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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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Optical image of Arcturus (DSS2 / MAST / STScI / NASA)
Photo credit: Digitized Sky Survey, NASA

Arcturus (/ɑːrkˈtjʊərəs/; α Boo, α Boötis, Alpha Boötis) of the constellation Boötes is the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere. With a visual magnitude of −0.04, it is the fourth brightest star in the night sky, after −1.46 magnitude Sirius, −0.86 magnitude Canopus, and −0.27 magnitude Alpha Centauri. It is a relatively close star at only 36.7 light-years from Earth, and, together with Vega and Sirius, one of the most luminous stars in the Sun's neighborhood.

Arcturus is a type K0 III orange giant star, with an absolute magnitude of −0.30. It has likely exhausted its hydrogen from its core and is currently in its active hydrogen shell burning phase. It will continue to expand before entering horizontal branch stage of its life cycle.

Arcturus is a type K0 III Red giant star. It is at least 110 times more luminous than the Sun in visible light wavelengths, but this underestimates its strength as much of the "light" it gives off is in the infrared; total (bolometric) power output is about 180 times that of the Sun. The lower output in visible light is due to a lower efficacy as the star has a lower surface temperature than the Sun. As the brightest K-type giant in the sky, it was the subject of an atlas of its visible spectrum, made from photographic spectra taken with the coudé spectrograph of the Mt. Wilson 2.5m telescope published in 1968, a key reference work for stellar spectroscopy.


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Comparison of the current-day Sun and the Sun as a red giant in the future
Photo credit: user:Mysid and user:Mrsanitazier

A red giant is a luminous giant star of low or intermediate mass (roughly 0.5–10 solar masses) in a late phase of stellar evolution. The outer atmosphere is inflated and tenuous, making the radius immense and the surface temperature low, somewhere from 5,000 K and lower. The appearance of the red giant is from yellow orange to red, including the spectral types K and M, but also class S stars and most carbon stars.

The most common red giants are the so-called red giant branch stars (RGB stars) whose shells are still fusing hydrogen into helium, while the core is inactive helium. Another case of red giants are the asymptotic giant branch stars (AGB) that produce carbon from helium by the triple-alpha process. To the AGB stars belong the carbon stars of type C-N and late C-R. Prominent bright red giants in the night sky include Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri), Arcturus (Alpha Bootis), and Gamma Crucis (Gacrux), while the even larger Antares (Alpha Scorpii) and Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) are red supergiants.

Red giants are stars that have exhausted the supply of hydrogen in their cores and switched to thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen in a shell surrounding the core. They have radii tens to hundreds of times larger than that of the Sun. However, their outer envelope is lower in temperature, giving them an orange hue. Despite the lower energy density of their envelope, red giants are many times more luminous than the Sun because of their large size. Main sequence stars of spectral types A through K are believed to evolve into red giants. The Sun is predicted to become a red giant in approximately 7.5 billion years. It is calculated that the Sun will become sufficiently large to engulf the current orbits of the solar system's inner planets, up to Earth.


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Zhang Heng on a stamp
Photo credit: State Post Bureau of the People's Republic of China

Zhang Heng (simplified Chinese: 张衡; traditional Chinese: 張衡; pinyin: Zhāng Héng; Wade–Giles: Chang Heng) (CE 78–139) was a Chinese astronomer, mathematician, inventor, geographer, cartographer, artist, poet, statesman and literary scholar from Nanyang, Henan. He lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty (CE 25–220) of China. He was educated in the capital cities of Luoyang and Chang'an, and began his career as a minor civil servant in Nanyang. Eventually, he became Chief Astronomer, Prefect of the Majors for Official Carriages, and then Palace Attendant at the imperial court. His uncompromising stances on certain historical and calendrical issues led to Zhang being considered a controversial figure, which prevented him from becoming an official court historian. His political rivalry with the palace eunuchs during the reign of Emperor Shun (r. 125–144) led to his decision to retire from the central court to serve as an administrator of Hejian, in Hebei. He returned home to Nanyang for a short time, before being recalled to serve in the capital once more in 138. He died there a year later, in 139.

Zhang applied his extensive knowledge of mechanics and gears in several of his inventions. He invented the world's first water-powered armillary sphere, to represent astronomical observation; improved the inflow water clock by adding another tank; and invented the world's first seismometer, which discerned the cardinal direction of an earthquake 500 km (310 mi) away. Furthermore, he improved previous Chinese calculations of the formula for pi. In addition to documenting about 2,500 stars in his extensive star catalogue, Zhang also posited theories about the Moon and its relationship to the Sun; specifically, he discussed the Moon's sphericity, its illumination by reflecting sunlight on one side and remaining dark on the other, and the nature of solar and lunar eclipses. His fu (rhapsody) and shi poetry were renowned and commented on by later Chinese writers. Zhang received many posthumous honors for his scholarship and ingenuity, and is considered a polymath by some scholars. Some modern scholars have also compared his work in astronomy to that of Ptolemy (CE 86–161).


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IAU Indus chart
Photo credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine

Indus is a constellation in the southern sky. Created in the late sixteenth century, it represents an Indian, a word that could refer at the time to any native of Asia or the Americas.


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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