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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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Size comparison between Aldebaran and the Sun
Photo credit: commons:user:Riffsyphon1024 and commons:user:Mysid

Aldebaran (α Tau, α Tauri, Alpha Tauri) is a red giant star located about 65 light years away in the zodiac constellation of Taurus. With an average apparent magnitude of 0.87 it is the brightest star in the constellation and is one of the brightest stars in the nighttime sky. The name Aldebaran is Arabic (الدبران al-dabarān) and translates literally as "the follower", presumably because this bright star appears to follow the Pleiades, or "Seven Sisters" star cluster in the night sky. In 1997 a substellar companion was reported but subsequent observations have not confirmed this claim.

Aldebaran is classified as a type K5III star. It is an orange giant star that has moved off the main sequence line of the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram. It has exhausted the hydrogen fuel in its core and hydrogen fusion has ceased there. Although not yet hot enough for fusing helium, the core temperature of the star has greatly increased due to gravitational pressure and the star has expanded to a diameter of 44.2 times the diameter of the Sun,Richichi & Roccatagliata (2005) derived an angular diameter of 20.58±0.03 milliarcsec, which given a distance of 65 light years yields a diameter of 61 million km.</ref> approximately 61 million kilometres (see 10 gigametres for similar sizes). The Hipparcos satellite has measured it as 65.1 light-years (20.0 pc) away, and it shines with 150 times the Sun's luminosity. Aldebaran is a slightly variable star, of the slow irregular variable type LB. It varies by about 0.2 in apparent magnitude.


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The life cycle for a sun-like star
Photo credit: User:Oliverbeatson

Stellar evolution is the process by which a star undergoes a sequence of radical changes during its lifetime. Depending on the mass of the star, this lifetime ranges from only a few million years for the most massive to trillions of years for the least massive, which is considerably longer than the age of the universe.

All stars are born from collapsing clouds of gas and dust, often called nebulae or molecular clouds. Nuclear fusion powers a star for most of its life. Stars similar to our Sun gradually grow in size until they reach a red giant phase, after which the core collapses into a dense white dwarf and the outer layers are expelled as a planetary nebula. Larger stars can explode in a supernova as their cores collapse into an extremely dense neutron star or black hole. It is not clear how red dwarfs die because of their extremely long life spans, but they probably experience a gradual death in which their outer layers are expelled over time. Stellar evolution is not studied by observing the life of a single star, as most stellar changes occur too slowly to be detected, even over many centuries. Instead, astrophysicists come to understand how stars evolve by observing numerous stars at various points in their lifetime, and by simulating stellar structure using computer models.

A stellar evolutionary model is a mathematical model that can be used to compute the evolutionary phases of a star from its formation until it becomes a remnant. The mass and chemical composition of the star are used as the inputs, and the luminosity and surface temperature are the only constraints. The model formulae are based upon the physical understanding of the star, usually under the assumption of hydrostatic equilibrium.


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Zhang Heng on a stamp
Photo credit: State Post Bureau of the People's Republic of China

Zhang Heng (simplified Chinese: 张衡; traditional Chinese: 張衡; pinyin: Zhāng Héng; Wade–Giles: Chang Heng) (CE 78–139) was a Chinese astronomer, mathematician, inventor, geographer, cartographer, artist, poet, statesman and literary scholar from Nanyang, Henan. He lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty (CE 25–220) of China. He was educated in the capital cities of Luoyang and Chang'an, and began his career as a minor civil servant in Nanyang. Eventually, he became Chief Astronomer, Prefect of the Majors for Official Carriages, and then Palace Attendant at the imperial court. His uncompromising stances on certain historical and calendrical issues led to Zhang being considered a controversial figure, which prevented him from becoming an official court historian. His political rivalry with the palace eunuchs during the reign of Emperor Shun (r. 125–144) led to his decision to retire from the central court to serve as an administrator of Hejian, in Hebei. He returned home to Nanyang for a short time, before being recalled to serve in the capital once more in 138. He died there a year later, in 139.

Zhang applied his extensive knowledge of mechanics and gears in several of his inventions. He invented the world's first water-powered armillary sphere, to represent astronomical observation; improved the inflow water clock by adding another tank; and invented the world's first seismometer, which discerned the cardinal direction of an earthquake 500 km (310 mi) away. Furthermore, he improved previous Chinese calculations of the formula for pi. In addition to documenting about 2,500 stars in his extensive star catalogue, Zhang also posited theories about the Moon and its relationship to the Sun; specifically, he discussed the Moon's sphericity, its illumination by reflecting sunlight on one side and remaining dark on the other, and the nature of solar and lunar eclipses. His fu (rhapsody) and shi poetry were renowned and commented on by later Chinese writers. Zhang received many posthumous honors for his scholarship and ingenuity, and is considered a polymath by some scholars. Some modern scholars have also compared his work in astronomy to that of Ptolemy (CE 86–161).


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Messier 82
Photo credit: NASA

Messier 82 (also known as NGC 3034, Cigar Galaxy or M82) is the prototypenearby starburst galaxy about 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. The starburst galaxy is five times as bright as the whole Milky Way and one hundred times as bright as our galaxy's center. M82 was previously believed to be an irregular galaxy. However, in 2005, two symmetric spiral arms were discovered in the near-infrared (NIR) images of M82, and is now considered a spiral galaxy.


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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