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Classification by Luminosity

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Classification by Luminosity

Luminosity is the rate of electromagnetic radiation emitted by a body per unit of time. It may be a misleading term since we tend to think of luminosity and similar physical terms as quantities associated with the visible radiation we perceive, whereas it is a measure of the whole spectrum of electromagnetic radiation.

Therefore, we find that in order to appropriately characterise the properties of a star, we need to take measurements in every possible frequency, not just the ones we can perceive with our eyes.

Luminosity and distance

When we consider luminosity, we have to take into account that all the measurements we perform are dependent on the place we occupy in the universe. The reason for this is that astronomical objects like stars radiate in every direction, and their waves spread very quickly, so we only perceive a fraction of the whole picture (which we can then extrapolate).

Luminosity and extinction

Space is not as empty as it seems, especially when we consider the large distances appearing in astronomical settings. Certain structures and objects like space dust appear quite often and interfere with the detection of radiation emitted by bodies. This leads to a phenomenon called ‘extinction’, which is nothing more than the loss of intensity of electromagnetic radiation.

This phenomenon, in astronomical settings, affects more prominently high-energy radiation, such as gamma radiation or x-ray radiation, than low-energy radiation like radio waves or infrared radiation.

Extinction and the distance from the earth (or wherever we have placed our telescope) are two factors that make our measurements highly dependent on the place we occupy in the universe. However, by means of further direct and indirect measurements and calculations, we can accurately estimate many of these quantities. Although luminosity, as perceived by us, is a rather subjective quantity, it is still useful and is a measure of the intensity we perceive from the earth.

Classifications by luminosity

Classifications by luminosity are systems of the categorisation of stars and other astronomical bodies that attend to the intensity of the electromagnetic radiation they emit. We are now going to study a certain classification of stars by luminosity, and then we will briefly mention the stellar spectral classification, which is related to classifications according to luminosity.

The luminosity classification of Hipparchus

Already in the 1st century BCE, Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer, made an attempt to classify stars by the brightness with which he perceived them at sight. He used a system of numbers, ranging from one to six, which he denominated magnitude. The brightest stars were assigned a magnitude of 1, while the darkest stars, the ones he could barely see, were assigned a magnitude of 6.

The actual concept of luminosity

Due to several theories and advances, we now have several models for the luminosity of stars and other astronomical objects. Most of these models are based on the concept of black body radiation, which assumes the perfect emission properties of objects. According to this assumption, which is approximately fulfilled by stars, luminosity L is defined as follows:

Here, σ is the Stefan Boltzmann constant (with an approximate value of 5.67·10-8 W/mK4), A the area of the emitting body, and T its temperature in Kelvin.

Therefore, we find that the luminosity of stars is related to their surface size (and, hence, their volume) and temperature. A big star with a small temperature may have the same luminosity as a small star with a higher temperature.

However, luminosity is a very difficult quantity to measure as we need to measure the emission in every possible direction. The closer we measure to the surface of the emitting body, the less relevant will be the effects of extinction. In addition, we have to remember that the perceived luminosity also depends on the distance to the emitting object.

Yerkes classification

The following table has the Yerkes luminosity classification chart, which assigns each star a number based on their luminosity. It is the most widely used classification by luminosity for stars.

Luminosity classDescription
0 or 1a+Hypergiants
IaLuminous supergiants
IabIntermediate luminous supergiants
IbLess luminous supergiants
IIBright giants
IIINormal giants
IVSubgiants
VMain-sequence stars
VISubdwarves
VIIWhite dwarves

Magnitudes and luminosity

To prevent the difficulties of measuring or calculating luminosity, we usually turn to the concepts of absolute and apparent magnitude. These are logarithmic scales for the luminosity of astronomical objects measured at 10 parsecs from the object (absolute magnitude) or a fixed place like the earth (apparent magnitude). By having a common reference point, it is easier to match data. One parsec equals 3.09·1016 m.

However, the problem of extinction is still present, and most calculations are done by using estimations for its effect. Telescopes cannot reach almost any astronomical object to take measurements at a distance of 10 parsecs, so these quantities have complex models that allow us to estimate them accurately.

The relationship between luminosity and spectral classifications

If we fix area A in the luminosity formula, we just have a dependence on the temperature of the star or astronomical object. Hence, under the assumption that stars emit as black bodies, using quantities such as the absolute magnitude allows us to consider only their temperature.

In addition, there is a phenomenon called Wien’s law, which takes into consideration how a black body emits radiation at a certain temperature. It turns out that the intensity of emission of frequencies depends on the temperature.

Classification by luminosity. Wien’s law. StudySmarterFigure 1. Wien’s law. Source: MikeRun, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5).

Since stars emit in all frequencies (with different intensities depending on their temperature), we observe a dependence of their colour on their temperature. This gives rise to the concept of stellar spectral classification.

Although we cannot here explore how stellar spectral classifications work, it is important to be aware of the system and that temperature is correlated with luminosity, as illustrated by diagrams such as the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram (see also the table below). The luminosity of a star varies throughout its life and depends on certain phases like pulsating phases, the giant phase, or the white dwarf phase.

