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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. One of the largest stars and also one of the most luminous of its type, it has a radius of approximately 1,420 ± 120 solar radii (equal to a diameter of 13.2 astronomical units, or about 1,976,640,000 km), and is situated about 1.2 kiloparsecs (3,900 light-years) from Earth. VY CMa is a single star categorized as a semiregular variable and has an estimated period of 2,000 days. It has an average density of 5 to 10 mg/m3. If placed at the center of the Solar System, VY Canis Majoris's surface would extend beyond the orbit of Jupiter, although there is still considerable variation in estimates of the radius, with some making it larger than the orbit of Saturn.

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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Schematic view of a pulsar
Photo credit: User:Mysid and User:Jm smits

Pulsars are highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars that emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation. The observed periods of their pulses range from 1.4 milliseconds to 8.5 seconds. The radiation can only be observed when the beam of emission is pointing towards the Earth. This is called the lighthouse effect and gives rise to the pulsed nature that gives pulsars their name. Because neutron stars are very dense objects, the rotation period and thus the interval between observed pulses is very regular. For some pulsars, the regularity of pulsation is as precise as an atomic clock. A few pulsars are known to have planets orbiting them, such as PSR B1257+12. Werner Becker of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics said in 2006, "The theory of how pulsars emit their radiation is still in its infancy, even after nearly forty years of work.

The events leading to the formation of a pulsar begin when the core of a massive star is compressed during a supernova, which collapses into a neutron star. The neutron star retains most of its angular momentum, and since it has only a tiny fraction of its progenitor's radius (and therefore its moment of inertia is sharply reduced), it is formed with very high rotation speed. A beam of radiation is emitted along the magnetic axis of the pulsar, which spins along with the rotation of the neutron star. The magnetic axis of the pulsar determines the direction of the electromagnetic beam, with the magnetic axis not necessarily being the same as its rotational axis. This misalignment causes the beam to be seen once for every rotation of the neutron star, which leads to the "pulsed" nature of its appearance. The beam originates from the rotational energy of the neutron star, which generates an electrical field from the movement of the very strong magnetic field, resulting in the acceleration of protons and electrons on the star surface and the creation of an electromagnetic beam emanating from the poles of the magnetic field. This rotation slows down over time as electromagnetic power is emitted. When a pulsar's spin period slows down sufficiently, the radio pulsar mechanism is believed to turn off (the so-called "death line"). As this seems to take place after ~10-100 million years, but neutron stars have been formed throughout the ~13.6 billion year age of the universe, more than 99% of neutron stars are thought to no longer be pulsars. To date, the slowest observed pulsar has a period of 8 seconds.


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Stephen William Hawking
Photo credit: NASA

Stephen William Hawking, CH, CBE, FRS, FRSA (born 8 January 1942) is a British theoretical physicist, whose world-renowned scientific career spans over 40 years. His books and public appearances have made him an academic celebrity and he is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and in 2009 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for thirty years, taking up the post in 1979 and retiring on 1 October 2009. He is also a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and a Distinguished Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. He is known for his contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes. He has also achieved success with works of popular science in which he discusses his own theories and cosmology in general; these include the runaway best seller A Brief History of Time, which stayed on the British Sunday Times bestsellers list for a record-breaking 237 weeks.

Hawking's key scientific works to date have included providing, with Roger Penrose, theorems regarding singularities in the framework of general relativity, and the theoretical prediction that black holes should emit radiation, which is today known as Hawking radiation (or sometimes as Bekenstein-Hawking radiation).

Hawking has a neuro-muscular dystrophy that is related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a condition that has progressed over the years and has left him almost completely paralysed.


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Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy
Photo credit: ESA/Hubble

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is a nearby irregular galaxy, once thought to be a satellite of our own. At a distance of slightly less than 50 kiloparsecs (≈ 160,000 light-years), the LMC is the third closest galaxy to the Milky Way, with the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal and Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, lying closer to the center of the Milky Way. It has a mass equivalent to approximately 10 billion times the mass of our Sun (1010 solar masses), making it roughly 1/10 as massive as the Milky Way, and a diameter of about 14,000 light-years, though the LMC is the fourth largest galaxy in the Local Group.


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