Saturday, November 7, 2009

Star designations

The concept of the constellation was known to exist during the Babylonian period. Ancient sky watchers imagined that prominent arrangements of stars formed patterns, and they associated these with particular aspects of nature or their myths. Twelve of these formations lay along the band of the ecliptic and these became the basis of astrology. Many of the more prominent individual stars were also given names, particularly with Arabic or Latin designations.

As well as certain constellations and the Sun itself, stars as a whole have their own myths.[27] To the Ancient Greeks, some "stars," known as planets (Greek πλανήτης (planētēs), meaning "wanderer"), represented various important deities, from which the names of the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were taken. (Uranus and Neptune were also Greek and Roman gods, but neither planet was known in Antiquity because of their low brightness. Their names were assigned by later astronomers).

Circa 1600, the names of the constellations were used to name the stars in the corresponding regions of the sky. The German astronomer Johann Bayer created a series of star maps and applied Greek letters as designations to the stars in each constellation. Later a numbering system based on the star's right ascension was invented and added to John Flamsteed's star catalogue in his book "Historia coelestis Britannica" (the 1712 edition), whereby this numbering system came to be called Flamsteed designation or Flamsteed numbering.[28][29]

The only body which has been recognized by the scientific community as having the authority to name stars or other celestial bodies is the International Astronomical Union (IAU). A number of private companies (for instance, the "International Star Registry") purport to sell names to stars; however, these names are neither recognized by the scientific community nor used by them, and many in the astronomy community view these organizations as frauds preying on people ignorant of star naming procedure.

Units of measurement

Most stellar parameters are expressed in SI units by convention, but CGS units are also used (e.g., expressing luminosity in ergs per second). Mass, luminosity, and radii are usually given in solar units, based on the characteristics of the Sun:

solar mass: \begin{smallmatrix}M_\odot = 1.9891 \times 10^{30}\end{smallmatrix} kg[32]
solar luminosity: \begin{smallmatrix}L_\odot = 3.827 \times 10^{26}\end{smallmatrix} watts[32]
solar radius: \begin{smallmatrix}R_\odot = 6.960 \times 10^{8}\end{smallmatrix} m[33]

Large lengths, such as the radius of a giant star or the semi-major axis of a binary star system, are often expressed in terms of the astronomical unit (AU)—approximately the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun (150 million km or 93 million miles).

Formation and evolution

Stars are formed within extended regions of higher density in the interstellar medium, although the density is still lower than the inside of an earthly vacuum chamber. These regions are called molecular clouds and consist mostly of hydrogen, with about 23–28% helium and a few percent heavier elements. One example of such a star-forming region is the Orion Nebula.[34] As massive stars are formed from molecular clouds, they powerfully illuminate those clouds. They also ionize the hydrogen, creating an H II region.

Protostar formation

The formation of a star begins with a gravitational instability inside a molecular cloud, often triggered by shock waves from supernovae (massive stellar explosions) or the collision of two galaxies (as in a starburst galaxy). Once a region reaches a sufficient density of matter to satisfy the criteria for Jeans Instability it begins to collapse under its own gravitational force.

Artist's conception of the birth of a star within a dense molecular cloud. NASA image

As the cloud collapses, individual conglomerations of dense dust and gas form what are known as Bok globules. These can contain up to 50 solar masses of material.[citation needed] As a globule collapses and the density increases, the gravitational energy is converted into heat and the temperature rises. When the protostellar cloud has approximately reached the stable condition of hydrostatic equilibrium, a protostar forms at the core. These pre-main sequence stars are often surrounded by a protoplanetary disk. The period of gravitational contraction lasts for about 10–15 million years.

Early stars of less than 2 solar masses are called T Tauri stars, while those with greater mass are Herbig Ae/Be stars. These newly born stars emit jets of gas along their axis of rotation, producing small patches of nebulosity known as Herbig-Haro objects.[37]

Main sequence

Stars spend about 90% of their lifetime fusing hydrogen to produce helium in high-temperature and high-pressure reactions near the core. Such stars are said to be on the main sequence and are called dwarf stars. Starting at zero-age main sequence, the proportion of helium in a star's core will steadily increase. As a consequence, in order to maintain the required rate of nuclear fusion at the core, the star will slowly increase in temperature and luminosity. The Sun, for example, is estimated to have increased in luminosity by about 40% since it reached the main sequence 4.6 billion years ago.

Every star generates a stellar wind of particles that causes a continual outflow of gas into space. For most stars, the amount of mass lost is negligible. The Sun loses 10−14 solar masses every year, or about 0.01% of its total mass over its entire lifespan. However very massive stars can lose 10−7 to 10−5 solar masses each year, significantly affecting their evolution. Stars that begin with more than 50 solar masses can lose over half their total mass while they remain on the main sequence.

An example of a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram for a set of stars that includes the Sun (center). (See "Classification" below.)