ClassChromaticityTemperature (Kelvin)
OBlue>30,000
BBlue-white10,000-30,000
AWhite7500-10,000
FYellow-white6000-7500
GYellow5200-6000
KLight orange3700-5200
MOrange-red2400-3700

Computations with classifications by luminosity

Sirius is the brightest star that can be seen from the earth. It has a luminosity on its surface of 25.4 times the luminosity of the sun (L0), a radius of 1.711 times the radius of the sun (r0), and is 8.61 light-years away from the earth. Sirius is a main-sequence star (V).

Antares, which has a characteristic red colour, is one of the brightest stars that can be seen from the earth. It has a luminosity on its surface of 60,000 times the luminosity of the sun (L0), a radius of 700 times the radius of the sun (r0), and is 554,5 light-years away from the earth. The values for the radius and the luminosity are constantly changing around these mean values because Antares is in a pulsating phase. Given its luminosity, Antares is an intermediate luminous supergiant (Iab), which matches its size.

We can compute the temperature for both stars, assuming they behave like black bodies. Indeed, knowing that the luminosity of the sun has an approximate value of 3.83·1026 W and the radius of the sun has an approximate value of 6.96·108 m, we can use the following formula, which comes from the formula of luminosity, using the fact that stars are spherical bodies, so we can easily compute their surface area:

This yields a temperature of 9904 K for Sirius and 3673 K for Antares. These values are very close to the measured ones, which are 9940 K and 3660 K, respectively. Since Sirius has a higher temperature than Antares, its colour is much bluer.

We finally turn to compute the luminosity of these two stars as perceived on the earth. The formula is:

Here, r is the radius of the star, while d is the distance of observation, which, in this case, is the distance to the earth. L is the luminosity of the star, and Lp is the luminosity observed from a distance d, which is lower due to the spherical spreading of electromagnetic radiation.

Using the values, we get observed luminosities per area of 1.14·10-7 W/m2 and 8.54·10-8 W/m2, respectively, which explains why Sirius is brighter than Antares as seen from the earth. This is related to the concept of magnitude.

Key takeaways

  • Luminosity is the total amount of electromagnetic energy emitted by a body per unit of time.

  • Measurements of luminosity in space are difficult due to the spreading of energy and extinction.

  • There are logarithmic scales related to luminosity that also take into account the spatial spread of the radiation. These are known as magnitude scales.

  • Thanks to the assumption of black body radiation, we can deduce many properties of stars by knowing their magnitude, distance, etc.

Frequently Asked Questions about Classification by Luminosity

The most widely used system nowadays is the Yerkes classification, which assigns a certain number and letter to a star depending on its luminosity.

Yes, they are, since it gives information about the electromagnetic radiation they emit, their temperature, their size, etc.

In the Yerkes classification, the lowest luminosity is associated with white dwarves (class VII).

According to the stellar spectral classification, they are: O, B, A, F, G, M, and K.

The three main luminosity classes are giants (class III), main-sequence stars (class V), and white dwarves (class VII).

Final Classification by Luminosity Quiz

Question

Select the correct statement:

Show answer

Answer

Luminosity is the intensity of electromagnetic radiation emitted in all frequencies per unit of time.

Show question

Question

Select the correct statement:

Show answer

Answer

The perceived luminosity is spread over spherical surfaces and is lost due to extinction.

Show question

Question

Select the correct statement:

Show answer

Answer

Magnitudes are a measure of the perceived luminosity, that is, luminosity per unit area.

Show question

Question

Select the correct statement:

Show answer

Answer

Stars emit approximately like black bodies.

Show question

Question

Select the correct statement:

Show answer

Answer

Luminosity depends on both the size of a star and its temperature.

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Question

Why is Sirius brighter in the sky if the luminosity of Antares is higher?

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Answer

Because the distance to Antares is much greater than to Sirius.

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Question

Name the law that describes how the intensity of emission of frequencies/wavelengths depends on the temperature of the emitting body.

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Answer

Wien’s law.

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Question

What is the law that relates the area of an object and its temperature to the luminosity of emission?

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Answer

Stefan Boltzmann’s law.

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Question

Which assumption is key to studying how stars radiate?

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Answer

That stars behave like black bodies.

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Question

Can you give an example of a luminosity classification?

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Answer

The Yerkes classification.

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Question

Can you name the relevant variables appearing in a stellar spectral chart (spectral stellar classification)?

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Answer

The stellar spectral class, the colour, and the temperature.

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Question

Name the phenomenon in which electromagnetic radiation is lost (dispersed) because of matter in space.

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Answer

Extinction.

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Question

 What is perceived luminosity?

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Answer

It is the luminosity per unit of area that reaches a certain point.

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Question

Does the luminosity of a star remain constant throughout its lifetime?

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Answer

No, it doesn’t.

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Question

Who was the first to assign quantities to the perceived brightness of stars (related to magnitudes)?

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Answer

Hipparchus, in the 1st century BCE.

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