The Intercloud Medium

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Stars are like headlights in a fog bank that’s impossibly thick in some places, and so thin as to be transparent in others. Sometimes, we get lucky enough for starlight to light up the fog. Other times, stars shine straight through it.

That “fog” is the interstellar medium. I’ve covered it in several posts already. We’ve gone over nebulae, the visible evidence of the stuff between the stars. I’ve talked about ways to study the interstellar medium. And I’ve introduced you to cool clouds, the clouds of mostly neutral hydrogen gas.

Now I want to introduce you to the intercloud medium. It’s different from cool HI clouds in that it’s ionized, rather than neutral.

But what exactly does that mean? Continue reading

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

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 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

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

Spots on the Sun

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Have you ever looked at the sun, and seen something like this?

Now, before you decide to look at it right now and see what you see, it’s my responsibility as an amateur astronomer to remind you of the safety risks. Focusing your eyes on the sun is dangerous—there’s a reason our eyes automatically flinch away.

How dangerous, you ask? Dangerous enough to burn and even scar your retinas, permanently damaging or even destroying your vision.

Yes, I’m serious.

Now, all this is not to turn you off solar observing entirely. There are safe—and cheap—ways to look at the sun, and see its spots.

But what exactly are sunspots?

Continue reading

Our Sun: The Corona

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When we observe our sun’s corona, we discover something odd.

It’s really, really hot.

But…wait a second. How is that odd? Shouldn’t the sun be hot?

Well…yes. It should, and it is. Its surface temperature is almost ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit, and its core is many times hotter. But there’s a basic law of physics that says energy flows from hotter regions to cooler regions.

The core and photosphere (the visible surface) follow this rule. Even the chromosphere, the lower atmosphere, does as it’s told. But the corona is made up of gases that are hotter than the chromosphere.

What’s up with that? Continue reading

The Hubble Space Telescope

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The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most famous telescopes in the world.

Oops, excuse me—one of the most famous telescopes built.

Hubble, after all, is certainly not in this world. Unless you call the universe the “world,” it’s about as far from being in this world as you can get. It’s in space.

Hubble isn’t that different from an ordinary, ground telescope. It’s only as big as a bus. There are bigger optical telescopes. Its mirror is 2.4 m across—hardly an achievement by modern-day standards.

Palomar Observatory, which was the biggest telescope in the world when it was built, has better optics than Hubble, meaning its images are a bit crisper.

But that doesn’t keep astronomers from continuing to use Hubble. In fact, if you want to use Hubble, you have to get in line—it hardly has time to complete all the projects astronomers ask of it, even observing the night sky 24/7.

So why is Hubble so useful? Continue reading