The duration that a star spends on the main sequence depends primarily on the amount of fuel it has to fuse and the rate at which it fuses that fuel. In other words, its initial mass and its luminosity. For the Sun, this is estimated to be about 1010 years. Large stars consume their fuel very rapidly and are short-lived. Small stars (called red dwarfs) consume their fuel very slowly and last tens to hundreds of billions of years. At the end of their lives, they simply become dimmer and dimmer. However, since the lifespan of such stars is greater than the current age of the universe (13.7 billion years), no such stars are expected to exist yet.

Besides mass, the portion of elements heavier than helium can play a significant role in the evolution of stars. In astronomy all elements heavier than helium are considered a "metal", and the chemical concentration of these elements is called the metallicity. The metallicity can influence the duration that a star will burn its fuel, control the formation of magnetic fieldsand modify the strength of the stellar wind. Older, population II stars have substantially less metallicity than the younger, population I stars due to the composition of the molecular clouds from which they formed. (Over time these clouds become increasingly enriched in heavier elements as older stars die and shed portions of their atmospheres.)

Post-main sequence

As stars of at least 0.4 solar masses[2] exhaust their supply of hydrogen at their core, their outer layers expand greatly and cool to form a red giant. For example, in about 5 billion years, when the Sun is a red giant, it will expand out to a maximum radius of roughly 1 AU (150,000,000 km), 250 times its present size. As a giant, the Sun will lose roughly 30% of its current mass.[39][45]

In a red giant of up to 2.25 solar masses, hydrogen fusion proceeds in a shell-layer surrounding the core.[46] Eventually the core is compressed enough to start helium fusion, and the star now gradually shrinks in radius and increases its surface temperature. For larger stars, the core region transitions directly from fusing hydrogen to fusing helium.[47]

After the star has consumed the helium at the core, fusion continues in a shell around a hot core of carbon and oxygen. The star then follows an evolutionary path that parallels the original red giant phase, but at a higher surface temperature.

Massive stars

Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star approaching the end of its life cycle

During their helium-burning phase, very high mass stars with more than nine solar masses expand to form red supergiants. Once this fuel is exhausted at the core, they can continue to fuse elements heavier than helium.

The core contracts until the temperature and pressure are sufficient to fuse carbon (see carbon burning process). This process continues, with the successive stages being fueled by neon (see neon burning process), oxygen (see oxygen burning process), and silicon (see silicon burning process). Near the end of the star's life, fusion can occur along a series of onion-layer shells within the star. Each shell fuses a different element, with the outermost shell fusing hydrogen; the next shell fusing helium, and so forth.

The final stage is reached when the star begins producing iron. Since iron nuclei are more tightly bound than any heavier nuclei, if they are fused they do not release energy—the process would, on the contrary, consume energy. Likewise, since they are more tightly bound than all lighter nuclei, energy cannot be released by fission.[46] In relatively old, very massive stars, a large core of inert iron will accumulate in the center of the star. The heavier elements in these stars can work their way up to the surface, forming evolved objects known as Wolf-Rayet stars that have a dense stellar wind which sheds the outer atmosphere.


An evolved, average-size star will now shed its outer layers as a planetary nebula. If what remains after the outer atmosphere has been shed is less than 1.4 solar masses, it shrinks to a relatively tiny object (about the size of Earth) that is not massive enough for further compression to take place, known as a white dwarf. The electron-degenerate matter inside a white dwarf is no longer a plasma, even though stars are generally referred to as being spheres of plasma. White dwarfs will eventually fade into black dwarfs over a very long stretch of time.

The Crab Nebula, remnants of a supernova that was first observed around 1050 AD

In larger stars, fusion continues until the iron core has grown so large (more than 1.4 solar masses) that it can no longer support its own mass. This core will suddenly collapse as its electrons are driven into its protons, forming neutrons and neutrinos in a burst of inverse beta decay, or electron capture. The shockwave formed by this sudden collapse causes the rest of the star to explode in a supernova. Supernovae are so bright that they may briefly outshine the star's entire home galaxy. When they occur within the Milky Way, supernovae have historically been observed by naked-eye observers as "new stars" where none existed before.

Most of the matter in the star is blown away by the supernovae explosion (forming nebulae such as the Crab Nebula) and what remains will be a neutron star (which sometimes manifests itself as a pulsar or X-ray burster) or, in the case of the largest stars (large enough to leave a stellar remnant greater than roughly 4 solar masses), a black hole. In a neutron star the matter is in a state known as neutron-degenerate matter, with a more exotic form of degenerate matter, QCD matter, possibly present in the core. Within a black hole the matter is in a state that is not currently understood.

The blown-off outer layers of dying stars include heavy elements which may be recycled during new star formation. These heavy elements allow the formation of rocky planets. The outflow from supernovae and the stellar wind of large stars play an important part in shaping the interstellar medium.

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