At the center of this frisbee lies the sun—our sun, for simplicity’s sake. And sprinkled around the surface of its disk are all nine…excuse me, eight…planets of the solar system, plus the dwarf planets, asteroids, moons, Kuiper belt objects, Oort Cloud objects, comets, cosmic dust…
Okay, I could go on, but I’ll stop there. You get the picture. The whole solar system is on this frisbee. It’s a flat plane, disk-like. There aren’t orbits that put the planets up in the air above or below the frisbee. They all lie, more or less, in the same basic plane.
Wait a second though…isn’t this post supposed to be about eclipsing binary stars? What the heck does our frisbee-like solar system have to do with that?
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.
Here’s a visual binary that just about stretches the limits of the definition. It’s a star, though you’ll never see it like this with the naked eye. Specifically, this is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.
But if you look closely on the top left, you’ll see a tiny dot just peeking out from behind Sirius’s brilliance. That’s Sirius B, this bright star’s faint companion. Together, they’re known as Sirius A and Sirius B.
It’s tradition for astronomers to name all the stars in a system the same thing, but it also makes sense. Most of them aren’t obvious. You might look at some ordinary-looking star in the sky, say…Antares. But as it turns out, Antares has a barely-visible companion.
The visibility of visual binaries has a wide range. Consider the famous double star in the Big Dipper, Mizar.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?