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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: 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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Crab Pulsar
Photo credit: NASA/ESA

The Crab Pulsar (PSR B0531+21) is a relatively young neutron star. The star is the central star in the Crab Nebula, a remnant of the supernova SN 1054, which was widely observed on Earth in the year 1054. Discovered in 1968, the pulsar was the first to be connected with a supernova remnant.

The optical pulsar is roughly 25 km in diameter and the pulsar "beams" rotate once every 33 milliseconds, or 30 times each second. The outflowing relativistic wind from the neutron star generates synchrotron emission, which produces the bulk of the emission from the nebula, seen from radio waves through to gamma rays. The most dynamic feature in the inner part of the nebula is the point where the pulsar's equatorial wind slams into the surrounding nebula, forming a termination shock. The shape and position of this feature shifts rapidly, with the equatorial wind appearing as a series of wisp-like features that steepen, brighten, then fade as they move away from the pulsar into the main body of the nebula. The period of the pulsar's rotation is slowing by 38 nanoseconds per day due to the large amounts of energy carried away in the pulsar wind.

The Crab Nebula is often used as a calibration source in X-ray astronomy. It is very bright in X-rays and the flux density and spectrum are known to be constant, with the exception of the pulsar itself. The pulsar provides a strong periodic signal that is used to check the timing of the X-ray detectors. In X-ray astronomy, 'crab' and 'millicrab' are sometimes used as units of flux density. A millicrab corresponds to a flux density of about 2.4x10-11 erg s-1 cm−2 (2.4x10-14 W m−2) in the 2–10 keV X-ray band, for a "crab-like" X-ray spectrum, which is roughly a powerlaw in photon energy, I(E)=9.5 E-1.1. Very few X-ray sources ever exceed one crab in brightness.


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Johannes Kepler's portrait in 1610
Photo credit: Unknown artist, uploaded by User:ArtMechanic

Johannes Kepler (IPA: [ˈkʰɛplɐ]) (December 27, 1571 – November 15, 1630) was a German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, and key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution. He is best known for his eponymous laws of planetary motion, codified by later astronomers based on his works Astronomia nova, Harmonices Mundi, and Epitome of Copernican Astronomy. They also provided one of the foundations for Isaac Newton's theory of universal gravitation.

Kepler lived in an era when there was no clear distinction between astronomy and astrology, but there was a strong division between astronomy (a branch of mathematics within the liberal arts) and physics (a branch of natural philosophy). Kepler also incorporated religious arguments and reasoning into his work, motivated by the religious conviction that God had created the world according to an intelligible plan that is accessible through the natural light of reason. Kepler described his new astronomy as "celestial physics", as "an excursion into Aristotle's Metaphysics", and as "a supplement to Aristotle's On the Heavens", transforming the ancient tradition of physical cosmology by treating astronomy as part of a universal mathematical physics.

Johannes Kepler's first major astronomical work, Mysterium Cosmographicum (The Cosmographic Mystery), was the first published defense of the Copernican system. Kepler claimed to have had an epiphany on July 19, 1595, while teaching in Graz, demonstrating the periodic conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the zodiac; he realized that regular polygons bound one inscribed and one circumscribed circle at definite ratios, which, he reasoned, might be the geometrical basis of the universe.


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A diagram of the Sun
Photo credit: commons:User:Pbroks13
An illustration of the structure of the Sun:
1. Core
2. Radiative zone
3. Convective zone
4. Photosphere
5. Chromosphere
6. Corona
7. Sunspot
8. Granules
9. Prominence

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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