What are the properties of stars other than the sun?

Stars: What We Can Learn About Them? "All men have stars, ...but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others, they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems....."

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

Key points: Basic parameters of stars - luminosity, temperature, size, mass, composition - and how they are determined

The sun is a star. In general, a star is an object making its own energy and that is (or was) capable of sufficiently high central temperature and pressure that nuclear reactions can occur.

Stars are so distant (the next nearest is 260,000 times further away than the sun) that we see them only as points of light.

Fundamental Stellar Properties

The ones we can determine are fewlink to an extra topic:

Luminosity = total energy emitted (conventionally measured in solar luminosities, L{short description of image})



Mass (conventionally measured in solar masses, M{short description of image})

Composition - what the star is made of

The first three are not independent -- they are related to each other by the radiation laws.buttonbook.jpg (10323 bytes)

If we can learn so little about them, why do we study other starslink to a key question

Stellar Property Measurement Techniques

Luminosity: distance combined with apparent brightness

Distance: trigonometric parallax

Temperature: either from colors (and blackbody laws) or more detailed spectra

Diameter: Luminosity combined with temperature

Mass: Binary star orbits and Kepler's Laws

Composition: Spectra


Because the distances are so large, we use special units:

light years = 1016 meters or parsecs = 3.26 light years = 3.086x1016meters

(a light year is the distance light travels in a year.)buttonbook.jpg (10323 bytes)

We will quote distances in parsecs, abbreviated as pc,  for much of the rest of the course; for really large distances we will use a unit of kpc (kiloparsecs - 1000pc) or Mpc (megaparsecs - 1,000,000pc).

Animation of parallax to a star  

The only direct way to measure stellar distances is through parallaxes - the change in direction toward a nearby star due to our change in position as the earth goes around its orbit. See how the parallax is reduced when the distance of the star increases in this animation.buttonbook.jpg (10323 bytes)

Animation by R. Pogge, http://www-astronomy.mps.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Movies/parallax.html).

After Kepler and Newton, it was obvious that parallax should be observable, but it was still nearly two centuries before a stellar parallax was first measured -- by Bessel in 1838. The problem was that the stars are so distant that parallax is very small and difficult to measure.

animation of relation between proper motion and distance Bessel selected a star with a large proper motion because he reasoned that it would be likely to be near the solar system.

The stars are all moving rapidly through space. Why is this motion only apparent for nearby ones? Although these two stars are moving at the same speed, notice how the nearer one appears to the astronomer to have gone much further in the same time.(animation by G. Rieke)

Animation of proper motion of the Big Dipper

See how proper motions change

the Big Dipper over 200,000 years!

(From R. Pogge, http://www-astronomy.mps.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Movies/proper.html)

Compare with a three dimensional image of the Big Dipperlink to an extra topic

The two stars with the largest proper motions - the one at the end of the handle and the one at the upper right corner of the bowl - are also the two closest in the dipper.

Heliometer overall viewSplit heliometer lens
Bessel purchased a specially constructed telescope where the lens had been cut in half and the two halves could be offset with a precision adjustment. Dudley Observatory, http://www.dudleyobservatory.org/index.asp?pg=Exhibits/bessel.htm Museo della Specola, Bologna, http://stars.bo.astro.it/dip/Museum/english/can_41.html

This gave him two images of the field. He could offset these images to superimpose the images of two different stars and then measure their separation by the amount of lens offset required to bring the images together. In this way, and with great care and perseverance he was able to make accurate measurements.buttonbook.jpg (10323 bytes)

Distances can be deduced indirectly in many other ways. For example, if many stars are together in a cluster, they will all be at the same distance and if we can figure out the distance for one, we know it for all of them.


The luminosity of a star is one of its fundamental parameters -- the luminosity is a direct measure of the rate at which nuclear fusion is proceeding in the star's core.

Astronomers tend to use a logarithmic scale for brightness called magnitudes. We will not use them in this course, but if you are taking another astronomy course and using our notes for review, for example, you can learn how they work here ribbon.jpg (3557 bytes)

Luminosity, apparent brightness, and distance are linked through the radiation laws, so if we know any two we can compute the third - for example, if we can estimate the luminosity without knowing the distance and can measure the apparent brightness, we can calculate the distance.

Temperatures from Spectra

Annie Jump Cannon at the measuring machineAnnie Jump Cannon developed the system of stellar classification used today and published the 9 volumes of the "Henry Draper Catalog" classifying 225,000 stars. She managed to maintain uniform criteria for this whole work!

More about "Miss Cannon" at http://www.wellesley.edu/Astronomy/Annie/

Cannon's system ranked the stars alphabetically in order of the strength of their hydrogen absorption lines, with the strongest A0...A9, B0...B9, C.., etc.

It became obvious near the end of this work that the differences in the low resolution spectra used for classification were dominated by temperature differences.buttonbook.jpg (10323 bytes) The hydrogen lines are strongest for intermediate temperatures, near 10,000K. At higher temperatures, the electrons are stripped from the nuclei and there are no lines, while at lower temperatures the atoms are in their "ground" state and cannot absorb efficiently in the optical lines. In order of temperature, high to low, Cannon's system comes out:

O,   B,   A,   F,   G,    K,   M.

30,000oK ------------------------->3,000oK

Sometimes recited as:

Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin worked out the physics that proved that the stars are all mostly made of hydrogen and that the sequence of stellar spectral types is a temperature sequence.

