Observations of Star Birth

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Astronomers have a pretty solid idea of how stars are born. They begin within the dense, cold dust of an interstellar cloud such as this one. They heat up and get more luminous as they contract, and then drop in luminosity as they continue to contract steadily toward the main sequence.

I’m going to spend at least the next ten or so posts talking about the main-sequence portion of a star’s life cycle. Basically, we’re talking about a star’s adulthood.

You know what, while we’re at it, why don’t I draw up an analogy between a star’s life cycle and that of a human:

  1. When a human is a mere fetus developing within its mother, a star is a protostar.
  2. We say a star has been “born” when it crosses the birth line—basically, satisfies certain expectations for its temperature and luminosity for its specific mass—and becomes visible.
  3. After that, a star steadily approaches adulthood. A “child” star is referred to as a Young Stellar Object (YSO) or a pre-main-sequence star.
  4. An “adult” star is one that has begun to fuse atomic nuclei in its core for fuel. At this stage, the star has reached the main sequence.
  5. When a star runs out of fuel, it leaves the main sequence. We’ll cover this evolution in depth very soon.

I explained this process in depth in my last post. But I also posed the question: how do astronomers know all this? Where’s the evidence? Continue reading

The Story of a Newborn Star

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What happens when a star is born?

A couple of posts ago, I explained how a protostar forms out of a dense cloud core within the interstellar medium. But…wait. What exactly is a protostar again?

A protostar forms when one dense core of an interstellar cloud condenses enough so that gravity can overcome the repulsive forces between the particles, and collapse the cloud. A very cool object then forms in the cloud’s depths, visible only at infrared wavelengths—known as a protostar.

A protostar is compressed enough to be opaque no matter the wavelength—that is, no radiation can pass through it due to its density. However, what separates it from a “true” star is that it’s not compressed enough to generate energy by nuclear fusion.

Astronomers also define a protostar specifically as a young star that’s not yet detectable at visible wavelengths. In other words, protostars emit only longer-wavelength light—that is, infrared and radio waves.

You’d think that becoming a true star would be the next step for a protostar. But that’s not quite how it happens… Continue reading

The Orion Nebula: A Stellar Nursery

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One of my favorite objects to show people at astronomy outreach events is the Orion Nebula. Not only does it reside within a fairly well-known constellation, but it’s a gorgeous sight to see with a good telescope.

There’s no time like the present up here in the northern hemisphere. Orion is a winter constellation and rises high in the sky this time of year. Not to mention, as a stellar nursery, talking about the Orion Nebula follows on perfectly from my last couple posts on star formation.

If you’ve ever seen the Orion Nebula through a small telescope, you’re probably wondering what all the rage is about. It mostly just looks like a bluish haze around a star—like the telescope operator didn’t tune the focus quite right.

But if that’s all you’ve seen, I promise you, you’re missing out… Continue reading

Star Mass and Density

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What makes a star shine bright?

Much earlier on—probably months ago now—I explained how something called the proton-proton chain generates massive amounts of energy within stars, and enables them to fuel whole solar systems. That’s the battery of a star.

We’ll address the proton-proton chain later, when we start talking about star life cycles. We’ve still got some talk about nebulas and interstellar space to go before we get that far. For now, what’s important is that the proton-proton chain depends on high density.

That is, stars will have the strongest batteries if they have very dense interiors. It doesn’t really matter how dense their middles and atmospheres are. But conditions in their cores must be very dense.

You’ll find, if you study stars closely, that there is a definite relation between their densities, masses, and luminosities. Continue reading

The Average Star

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What the heck is the average star like?

We’ve talked about a lot of stars over the past few weeks. We’ve discovered the vast distances between the stars, looked more closely at what really makes a star bright, and covered all kinds of ways to classify stars—from their spectral type to their luminosity class.

Most importantly, we’ve looked at the H-R diagram, the diagram that classifies stars by their color, temperature, composition, and luminosity…and relates those properties with many other features stars have.

We know what kinds of stars are out there. We know they range from thousands of times smaller than the sun to thousands of times larger. We know they range from desperately faint to incredibly luminous. We know they come in all the colors of the rainbow.

But how many blue stars are there? How many small stars are there? Are most of them small, or are there about the same number of small stars as large ones? 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

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