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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Photo credit: Harvard-Smithsonian/NASA
Mira, , also known as Omicron Ceti (or ο Ceti / ο Cet), is a red giant star estimated 200-400 light years away in the constellation Cetus. Mira is a binary star, consisting of the red giant Mira A along with Mira B. Mira A is also an oscillating variable star and was the first non-supernova variable star discovered, with the possible exception of Algol. Apart from the unusual Eta Carinae, Mira is the brightest periodic variable in the sky that is not visible to the naked eye for part of its cycle. Its distance is uncertain; pre-Hipparcos estimates centered around 220 light-years, while Hipparcos data suggests a distance of 418 light-years, albeit with a margin of error of ~14%.
Evidence that the variability of Mira was known in ancient China, Babylon or Greece is at best only circumstantial. In 1638 Johannes Holwarda determined a period of the star's reappearances, eleven months; he is often credited with the discovery of Mira's variability. Johannes Hevelius was observing it at the same time and named it "Mira" (meaning "wonderful" or "astonishing," in Latin) in 1662's Historiola Mirae Stellae, for it acted like no other known star. Ismail Bouillaud then estimated its period at 333 days, less than one day off the modern value of 332 days (and perfectly forgivable, as Mira is known to vary slightly in period, and may even be slowly changing over time). The star is estimated to be a 6 billion year old red giant.
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Photo credit: NASA
A variable star can be classifies when its apparent magnitude as seen from Earth changes over time, whether the changes are due to variations in the star's actual luminosity, or to variations in the amount of the star's light that is blocked from reaching Earth. Many, possibly most, stars have at least some variation in luminosity: the energy output of our Sun, for example, varies by about 0.1% over an 11 year solar cycle, equivalent to a change of one thousandth of its magnitude.
It is convenient to classify variable stars as belonging to one of two types:
- Intrinsic variables, whose luminosity actually changes; for example, because the star periodically swells and shrinks.
- Extrinsic variables, whose apparent changes in brightness are due to changes in the amount of their light that can reach Earth; for example, because the star has an orbiting companion that sometimes eclipses it.
The first variable star was identified in 1638 when Johannes Holwarda noticed that Omicron Ceti (later named Mira) pulsated in a cycle taking 11 months; the star had previously been described as a nova by David Fabricius in 1596. This discovery, combined with supernovae observed in 1572 and 1604, proved that the starry sky was not eternally invariable as Aristotle and other ancient philosophers had taught. In this way, the discovery of variable stars contributed to the astronomical revolution of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Variable stars are generally analysed using photometry, spectrophotometry and spectroscopy. Measurements of their changes in brightness can be plotted to produce light curves. For regular variables, the period of variation and its amplitude can be very well established; for many variable stars, though, these quantities may vary slowly over time, or even from one period to the next. Peak brightnesses in the light curve are known as maxima, while troughs are known as minima.
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Photo credit: Eduard Ender
Tycho Brahe, born Tyge Ottesen Brahe (de Knudstrup) (14 December 1546 – 24 October 1601), was a Danish nobleman known for his accurate and comprehensive astronomical and planetary observations. Coming from Scania, then part of Denmark, now part of modern-day Sweden, Tycho was well known in his lifetime as an astronomer and alchemist.
His Danish name "Tyge Ottesen Brahe" is pronounced in Modern Standard Danish as [ˈtˢyːə ˈʌd̥əsn̩ ˈb̥ʁɑː]. He adopted the Latinized name "Tycho Brahe" (usually or /ˈbrɑːhiː/ in English) from Tycho (sometimes written Tÿcho) at around age fifteen, and he is now generally referred to as "Tycho", as was common in Scandinavia in his time, rather than by his surname "Brahe". (The incorrect form of his name, Tycho de Brahe, appeared only much later.
Tycho Brahe was granted an estate on the island of Hven and the funding to build the Uraniborg, an early research institute, where he built large astronomical instruments and took many careful measurements. After disagreements with the new king in 1597, he was invited by the Bohemian king and Holy Roman emperor Rudolph II to Prague, where he became the official imperial astronomer. He built the new observatory at Benátky nad Jizerou. Here, from 1600 until his death in 1601, he was assisted by Johannes Kepler. Kepler later used Tycho's astronomical information to develop his own theories of astronomy.
As an astronomer, Tycho worked to combine what he saw as the geometrical benefits of the Copernican system with the philosophical benefits of the Ptolemaic system into his own model of the universe, the Tychonic system. Tycho is credited with the most accurate astronomical observations of his time, and the data was used by his assistant Kepler to derive the laws of planetary motion. No one before Tycho had attempted to make so many planetary observations.
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Did you know?
- ... a neutron star has such density that a pinhead of its matter would weigh more than biggest of supertankers?
- ... the Sun loses 360 million tonnes of material each day, yet it will glow for 5 billion more years?
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