In astronomy, a light curve is a graph of light intensity of a celestial object or region, as a function of time. The light is usually in a particular frequency interval or band. Light curves can be periodic, as in the case of eclipsing binaries, Cepheid variables, other periodic variables, and transiting extrasolar planets, or aperiodic, like the light curve of a nova, a cataclysmic variable star, a supernova or a microlensing event. The study of the light curve, together with other observations, can yield considerable information about the physical process that produces it or constrain the physical theories about it.
In planetology, a light curve can be used to estimate the rotation period of a minor planet, moon, or comet nucleus. From the Earth there is often no way to resolve a small object in our Solar System, even in the most powerful of telescopes, since the apparent angular size of the object is smaller than one pixel in the detector. Thus, astronomers measure the amount of light produced by an object as a function of time (the light curve). The time separation of peaks in the light curve gives an estimate of the rotational period of the object. The difference between the maximum and minimum brightnesses (the amplitude of the light curve) can be due to the shape of the object, or to bright and dark areas on its surface. For example, an asymmetrical asteroid's light curve generally has more pronounced peaks, while a more spherical object's light curve will be flatter.
In botany, a light curve shows the photosynthetic response of leaf tissue or algal communities to varying light intensities. The shape of the curve illustrates the principle of limiting factors; in low light levels, the rate of photosynthesis is limited by the concentration of chlorophyll and the efficiency of the light-dependent reactions, but in higher light levels it is limited by the efficiency of RuBisCo and the availability of carbon dioxide. The point on the curve where these two differing slopes meet is called the light saturation point and is where the light-dependent reactions are producing more ATP and NADPH than can be utilized by the light-independent reactions. Since photosynthesis is also limited by ambient carbon dioxide levels, light curves are often repeated at several different constant carbon dioxide concentrations.
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