Wien Law Why didn't "Miss Cannon" use the colors and Wien's Law to get temperatures?

There is dust between the stars that makes them look more red than they really are, and by amounts that vary in unpredictable ways.


From the Stefann-Boltzmann Law, E=sigma.jpg (7580 bytes)AT4, (energy from a blackbody is equal to a constant times the area of the blackbody times the temperature to the fourth power), we could estimate a star's luminosity IF we also knew its surface area (which we rarely do!):

Luminosity = sigma.jpg (7580 bytes)T4 x spharea.jpg (4152 bytes)

where r is the radius of the star. Instead, we turn the equation around and use it to compute the radius of the star.

Animation of eclipsing binary  

Eclipsing binaries are pairs of

stars whose orbits are aligned

along our line of sight so that

one passes in front of the other:

They can provide a check on

the computed sizes by measuring

the duration of the eclipses and

the stellar velocities.

(Animation from R. Pogge, http://www-astronomy.mps.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Movies/eclbin.html)

For nearby, luminous (and hence large) stars, we can measure sizes directly with interferometers -- these cases provide the tests that the other methods are reliable.

Stellar Masses

are obtained from multiple star systems.

-- about half of all stars are found in systems of several stars orbiting each other. Binary stars are systems with only two members.

Visual binaries are separated enough on the sky that both members can be seen and studied, and their orbits can be measured:

Sirius A and B orbiting each other Here are Sirius A and B orbiting each other, from 1900 through 1970 (images from The Essential Cosmic Perspective, Bennett et al., animated by G. Rieke)
animation of binary stars in circular orbits binstr2.gif (204155 bytes)  

In both the examples to

the left, the mass of the

blue star is 3.6 times

greater than of the red one. Animations from R. Pogge, http://www-astronomy.mps.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Movies/visbin.html)

By plotting the orbit and measuring the period, Kepler's Law can be used to determine the masses of the stars:


-- here P is the period of the orbits of the stars around each other, a is their separation, G is the gravitational constant, and their masses are M1 and M2 (technically this gives only the sum of the masses of the two stars but by making a few other measurements such as radial velocities the actual values can be determined).

Animation of a spectroscopic binary

Spectroscopic binaries are pairs too close together to be seen as separate stars, but whose spectral lines can be seen separately (and which move relative to each other as the stars move around their orbits):


The observer is measuring the

system from the direction of

the yellow dot to the far left.

Animation from R. Pogge, http://www-astronomy.mps.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Movies/specbin.html)


By observing spectroscopic binaries, we have greatly increased the number of stars for which we have information on masses.

The Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram

Ejnar Hertzsprung was a chemist and amateur astronomer. He used spectra of stars in the Pleiades to classify them according to the strengths of the hydrogen and calcium lines (an earlier implementation of the classification perfected by Annie Jump Cannon). When he graphed the classifications compared with the star brightnesses, he found that the redder stars were systematically fainter. Since all the stars were at the same distance (in a single stellar cluster), this showed that the red stars were intrinsically fainter, or less luminous.   (See http://www.leosondra.cz/en/first-hr-diagram/)

Later, Henry Norris Russell plotted the luminosities and colors for all the stars for which adequate data existed and confirmed these patterns: stars are not found all over this diagram but only in a few regions. The temperatures and luminosities are related in a specific way for most stars, as shown in the Hertzsprung-Russell, or H - R, diagram. Most stars lie along the main sequence that extends from the low luminosity, low temperature corner to the high luminosity, high temperature one. Hertzsprung and Russell, and Leavitt had discovered a behavior of stars relating luminosity and temperature.


Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram Here is an example. We explain B - V colors below. The diagram is equivalently a plot of backwards running temperature (running across the top in this example) against luminosity.

(from http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr162/lect/sun/spectrum.html).

Stellar blackbodies vs. temperature "Colors" referred to the differences in brightnesses at two different wavelengths (in this case, blue and visible). The colors provided an indication of stellar temperature. The "B - V color" in the HR diagram above stands for the ratio of brightness in the yellow to that in the blue, in units such that 0 is a star that is very bright in the blue and 2 is one that is very faint. Therefore, the scale is like a backwards temperature scale with the high temperatures to the left and the low ones to the right (see scale at the top). (from http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr162/lect/sun/spectrum.html).

With the help of the radiation laws to relate sizes, temperatures, and luminosities, the diagram "decodes" as follows:

schematic H-R diagram  

Here the horizontal axis is labeled with temperature in place of color. According to the radiation laws, a very luminous cool star must be very large, while a very hot but low luminosity star must be very small. From Gene Smith, http://casswww.ucsd.edu/public/tutorial/

Perhaps in the discussion above you noticed a change in the type of astronomer involvedbuttonbook.jpg (10323 bytes)

Test your understanding before going onbuttongrad.jpg (11232 bytes)

aztecsun.jpg (33591 bytes)Aztec calendar stone; Tonatiuh, sun god, is in the center. from http://www.windows.ucar.edu/tour/link=/mythology/planets/sun.html

sirtflaunch.jpg (4413 bytes)

sunevolution.jpg (11744 bytes)




Evolution of the Sun, from interstellar cloud (back) to red giant (front). from http://canopy.lmsal.com/schryver/Public/homepage/coolstaroverview.html

Click to return to syllabus

Click to return to Interior of the Sun

hypertext copyright.jpg (1684 bytes) G. H. Rieke

Click to go to Evolution of Stars