17.1 The Brightness of Stars

The total energy emitted per second by a star is called its luminosity. How bright a star looks from the perspective of Earth is its apparent brightness. The apparent brightness of a star depends on both its luminosity and its distance from Earth. Thus, the determination of apparent brightness and measurement of the distance to a star provide enough information to calculate its luminosity. The apparent brightnesses of stars are often expressed in terms of magnitudes, which is an old system based on how human vision interprets relative light intensity.

17.2 Colors of Stars

Stars have different colors, which are indicators of temperature. The hottest stars tend to appear blue or blue-white, whereas the coolest stars are red. A color index of a star is the difference in the magnitudes measured at any two wavelengths and is one way that astronomers measure and express the temperature of stars.

17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)

The differences in the spectra of stars are principally due to differences in temperature, not composition. The spectra of stars are described in terms of spectral classes. In order of decreasing temperature, these spectral classes are O, B, A, F, G, K, M, L, T, and Y. These are further divided into subclasses numbered from 0 to 9. The classes L, T, and Y have been added recently to describe newly discovered star-like objects—mainly brown dwarfs—that are cooler than M9. Our Sun has spectral type G2.

17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion

Spectra of stars of the same temperature but different atmospheric pressures have subtle differences, so spectra can be used to determine whether a star has a large radius and low atmospheric pressure (a giant star) or a small radius and high atmospheric pressure. Stellar spectra can also be used to determine the chemical composition of stars; hydrogen and helium make up most of the mass of all stars. Measurements of line shifts produced by the Doppler effect indicate the radial velocity of a star. Broadening of spectral lines by the Doppler effect is a measure of rotational velocity. A star can also show proper motion, due to the component of a star’s space velocity across the line of sight.

This book was adapted from the following: Fraknoi, A., Morrison, D., & Wolff, S. C. (2016). Summary In Astronomy. OpenStax. under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0
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PPSC AST 1120: Stellar Astronomy by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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