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?

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The Doppler Effect

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Have you ever heard the ice cream truck?

When I was little, I remember hearing the ice cream truck all the time. Just the sound of the opening notes of “Pop Goes the Weasel” were enough to propel me to the door, where I’d beg my parents to let me go out.

Of course, I didn’t always make it out front in time. But one day, my dad found a way to solve that problem—by actually getting in the car and chasing the ice cream truck.

I remember us driving around the neighborhood, following that white truck around. A few times, it slowed and stopped, but when we stopped too, it kept going again. It took a while for the driver to realize we were following him!

Eventually, we caught it, and had a good laugh over it. But the moral of the story is…have you ever noticed that you can tell if something is moving toward you or away from you, just by if it’s getting louder or quieter?

The same trick works for stars…sort of.

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Types of Stars

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Meet the sun: a G2 class star towards the middle of its lifespan.

Wait a second…G2? What does that even mean?

It’s all part of a way astronomers break down the billions of stars in the sky and organize them by temperature. They can use a star’s spectrum to figure out what it’s made of, and that helps them figure out how hot it is.

But really…being able to read stellar spectra (plural for spectrum) is only so helpful. There are billions. It helps to have an organizational system.

That way, if an astronomer sees a stellar spectrum that looks a certain way, they can know immediately that it’s a certain class of star.

So…how exactly are stars classified?

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The Atomic Spectrum

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Astronomers know that if white light passes through a prism and is bent, it’s separated out into its component colors—the colors of the rainbow.

Astronomers also know that when light interacts with atoms, the building blocks of the universe, the atoms absorb photons of light and reemit them—but in a different direction.

Put these two bits of knowledge together, and astronomers now have everything they need to understand spectra (the plural for spectrum).

spectrum is something I’ve covered in previous posts. In astronomy, it means the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation spread out so we can analyze them individually. And it’s an astronomer’s most valuable tool.

So, what exactly is a spectrum, and how can we use it to analyze radiation from space and learn more about the universe?

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Stars and Radiation

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Stars are hot.

Really hot. Hot enough to have energy to spare for their planets. If our star wasn’t hot, we couldn’t live on Earth. And our star isn’t even particularly hot for a star. It’s a middle-aged star of low mass, so it’s relatively cool compared to other stars.

You might also notice that stars aren’t all the same color. There are redder stars and bluer stars and more whitish stars.

We know stars are hot. They’re also bright. And they’re different colors. But how does that all translate to radiation—and how can we see it?

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Atoms and Radiation

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Everything we know about space comes from radiation.

Now wait just a moment here. That statement explains how astronomy is such a successful field of science—it’s based entirely on the information we can glean from radiation, after all. But how does that make sense?

I mean, it’s one thing to study radiation. It’s quite another thing to study matter, the “stuff” in the universe. How does one have anything to do with the other?

Well…that’s where atoms come in. Radiation does, in fact, have a lot to do with the “stuff” it comes from. And if it weren’t for that basic principle, astronomy as a science wouldn’t work.

Thankfully for astronomers, it does. So what’s the secret, then? What does radiation have to do with matter?

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The Building Blocks of the Universe

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“The Building Blocks of the Universe.” When you put it that way, atoms sound less like a topic specifically for a chemistry class and more like something astronomers might discuss.

They really are. I’ve got a fantastic reason to include atoms under astronomy, and its name is stellar spectra.

We’ve encountered stellar spectra before in these astronomy posts. When I wrote about the spectrograph, an instrument astronomers use to study data, I talked about spectral lines. I also promised we’d come back to elaborate on that later.

We’re not actually going to talk about the spectrograph in this post. I’m saving that for another time. For now, I’m going to cover atoms in a little more detail.

That way, we’ll have a better understanding of how they interact with light later on—and that will help us understand the spectrograph.

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