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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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Comparison of VY Canis Major and Sun
Photo credit: User:Mysid

VY Canis Majoris (VY CMa) is a red hypergiant star located in the constellation Canis Major. At between 1800 and 2100 solar radii (approx 2,505,600,000 to 2,923,200,000 km across or 1,556,534,837 to 1,816,267,995 miles), it is the largest known star and also one of the most luminous known. It is located about 1.5 kiloparsecs (4.6×1016 km) or about 4,900 light years away from Earth. Unlike most hypergiant stars, which occur in either binary or multiple star systems, VY CMa is a single star. It is categorized as a semiregular variable and has an estimated period of 2000 days.

The first known record of VY Canis Majoris is in the star catalogue of Jérôme Lalande, on March 7, 1801. The catalogue listed VY CMa as a 7th magnitude star. Further studies on its apparent magnitude during the 19th century showed that the star has been fading since 1850.

Since 1847, VY CMa has been known to be a red star. During the 19th century, observers measured at least six discrete components to VY CMa, suggesting the possibility that it is a multiple star. These discrete components are now known to be bright areas in the surrounding nebula. Visual observations in 1957 and high-resolution imaging in 1998 showed that VY CMa does not have a companion star.


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Spectrum images of some stars by Harvard spectral class
Photo credit: NASA

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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Galileo Galilei's portrait painted in 1636
Photo credit: By Justus Sustermans

Galileo Galilei (Italian pronunciation: [galiˈlɛo galiˈlɛi]; 15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642) was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution. His achievements include improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations, and support for Copernicanism. Galileo has been called the "father of modern observational astronomy", the "father of modern physics", the "father of science", and "the father of modern science". Stephen Hawking says: "Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science."

The motion of uniformly accelerated objects, taught in nearly all high school and introductory college physics courses, was studied by Galileo as the subject of kinematics. His contributions to observational astronomy include the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter (named the Galilean moons in his honour), and the observation and analysis of sunspots. Galileo also worked in applied science and technology, inventing an improved military compass and other instruments.

Galileo's championing of Copernicanism was controversial within his lifetime, when a large majority of philosophers and astronomers still subscribed (at least outwardly) to the geocentric view that the Earth is at the centre of the universe. After 1610, when he began publicly supporting the heliocentric view, which placed the Sun at the centre of the universe, he met with bitter opposition from some philosophers and clerics, and two of the latter eventually denounced him to the Roman Inquisition early in 1615. In February 1616, although he had been cleared of any offence, the Catholic Church nevertheless condemned heliocentrism as "false and contrary to Scripture", and Galileo was warned to abandon his support for it—which he promised to do. When he later defended his views in his most famous work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, he was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.


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Crab Nebula
Photo credit: NASA

The Crab Nebula (catalogue designations M1, NGC 1952, Taurus A) is a supernova remnant and pulsar wind nebula in the constellation of Taurus. The nebula was observed by John Bevis in 1731; it corresponds to a bright supernova recorded by Chinese and Arab astronomers in 1054. At X-ray and gamma-ray energies above 30 KeV, the Crab is generally the strongest persistent source in the sky, with measured flux extending to above 1012 eV. Located at a distance of about 6,500 light-years (2 kpc) from Earth, the nebula has a diameter of 11 ly (3.4 pc) and expands at a rate of about 1,500 kilometers per second.

At the center of the nebula lies the Crab Pulsar, a rotating neutron star, which emits pulses of radiation from gamma rays to radio waves with a spin rate of 30.2 times per second. The nebula acts as a source of radiation for studying celestial bodies that occult it.


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