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A star is type of astronomical object consisting of a luminous spheroid of plasma held together by its own gravity. The nearest star to Earth is the Sun. Many other stars are visible to the naked eye from Earth during the night, appearing as a multitude of fixed luminous points in the sky due to their immense distance from Earth. Historically, the most prominent stars were grouped into constellations and asterisms, the brightest of which gained proper names. Astronomers have assembled star catalogues that identify the known stars and provide standardized stellar designations. However, most of the stars in the Universe, including all stars outside our galaxy, the Milky Way, are invisible to the naked eye from Earth. Indeed, most are invisible from Earth even through the most powerful telescopes.

For at least a portion of its life, a star shines due to thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium 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 are created by stellar nucleosynthesis during the star's lifetime, and for some stars by supernova nucleosynthesis when it explodes. Near the end of its life, a star can also contain degenerate matter. Astronomers can determine the mass, age, metallicity (chemical composition), and many other properties of a star by observing its motion through space, its luminosity, and spectrum respectively. The total mass of a star is the main factor that determines its evolution and eventual fate. Other characteristics of a star, including diameter and temperature, change over its life, while the star's environment affects its rotation and movement. A plot of the temperature of many stars against their luminosities produces a plot known as a Hertzsprung–Russell diagram (H–R diagram). Plotting a particular star on that diagram allows the age and evolutionary state of that star to be determined.

A star's life begins with the gravitational collapse of a gaseous nebula of material composed primarily of hydrogen, along with helium and trace amounts of heavier elements. When the stellar core is sufficiently dense, hydrogen becomes steadily converted into helium through nuclear fusion, releasing energy in the process. The remainder of the star's interior carries energy away from the core through a combination of radiative and convective heat transfer processes. The star's internal pressure prevents it from collapsing further under its own gravity. A star with mass greater than 0.4 times the Sun's will expand to become a red giant when the hydrogen fuel in its core is exhausted. In some cases, it will fuse heavier elements at the core or in shells around the core. As the star expands it throws a part of its mass, enriched with those heavier elements, into the interstellar environment, to be recycled later as new stars. Meanwhile, the core becomes a stellar remnant: a white dwarf, a neutron star, or if it is sufficiently massive a black hole.

Binary and multi-star systems consist of two or more stars that are gravitationally bound and generally move around each other in stable orbits. When two such stars have a relatively close orbit, their gravitational interaction can have a significant impact on their evolution. Stars can form part of a much larger gravitationally bound structure, such as a star cluster or a galaxy.

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Polaris system
Photo credit: NASA/ESA/HST

Polaris (α UMi / α Ursae Minoris / Alpha Ursae Minoris, commonly North(ern) Star or Pole Star, or Dhruva Tara and sometimes Lodestar) is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor. It is very close to the north celestial pole (42′ away as of 2006, making it the current northern pole star.

Polaris is about 430 light-years from Earth and is a multiple star. α UMi A is a six solar massWieland page 3: masses of A and P ... (6.0+1.54M⊙) F7 bright giant (II) or supergiant (Ib). The two smaller companions are: α UMi B, a 1.5 solar mass F3V main sequence star orbiting at a distance of 2400 AU, and α UMi Ab, a very close dwarf with an 18.5 AU radius orbit. There are also two distant components α UMi C and α UMi D. Recent observations show that Polaris may be part of a loose open cluster of type A and F stars.

Polaris B can be seen even with a modest telescope and was first noticed by William Herschel in 1780. In 1929, it was discovered by examining the spectrum of Polaris A that it had another very close dwarf companion (variously α UMi P, α UMi a or α UMi Ab), which had been theorized in earlier observations (Moore, J.H and Kholodovsky, E. A.). In January 2006, NASA released images from the Hubble telescope, directly showing all three members of the Polaris ternary system. The nearer dwarf star is in an orbit of only 18.5 AU (2.8 billion km; about the distance from our Sun to Uranus) from Polaris A, explaining why its light is swamped by its close and much brighter companion.

