The Physics of Visible Star Light

Globular cluster NGC 6717. The colour of light from the stars is a general indicator of surface temperature.

The colour of a star tells us how hot it burns. From the dull red of Arcturus to the brilliant blue of Rigel, you can actually see these subtle colour differences with your own eyes when looking up at the night sky.

Just like an iron cast into the blacksmith’s forge, which slowly changes from red to white hot, stars emit light at different frequencies depending on their overall luminosity and energy output.

The same relationship between colour and temperature is noted when metal objects are heated.

The Planck-Einstein equation E = hf is a basic way of understanding this. E is energy, f is frequency and h is the famous Planck’s constant. Higher frequency light (blue) is more energetic than lower frequency light (red) and therefore hotter and more luminous stars tend to appear more blue. Meanwhile cooler stars whose external atmospheric envelopes has expanded (red giants like Betelgeuse) appear redder.

A simple way to highlight the colour of star light is to take your smartphone camera or DSLR and manually defocus it on a target star. This will emphasise the colour and you can even produce beautiful star trails like the one below by taking a movie or long exposure star trail.

Star trail image credit – Amanda Cross

One thought on “The Physics of Visible Star Light

  1. Interesting to see the colour difference on the nail.Whiter where the blue flame is heating it but further down where it’s cooler, although I wouldn’t like to touch it there!,red.

    Like

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