Measuring the temperature of the stars

How Do Scientists Determine The Temperature Of The Stars That Are Trillions Of Miles Away?

How do you measure your body temperature? The simplest answer is “using a thermometer”. But, is it so in the case of stars as well? The answer is a big NO. As we know, the temperature of a star can range up to several thousand Kelvins. But, to date, no such thermometer is available that can withstand such high temperatures. Moreover, even if such a thermometer with superpowers is there, who is going to use it on stars billions of light-years away? So, how do we measure the temperature of stars?

Temperature of stars
Globular Cluster  NGC 4833 (Image: Hubble)

Here is where the indirect methods come to our rescue. In order to overcome the above-mentioned problems, Astrophysicists use a number of indirect techniques of temperature measurement. Let’s have a look at some of these one by one!

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Wien’s Displacement Law :

Wien’s displacement law is concerned with the radiation spectrum of a black body. According to this, the black-body radiation curve for different temperatures will peak at different wavelengths that are inversely proportional to the temperature. Using this inverse relation between wavelength and temperature, the temperatures of stars can be estimated.

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Credits: HyperPhysics

However, this is only applicable to stars that have spectra which closely approximates to that of a blackbody. Moreover, the flux-calibrated spectra of the star under consideration should also be available. However, this method does not give very accurate results as stars are in general not black bodies.

Stefan’s law :

Another law that can be put in use to measure the temperature of stars is Stefan’s law. We covered this law in detail in the Basics of Astrophysics series. The Stefan–Boltzmann law describes the power radiated from a black body in terms of its temperature. According to this law, the total radiant heat power emitted from a surface is proportional to the fourth power of its absolute temperature. L = 4πR2σT4 . Here σ is the Stefan-Boltzmann constant, L is the luminosity, R and T are the radius and temperature of the star under consideration.

Read all the articles of the Basics of Astrophysics series here

At first, we measure the total flux of light coming from the star. Combining these factors, scientists estimate the luminosity. And using interferometers, a radius of a star can be found. Eventually, the temperature is measured by plugging all these terms in Stefan’s formula. The limiting factor here is the difficulty in measuring the radii of the largest or nearest stars. So measurements exist only for a few giants and a few dozen nearby main-sequence stars. However, these act as the fundamental calibrators against which astrophysicists compare and calibrate other techniques.

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By spectrum analysis of a Star:

We know that atoms/ions have different energy levels. And, the population of these levels depends on temperature. Higher levels are occupied at higher temperatures and vice versa for lower levels. The transitions between levels can result in the emission or absorption of light at a particular wavelength depending on the energy difference between the levels concerned. Generally, a star is hotter on the inside and cooler on the outside. The cooler, overlying layers absorb the radiations coming out from the center of the star. This results in absorption lines in the spectrum we obtain.

spectrum of a star
The absorption lines we obtain from the spectrum of a star (Image Courtesy: Gizmos)

The spectrum analysis consists of measuring the strengths of these absorption lines for different chemical elements and different wavelengths. The strength of an absorption line depends primarily on the temperature of the star and the amount of a particular chemical element. However, several other parameters like gravity, turbulence, atmospheric structure, etc. can also influence it. This method gives temperature measurements with precision as good as +/-50 Kelvins.

Colour – Temperature Relationship:

Another method to measure the temperature of stars is by analyzing their color. Although all stars appear white, they have different colors when carefully viewed. The variations are a result of their temperature. The cold stars appear red, and hot ones are blue. We measure the color of a star by an instrument called photoelectric photometer.

How Do Scientists Determine The Temperature Of The Stars That Are Trillions Of Miles Away? 3

This involves passing the light through different filters and finding the amount that passes through each filter. The measurements from the photometer are converted to temperature, using standard scales. This method is highly useful when a good spectrum of a star is not available. The results obtained in this method are accurate up to +/- 100-200 K. However, this method gives poor results for cooler stars.

Each of the above-mentioned methods has its own perks and limitations. Still, Astrophysicists all over the globe widely use these methods and they end up giving satisfactory results.

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4 thoughts on “How Do Scientists Determine The Temperature Of The Stars That Are Trillions Of Miles Away?”

  1. Really nice! I knew some of these methods but this article gives a good gist of all the techniques used now-a-days!

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