Characteristics of a Star

By Nick Miles; Updated April 24, 2017
field of stars

A star is a massive ball of plasma that emits light throughout the universe. While there is only one star in our solar system, there are billions upon billions of stars throughout our galaxy and exponentially more in the billions of galaxies in the universe. A star can be defined by five basic characteristics: brightness, color, surface temperature, size and mass.

Brightness

bright star

Two characteristics define brightness: luminosity and magnitude. Luminosity is the amount of light that a star radiates. The size of the star and its surface temperature determine its luminosity. Apparent magnitude of a star is its perceived brightness, factoring in size and distance, while absolute magnitude is its true brightness irrespective of its distance from earth.

Color

red star

A star's color depends on its surface temperature. Cooler stars tend to be redder in color, while hotter stars have a bluer appearance. Stars in the mid ranges are white or yellow, such as our sun. Stars can also blend colors, such as red-orange stars or blue-white stars.

Surface Temperature

thermometer

Astronomers measure a star's temperature on the Kelvin scale. Zero degrees on the Kelvin scale is theoretically absolute and is equal to -273.15 degrees Celsius. The coolest, reddest stars are approximately 2,500 K, while the hottest stars can reach 50,000 K. Our sun is about 5,500 K.

Size

the sun

Astronomers measure the size of a given star in terms of our own sun's radius. Thus, a star that measure 1 solar radii would be the same size as our sun. The star Rigel, which is much larger than our sun, measures 78 solar radii. A star's size, along with its surface temperature, will determine its luminosity.

Mass

child looking through telescope

A star's mass is also measured in terms of our own sun, with 1 equal to the size of our sun. For instance, Rigel, which is much larger than our sun, has a mass of 3.5 solar masses. Two stars of a similar size may not necessarily have the same mass, as stars can vary greatly in density.

References

About the Author

Nick Miles has been writing since 2006, with articles appearing on the sci-fi and horror website FanCrush Networks. Miles holds a Bachelor of Arts in film and electronic arts from California State University, Long Beach.