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.
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.
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Rigel, also known by its Bayer designation Beta Orionis (β Ori, β Orionis), is the brightest star in the constellation Orion and the seventh brightest star in the night sky, with visual magnitude 0.13. The star as seen from Earth is actually a triple star system, with the primary star (Rigel A) a blue-white supergiant of absolute magnitude −7.84 and around 120,000 times as luminous as the Sun. An Alpha Cygni variable, it pulsates periodically. Visible in small telescopes, Rigel B is itself a spectroscopic binary system, consisting of two main sequence blue-white stars of spectral type B9.
If viewed from a distance of 1 astronomical unit, it would span an angular diameter of 35° and shine at magnitude −38. Like other blue supergiants, Rigel has exhausted burning its core hydrogen fuel and left the main sequence, expanding and brightening as it progresses across the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram. It will end its stellar life as a type II supernova, exploding and in the process flinging out material that will serve to seed future generations of stars.
As it is both bright and moving through a region of nebulosity, Rigel lights up several dust clouds in its vicinity, most notably the IC 2118 (the Witch Head Nebula). Rigel is also associated with the Orion Nebula, which—while more or less along the same line of sight as the star—is almost twice as far away from Earth. Despite the difference in distance, projecting Rigel's path through space for its expected age brings it close to the nebula. As a result, Rigel is sometimes classified as an outlying member of the Orion OB1 Association, along with many of the other bright stars in that region of the sky.
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In astronomy, stellar classification is a classification of stars based on their spectral characteristics. The spectral class of a star is a designated class of a star describing the ionization of its chromosphere, what atomic excitations are most prominent in the light, giving an objective measure of the temperature in this chromosphere. Light from the star is analyzed by splitting it up by a diffraction grating, subdividing the incoming photons into a spectrum exhibiting a rainbow of colors interspersed by absorption lines, each line indicating a certain ion of a certain chemical element. The presence of a certain chemical element in such an absorption spectrum primarily indicates that the temperature conditions are suitable for a certain excitation of this element. If the star temperature has been determined by a majority of absorption lines, unusual absences or strengths of lines for a certain element may indicate an unusual chemical composition of the chromosphere.
Most stars are currently classified using the letters O, B, A, F, G, K, and M (usually memorized by astrophysicists as "Oh, be a fine girl/guy, kiss me"), where O stars are the hottest and the letter sequence indicates successively cooler stars up to the coolest M class. According to informal tradition, O stars are called "blue", B "blue-white", A stars "white", F stars "yellow-white", G stars "yellow", K stars "orange", and M stars "red", even though the actual star colors perceived by an observer may deviate from these colors depending on visual conditions and individual stars observed. The current non-alphabetical scheme developed from an earlier scheme using all letters from A to O; the original letters were retained but the star classes were re-ordered in the current temperature order when the connection between the stars' class and temperatures became clear. A few star classes were dropped as duplicates of others.
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Hipparchus was born in Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey), and probably died on the island of Rhodes. He is known to have been a working astronomer at least from 147 to 127 BC. Hipparchus is considered the greatest ancient astronomical observer and, by some, the greatest overall astronomer of antiquity. He was the first whose quantitative and accurate models for the motion of the Sun and Moon survive. For this he certainly made use of the observations and perhaps the mathematical techniques accumulated over centuries by the Chaldeans from Babylonia. He developed trigonometry and constructed trigonometric tables, and he has solved several problems of spherical trigonometry. With his solar and lunar theories and his trigonometry, he may have been the first to develop a reliable method to predict solar eclipses. His other reputed achievements include the discovery of Earth's precession, the compilation of the first comprehensive star catalog of the western world, and possibly the invention of the astrolabe, also of the armillary sphere, which he used during the creation of much of the star catalogue. It would be three centuries before Claudius Ptolemaeus' synthesis of astronomy would supersede the work of Hipparchus; it is heavily dependent on it in many areas.
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Photo credit: NASA/TRACE
Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the surface of the Sun (the photosphere) that appear visibly as dark spots compared to surrounding regions. They are caused by intense magnetic activity, which inhibits convection, forming areas of reduced surface temperature. Although they are at temperatures of roughly 3,000–4,500 K, the contrast with the surrounding material at about 5,780 K leaves them clearly visible as dark spots, as the intensity of a heated black body (closely approximated by the photosphere) is a function of T (temperature) to the fourth power. If the sunspot were isolated from the surrounding photosphere it would be brighter than an electric arc. Sunspots expand and contract as they move across the surface of the sun and can be as large as 80,000 km (50,000 miles) in diameter, making the larger ones visible from Earth without the aid of a telescope.
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