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The Star Portal


A star is a massive, luminous sphere of plasma held together by gravity. At the end of its lifetime, a star can also contain a proportion of degenerate matter. The nearest star to Earth is the Sun, which is the source of most of the energy on Earth. Other stars are visible from Earth during the night, when they are not obscured by atmospheric phenomena, appearing as a multitude of fixed luminous points because of their immense distance. Historically, the most prominent stars on the celestial sphere were grouped together into constellations and asterisms, and the brightest stars gained proper names. Extensive catalogues of stars have been assembled by astronomers, which provide standardized star designations.

Sun, our nearest star.

For at least a portion of its life, a star shines due to thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen in its core releasing energy that traverses the star's interior and then radiates into outer space. Almost all naturally occurring elements heavier than helium were created by stars, either via stellar nucleosynthesis during their lifetimes or by supernova nucleosynthesis when stars explode. Astronomers can determine the mass, age, chemical composition and many other properties of a star by observing its spectrum, luminosity and motion through space. The total mass of a star is the principal determinant in its evolution and eventual fate. Other characteristics of a star are determined by its evolutionary history, including diameter, rotation, movement and temperature. A plot of the temperature of many stars against their luminosities, known as a Hertzsprung–Russell diagram (H–R diagram), allows the age and evolutionary state of a star to be determined.

Sun Star.svg More about... stars: their formation, evolution, namings, structure and diversity

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Photo credit: ESO/P. Kervella

Betelgeuse is a semiregular variable star located approximately 640 light-years from the Earth. With an apparent magnitude ranging between 0.3 and 1.2, it is the ninth brightest star in the night sky. Although Betelgeuse has the Bayer designation Alpha Orionis (α Orionis / α Ori), it is most often the second brightest star in the constellation Orion behind α; Rigel (Beta Orionis) is usually brighter (Betelgeuse is a variable star and is on occasion brighter than Rigel). The star marks the upper right vertex of the Winter Triangle and center of the Winter Hexagon.

Betelgeuse is a red supergiant, and one of the largest and most luminous stars known. For comparison, if the star were at the center of our solar system its surface might extend out to between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, wholly engulfing Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Mars. The angular diameter of Betelgeuse was first measured in 1920–1921 by Albert Abraham Michelson and Francis G. Pease using the 100 inch (2.5 m) John D. Hooker astronomical interferometer telescope atop Mount Wilson Observatory.

Astronomers believe Betelgeuse is only a few million years old, but has evolved rapidly because of its high mass. Due to its age, Betelgeuse may go supernova within the next millennium (because it is hundreds of light years away, it possibly may have done so already).


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Black hole
Photo credit: User:Alain r

According to the general theory of relativity, a black hole is a region of space from which nothing, including light, can escape. It is the result of the deformation of spacetime caused by a very compact mass. Around a black hole there is an undetectable surface which marks the point of no return, called an event horizon. It is called "black" because it absorbs all the light that hits it, reflecting nothing, just like a perfect black body in thermodynamics. Under the theory of quantum mechanics black holes possess a temperature and emit Hawking radiation.

Despite its invisible interior, a black hole can be observed through its interaction with other matter. A black hole can be inferred by tracking the movement of a group of stars that orbit a region in space. Alternatively, when gas falls into a stellar black hole from a companion star, the gas spirals inward, heating to very high temperatures and emitting large amounts of radiation that can be detected from earthbound and Earth-orbiting telescopes.

Astronomers have identified numerous stellar black hole candidates, and have also found evidence of supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. After observing the motion of nearby stars for 16 years, in 2008 astronomers found compelling evidence that a supermassive black hole of more than 4 million solar masses is located near the Sagittarius A* region in the center of the Milky Way galaxy.


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Stephen William Hawking
Photo credit: NASA

Stephen William Hawking, CH, CBE, FRS, FRSA (born 8 January 1942) is a British theoretical physicist, whose world-renowned scientific career spans over 40 years. His books and public appearances have made him an academic celebrity and he is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and in 2009 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for thirty years, taking up the post in 1979 and retiring on 1 October 2009. He is also a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and a Distinguished Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. He is known for his contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes. He has also achieved success with works of popular science in which he discusses his own theories and cosmology in general; these include the runaway best seller A Brief History of Time, which stayed on the British Sunday Times bestsellers list for a record-breaking 237 weeks.

Hawking's key scientific works to date have included providing, with Roger Penrose, theorems regarding singularities in the framework of general relativity, and the theoretical prediction that black holes should emit radiation, which is today known as Hawking radiation (or sometimes as Bekenstein-Hawking radiation).

Hawking has a neuro-muscular dystrophy that is related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a condition that has progressed over the years and has left him almost completely paralysed.


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Red dwarf
Photo credit: NASA/Walt Feimer

According to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, a red dwarf is a small and relatively cool star, of the main sequence, either late K or M spectral type. They constitute the vast majority of stars and have a mass of less than half that of the Sun (down to about 0.075 solar masses, which are brown dwarfs) and a surface temperature of less than 4,000 K.


Did you know?

  • ... the temperature on Mercury varies so extremely that it will rise up to 430 °C during the day and drop as low as -140 °C at night?


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