The True Brightness of Stars

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Have you ever looked up at the night sky and noticed that while relatively bright stars outline the constellations, there are numerous other stars that are almost too faint to see with the naked eye?

If you ever noticed this, you probably guessed that the brighter stars are literally brighter, and the fainter stars truly are fainter. Or maybe you guessed that they don’t vary in brightness that much, but fainter stars are much farther away.

But that’s not really true…or, at least, it’s not the whole answer.

So what’s the real reason why some stars appear to be brighter than others—and how can we tell how bright they really are? Continue reading

Stars and Proper Motion

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Recognize this constellation?

Well, at the time stamp of about 2000 AD (CE), I think you will. It’s one of the most famous constellations in the night sky.

Well, technically, it’s not a constellation at all.

It’s an asterism—a commonly recognized grouping of stars that isn’t actually official as a constellation. There are tons of asterisms that you no doubt recognize…the Summer Triangle, the Great Square of Pegasus, the Big Dipper.

That’s right. That mess of stars up there that keeps changing for some reason…that’s the oft-recognized Big Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Major.

So why the heck are the stars moving? Continue reading

Distances Between Stars

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When you look up into the sky on a clear night away from the glare of the city, you see trillions upon trillions of stars.

Thousands of years ago, the classical astronomers saw the same thing you do today—except perhaps a little different, due to the ever-changing cosmos. And, like you, they weren’t satisfied with just looking. They wanted to know what was out there.

For hundreds of years, they developed model after model to explain why the stars seemed to orbit the Earth and why certain objects in the sky—which they named planetsseemed to wander backwards from time to time.

Tycho Brahe, an astronomer known mainly for what he got wrong, dismissed the idea of the Earth orbiting the sun because he could detect no parallax between the stars.

If he had been able to measure parallax, he might have realized that the universe was much larger than any of his fellow classical astronomers imagined.

So what is parallax…and how can it help us measure the distances between stars? Continue reading

The Proton-Proton Chain

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Take a wild guess: how much energy do you think the sun generates?

Think about it. It definitely generates enough energy to power a world.

Humans depend on the photosynthesis of plants, which converts sunlight into energy. And that’s not all. Without energy from the sun, our atmosphere would behave very differently, and so would our oceans.

Everything that moves on Planet Earth does so because it has energy. And a lot of that energy comes from the sun. It doesn’t even stop there—obviously, the sun has plenty of energy to spare, if the recent influx of solar power means anything.

The sun is incredibly powerful. And it’s powerful enough to keep generating that kind of massive energy supply for billions of years.

So where does it get all its energy? Continue reading

Star Stuff & Cecilia Payne

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If this quote really is from Cecilia Payne, then she had the right idea—at least for a female astronomer in the 1920s. Women in science back then faced an uphill battle to get recognized for any discoveries they made, and Payne was no different.

What’s so special about Payne, you might ask? Well, she wasn’t just one of the many “unsung heroes” of modern science. She was the one who figured out what stars are made of.

Yeah, that’s right. She sent a probe to the sun, collected a jar of star stuff, and brought it back to her laboratory…

Um, no, not really. It wasn’t that easy.

In fact, it was very difficult. She had far too many roadblocks than were fair. But she wasn’t out for money or recognition. She was just in it for the science. And science was what she got…

Continue reading

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? Continue reading

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? Continue reading

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? Continue reading

Info in a Rainbow

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What do you see in this image?

If you’re from a larger city and haven’t had the opportunity to venture into a place like the desert, you might not know what you’re looking at. That’s the Milky Way, our name for our galaxy.

Inside this galaxy are billions of stars, including our own. Galileo Galilei was the first to discover that it was really many tiny points of light, not just a cloud-like haze across the dark night sky.

We can’t see our galaxy from outside, but we can learn a lot about it by looking out at it from within. It’s difficult. It’s like trying to learn about a building if you can never step outside one of its rooms.

But we can do it, with the help of the spectrograph. Continue reading