Polaris is a classic Population I Cepheid variable (although, it was once thought to be Population II due to its high galactic latitude).


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The faint star in the background is an example of an white dwarf, Sirius B
Photo credit: User:Nikolang

A white dwarf, also called a 'degenerate dwarf, is a small star composed mostly of electron-degenerate matter. They are very dense; a white dwarf's mass is comparable to that of the Sun and its volume is comparable to that of the Earth. Its faint luminosity comes from the emission of stored thermal energy. In January 2009, the Research Consortium on Nearby Stars project counted eight white dwarfs among the hundred star systems nearest the Sun. The unusual faintness of white dwarfs was first recognized in 1910 by Henry Norris Russell, Edward Charles Pickering, and Williamina Fleming; the name white dwarf was coined by Willem Luyten in 1922.

White dwarfs are thought to be the final evolutionary state of all stars whose mass is not high enough to become a neutron star—over 97% of the stars in our galaxy. After the hydrogenfusing lifetime of a main-sequence star of low or medium mass ends, it will expand to a red giant which fuses helium to carbon and oxygen in its core by the triple-alpha process. If a red giant has insufficient mass to generate the core temperatures required to fuse carbon, around 1 billion K, an inert mass of carbon and oxygen will build up at its center. After shedding its outer layers to form a planetary nebula, it will leave behind this core, which forms the remnant white dwarf. Usually, therefore, white dwarfs are composed of carbon and oxygen. If the mass of the progenitor is above 8 solar masses but below 10.5 solar masses, the core temperature suffices to fuse carbon but not neon, in which case an oxygen-neon–magnesium white dwarf may be formed.appear to have been formed by mass loss in binary systems.

The material in a white dwarf no longer undergoes fusion reactions, so the star has no source of energy, nor is it supported by the heat generated by fusion against gravitational collapse. It is supported only by electron degeneracy pressure, causing it to be extremely dense. The physics of degeneracy yields a maximum mass for a non-rotating white dwarf, the Chandrasekhar limit—approximately 1.4 solar mass—beyond which it cannot be supported by electron degeneracy pressure. A carbon-oxygen white dwarf that approaches this mass limit, typically by mass transfer from a companion star, may explode as a Type Ia supernova via a process known as carbon detonation.


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Galileo Galilei's portrait painted in 1636
Photo credit: By Justus Sustermans

Galileo Galilei (Italian pronunciation: [galiˈlɛo galiˈlɛi]; 15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642) was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution. His achievements include improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations, and support for Copernicanism. Galileo has been called the "father of modern observational astronomy", the "father of modern physics", the "father of science", and "the father of modern science". Stephen Hawking says: "Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science."

The motion of uniformly accelerated objects, taught in nearly all high school and introductory college physics courses, was studied by Galileo as the subject of kinematics. His contributions to observational astronomy include the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter (named the Galilean moons in his honour), and the observation and analysis of sunspots. Galileo also worked in applied science and technology, inventing an improved military compass and other instruments.

Galileo's championing of Copernicanism was controversial within his lifetime, when a large majority of philosophers and astronomers still subscribed (at least outwardly) to the geocentric view that the Earth is at the centre of the universe. After 1610, when he began publicly supporting the heliocentric view, which placed the Sun at the centre of the universe, he met with bitter opposition from some philosophers and clerics, and two of the latter eventually denounced him to the Roman Inquisition early in 1615. In February 1616, although he had been cleared of any offence, the Catholic Church nevertheless condemned heliocentrism as "false and contrary to Scripture", and Galileo was warned to abandon his support for it—which he promised to do. When he later defended his views in his most famous work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, he was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.


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A historical depiction of Andromeda constellation
Photo credit: Urania's Mirror (Sidney Hall/Adam Cuerden)

Andromeda as depicted in Urania's Mirror, set of constellation cards published in London c.1825.


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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