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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: NASA and ESA

Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. With a visual apparent magnitude of −1.46, it is almost twice as bright as Canopus, the next brightest star. The name "Sirius" is derived from the Ancient Greek Seirios ("scorcher"), possibly because the star's appearance was associated with summer. The star has the Bayer designation α Canis Majoris (α CMa, or Alpha Canis Majoris). What the naked eye perceives as a single star is actually a binary star system, consisting of a white main sequence star of spectral type A1V, termed Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion of spectral type DA2, termed Sirius B.

Sirius appears bright due to both its intrinsic luminosity and its closeness to the Earth. At a distance of 2.6 parsecs(8.6 ly), the Sirius system is one of our near neighbors. Sirius A is about twice as massive as the Sun and has an absolute visual magnitude of 1.42. It is 25 times more luminous than the Sun but has a significantly lower luminosity than other bright stars such as Canopus or Rigel. The system is between 200 and 300 million years old. It was originally composed of two bright bluish stars. The more massive of these, Sirius B, consumed its resources and became a red giant before shedding its outer layers and collapsing into its current state as a white dwarf around 120 million years ago.


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Some massive stars compared to our Sun ( one single grey pixel in the 'Full resolution' image (2,876 × 2,068 pixels)) and the orbit of Earth (grey), Jupiter (red) and Neptune (blue). From left to right: The Pistol Star, Rho Cassiopeiae, Betelgeuse, and VY Canis Majoris
Photo credit: user:Anynobody

The solar mass (\begin{smallmatrix}M_\odot\end{smallmatrix}) is a standard unit of mass in astronomy, used to indicate the masses of other stars, as well as clusters, nebulae and galaxies. It is equal to the mass of the Sun, about two nonillion kilograms. This is about 332,950 times the mass of the Earth or 1,048 times the mass of Jupiter. Because the Earth follows an elliptical orbit around the Sun, the solar mass can be computed from the equation for the orbital period of a small body orbiting a central mass. Based upon the length of the year, the distance from the Earth to the Sun (an astronomical unit or AU), and the gravitational constant (G).

The value of the gravitational constant was derived from 1798 measurements by Henry Cavendish using a torsion balance. The value obtained differed only by about 1% from the modern value.The diurnal parallax of the Sun was accurately measured during the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769, yielding a value of 9″ (compared to the present 1976 value of 8.794148″), yielding a value of 9″ (compared to the present 1976 value of 8.794148″). When the value of the diurnal parallax is known, the distance to the Sun can be determined from the geometry of the Earth. The first person to estimate the mass of the Sun was Isaac Newton. In his work Principia, he estimated that the ratio of the mass of the Earth to the Sun was about 1/28,700. Later he determined that this value was based upon a faulty value for the solar parallax, which was used to estimate the distance to the Sun (1 AU). He revised his result to obtain a ratio of 1/169,282 in the third edition of the Principia. The current value for the solar parallax is smaller still, giving a mass ratio of 1/332,946.

As a unit of measurement, the solar mass came into use before the AU and the gravitational constant were precisely measured. This is because the determination of the relative mass of another planet in the Solar System or of a binary star in units of solar masses does not depend on these poorly known constants. So it was useful to express these masses in units of solar masses (see Gaussian gravitational constant).

The mass of the Sun changes slowly, compared to the lifetime of the Sun. Mass is lost due to two main processes in nearly equal amounts. First, in the Sun's core hydrogen is converted into helium by nuclear fusion, in particular the pp chain. Thereby mass is converted to energy in correspondence to the mass–energy equivalence. This energy is eventually radiated away by the Sun. The second process is the solar wind, which is the ejection of mainly protons and electrons to outer space. The actual net mass of the Sun since it reached the main sequence remains uncertain. The early Sun had much higher mass loss rates than at present, so, realistically, it may have lost anywhere from 1–7% of its total mass over the course of its main sequence lifetime.


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An early Baroque artist's rendition of Claudius Ptolemaeus
Photo credit: Unknown artist, uploaded by User:Salvatore Ingala

Claudius Ptolemaeus (Greek: Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος Klaúdios Ptolemaîos; c. AD 90 – c. 168), known in English as Ptolemy /ˈtɒləmɪ/, was a Roman citizen of Egypt who wrote in Greek. He was a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer and a poet of a single epigram in the Greek Anthology. He lived in Egypt under Roman rule, and is believed to have been born in the town of Ptolemais Hermiou in the Thebaid. He died in Alexandria around AD 168.

Ptolemy was the author of several scientific treatises, at least three of which were of continuing importance to later Islamic and European science. The first is the astronomical treatise now known as the Almagest (in Greek, Ἡ Μεγάλη Σύνταξις, "The Great Treatise", originally Μαθηματικὴ Σύνταξις, "Mathematical Treatise"). The second is the Geography, which is a thorough discussion of the geographic knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. The third is the astrological treatise known sometimes in Greek as the Apotelesmatika (Ἀποτελεσματικά), more commonly in Greek as the Tetrabiblos (Τετράβιβλος, "Four Books"), and in Latin as the Quadripartitum (or "Four Books") in which he attempted to adapt horoscopic astrology to the Aristotelian natural philosophy of his day.

In Almagest, considered to be one of the most influential scientific texts of all time, Ptolemy presented his astronomical models in convenient tables, which could be used to compute the future or past position of the planets. The Almagest also contains a star catalogue, which is an appropriated version of a catalogue created by Hipparchus. His Planetary Hypotheses went beyond the mathematical model of the Almagest to present a physical realization of the universe as a set of nested spheres.


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Messier 4
Photo credit: NASA/WikiSky

Messier 4 or M4 (also designated NGC 6121) is a globular cluster in the constellation of Scorpius. It was discovered by Philippe Loys de Chéseaux in 1746 and catalogued by Charles Messier in 1764. It was the first globular cluster in which individual stars were resolved.


Did you know?

  • ... Sirius's name probably comes from a Greek word meaning “sparkling”, or “scorching”?
  • ... the Great Red Spot — a storm on Jupiter that has been going on for 300 years — is so big that dozens of Earths would fit into it?


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