A question that many people ask astronomers is, ‘How do you people know so much about the universe?’ When I talk about the stars, galaxies, their sizes, temperatures, etc., I am frequently asked how do you guys measure all this. Well, that’s the beauty of physics. In physics, we have to invent new ways to solve a problem and better understand the working of the cosmos. In this article, I’ll show you how astrophysicists measure the temperature of stars that are trillions of kilometers away.

Temperature of stars
Globular Cluster  NGC 4833 |Image: Hubble

Astrophysicists use several indirect techniques of temperature measurement. Let’s have a look at some of them one by one.

Wien’s Displacement Law :

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

How Do Scientists Determine The Temperature Of The Stars Trillions Of Miles Away? 1
Image: HyperPhysics

However, this is only applicable to stars with spectra that closely approximate that of a blackbody. Moreover, the flux-calibrated spectra of the star under consideration should also be available. However, this method does not give accurate results as stars are not perfect 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. Then, 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.


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 the hot ones are blue. We measure the color of a star by an instrument called a photoelectric photometer.

How Do Scientists Determine The Temperature Of The Stars Trillions Of Miles Away? 2

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

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Deepshikha Sharma
Deepshikha Sharma

Really informative…and a example of implementation of physics laws


Thanks for sharing

Onima Bisht
Onima Bisht

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

Amir Hossein
Amir Hossein

Really useful!!

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