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Introduction


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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Canopus taken from the ISS.
Photo credit: NASA

Canopus (/kəˈnpəs/; α Car, α Carinae, Alpha Carinae) is the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina, and the second brightest star in the night-time sky, after Sirius. Canopus's visual magnitude is −0.72, and it has an absolute magnitude of −5.65.

Canopus is a supergiant of spectral type F. Canopus is essentially white when seen with the naked eye (although F-type stars are sometimes listed as "yellowish-white"). It is located in the far southern sky, at a declination of −52° 42' (2000) and a right ascension of 06h24.0m. Its name comes from the mythological Canopus, who was a navigator for Menelaus, king of Sparta.

Canopus is the most intrinsically bright star within approximately 700 light years, and it has been the brightest star in Earth's sky during three different epochs over the past four million years. Other stars appear brighter only during relatively temporary periods, during which they are passing the Solar System at a much closer distance than Canopus. About 90,000 years ago, Sirius moved close enough that it became brighter than Canopus, and that will remain the case for another 210,000 years. But in 480,000 years, Canopus will once again be the brightest, and will remain so for a period of about 510,000 years.

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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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Nicolaus Copernicus
Photo credit: Portrait from Toruń

Nicolaus Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543) was the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, which displaced the Earth from the center of the universe. Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19 February 1473 in the city of Toruń (Thorn) in Royal Prussia, part of the Kingdom of Poland.

Copernicus' epochal book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), published just before his death in 1543, is often regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy and the defining epiphany that began the scientific revolution. His heliocentric model, with the Sun at the center of the universe, demonstrated that the observed motions of celestial objects can be explained without putting Earth at rest in the center of the universe. His work stimulated further scientific investigations, becoming a landmark in the history of science that is often referred to as the Copernican Revolution.

Among the great polymaths of the Renaissance, Copernicus was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, quadrilingual polyglot, classical scholar, translator, artist, Catholic cleric, jurist, governor, military leader, diplomat and economist. Among his many responsibilities, astronomy figured as little more than an avocation – yet it was in that field that he made his mark upon the world.

Title page of the second edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, printed 1566 in Basel.


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Messier 82
Photo credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

Messier 5 or M5 (also designated NGC 5904) is a globular cluster in the constellation Serpens. It was discovered by Gottfried Kirch in 1702. Spanning 165 light-years in diameter, M5 is one of the larger globular clusters known. M5 is, under extremely good conditions, just visible to the naked eye as a faint star.

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Did you know?

  • ... that our galaxy is estimated to contain 200-400 billion stars, more than the number of humans that have ever lived?

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