the greatest philosophers and astronomers alike have watched its face change and wondered why.

Step outside and observe the moon every day for a month and you will notice something fascinating. Over the course of the entire month, the moon will go through an entire cycle of phases—no more, no less.

But why?

The phases of the moon are something I’ve talked about before, but I wanted to spend some time on a few common misconceptions this time around and show you the truth behind the lunar phases. Continue reading

Life vs. Rocks: What Makes Them Different?

Welcome to my third “Science Answers” post! About a month ago, I sent out a post requesting science questions from all of you; you can find it here. This post addresses the third of the questions I was asked. If you have a question, you can ask it in the comments here or on that post, or ask it in an email. Or find me on Facebook!

Q: What is the division between the physical and life sciences? For example, why do we think of rocks in a different category than we do plants and animals? (asked by Katherine)

Okay, wow. Another great question! This one is almost as fundamental as gravity, which I answered earlier.

Gravity may be pretty much the singular reason why the universe works the way it does, but the difference between the physical and life sciences is an important distinction when trying to understand the world around us.

So let’s start with what we know. When you hear “physical science,” what do you think of?

 

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You might think of any number of things—but I’ll bet you that none of those things are alive in the traditional sense.

So, how about the biological sciences? What does that make you think of?

 

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Maybe plants…or cute animals?

Whatever you think of, I’m going to guess they’re all alive.

But what makes something alive or not alive? What makes zebras leap and run, whereas rocks are forever immobile? What makes these living beings different from a vast galaxy or the Pillars of Creation? Continue reading

What is Gravity, Anyway?

Welcome to my second “Science Answers” post! About a month ago, I sent out a post requesting science questions from all of you; you can find it here. This post addresses the second of the questions I was asked. If you have a question, you can ask it in the comments here or on that post, or ask it in an email. Or find me on Facebook!

Q: What is gravity? (asked by Simon)

Wow…great question. This is a question the greatest scientific minds have asked and tried to answer for centuries. It’s a question not even Stephen Hawking, the scientific genius of the century, has fully answered.

There are a few parts to the gravity question, and they have each been addressed one by one over time:

  • How does gravity work?
  • What is gravity?
  • Why does gravity work?

Isaac Newton stood on the shoulders of the giants before him—Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler—and figured out how gravity works. But he was at a loss to explain what exactly this mysterious force was.

Einstein built on Newton’s work and came up with a theory for what gravity is—that is, distortions in space-time.

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We have yet to understand why gravity works. Why is space-time warped? Why do objects distort it as if it were the material of a trampoline? What exactly is the nature of space?

But, lucky for me, the question above specifically asks what gravity is. And that, I can explain.

The best way to do that is to turn one of gravity’s oldest tricks, one that has perplexed scientists and philosophers for thousands of years: What makes the planets move? Continue reading