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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Coloring the stars – an exercise for all seasons

Trying to identify the true colors of stars, as we see them, is fun, challenging, and instructive.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to develop accurate color swatches that represent the colors of the bright stars, including our Sun, as they actually are seen and in so doing learn:

  • How to see color in the stars
  • What the color tells us about each star

The chart shows the Winter Hexagon because many of the brightest stars can be seen there all at one time, but it also includes swatches for several bright stars that are prominent in the spring, summer, and fall.

This image of the Winter Hexagon was taken by Jimmy Westlake looking at the skies over Stagecoach, Colorado. Look carefully and you can see color in some of the stars - especially if you click on the image to see the larger version. (Copyright © 2007-2011 JRWjr Astrophotography. All rights reserved.)

Star colors are real. They relate to a star’s temperature and from them we can surmise much more about a star. But they also are very subtle. I think of them not as colors, but as tints. I see stars essentially as white lights to which a little color has been added to tint it one way or another. I believe most people don’t see the colors at all when they first look at the stars and this can be frustrating, especially if you’ve read that Betelgeuse, for example, is an “orange” star.

With the naked eye you only will see color on the brightest stars because our eye simply needs a lot of light to detect color. In fact, point your binoculars at those bright stars, and you should find it easier to detect the colors because the binoculars gather more light. You can train yourself to see star colors, though people do differ in this ability. But for most, the colors are really quite obvious on some of the brighter stars, once you know what you can expect to see. And that’s what this little exercise is for – learning what you can expect to see.

Your main tools will be the chart and the color table provided here. You’ll have to provide the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), plus white in some easily blendable medium, such as common water, tempera, or poster paints. Nothing fancy needed and no special painting skills required.

First, here’s the chart you will be coloring.

You can download a version for printing by clicking here.

And here’s the color table you will use as your guide

Your task is simple.

Next to each star on the star chart is its spectral classification. This consists of a letter and number. The letters go from blue to red stars in this order: OBAFGKM. Each letter gets divided into a numerical sub-classification from 0-9. So a “B0” star would be just at the beginning of the “B” category. A “B9” star would be at the end of that category and almost into the next one. The star chart shows the spectral classification for each star. Match that with what you see in the color table. Then determine its color.

You will notice that there are two different color scales in the table. That’s because the way we see color depends in part upon the environment in which we see it. The “conventional color” is what would be seen if the star were put under high magnification and projected onto a white sheet of paper in the daylight. The “apparent color” is what is seen by the naked eye in a dark sky. That is the color you want. That’s what you’ll try to duplicate by mixing your water colors and painting the swatch next to each star so it matches its classification – and thus what you are likely to see in the night sky.

The result will be a chart that will help you know what color to expect to see when you look at the stars in the sky. I should add that if you see a photograph of these stars, the colors will be similar, but different. That’s because the colors in a photograph depend on the color sensitivity of the film or computer chip used to record them – which is not the same as your eye. So you cannot use a photograph as an absolute guide to what you will see. The chart you make, if done well, will be a much better guide.

When you look for star color, make sure the star is high in your sky – hopefully at least 30 degrees or more above the horizon. All bright stars near the horizon will appear to flash many brilliant colors. Those colors – like the colors in our sunrises and sunsets – are caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. When you are looking at an object near the horizon, you are looking through much more air than when you are looking at a star high overhead.

Of course, you are going to have to use your judgment in making the color swatches, and you might experiment a bit on another piece of paper. That’s why I recommend using some sort of water color for this activity – so it’s easy to blend and thin your colors to get the color you want – the one that is closest to what you actually see. Of course to get orange you mix the yellow and red – and white will come in handy to lighten any of the colors.

Get the idea? Will your colors be perfect? I doubt it. But experimenting this way will give you a much better feel for how subtle star colors are and exactly what you are looking for when you go out at night. Too often people are confused and disappointed because they read that Betelgeuse or Aldebaran is a red or orange star – and when they read that, they are thinking of the conventional red or orange – quite naturally – but look at the chart and look at the difference between conventional colors and apparent colors.

More about a star’s spectral class

OBAFGKM is certainly a crazy order, I know. It started out to be an alphabetical list more than a century ago. But as they learned more about the stars, the letters got scrambled. Here’s an easy way to remember the order:

Oh Be A Fine Girl/Guy Kiss Me

At first they thought letters would be enough, but the more they learned about stars, the more they saw there were many subtle variations that were important. So for each letter there is a sub-classification system that goes from 0-9. Thus an O9.5 star, such as Mintaka, is in the “O” spectral class (blue) but about as close as one can get to being a “B” (blue white) star. Don’t be too concerned about these numbers, however. You’ll find it difficult enough just to get colors that accurately match the letter classifications. Besides, I’ve found that different sources sometimes give different numbers for the spectral classification of a specific star, so I see them as a good rough guide as to how solidly a star is into a specific class but not something to take overly seriously in terms of what we can detect with our eyes.

Mintaka, incidentally, is included here because bright “O” stars are hard to find. Mintaka was one of the easiest “O” star to identify, being the western-most star in Orion’s Belt. But coincidentally, Ainitak, the star at the other end of the belt, is also an”O” and  a bit brighter. But ay O9.7 it, too, just makes it into the “O” class by the skin of its teeth. In fact, it’s a bit closer to being a “B” star than Mintaka – but I guarantee you won’t see any difference.

“M” stars are even more difficult to find. True, Betelgeuse is one in the Winter Hexagon, and  in the summer we have another brilliant “M” star – Antares, the brightest star in the Scorpion.  But these are special. They both are Supergiants – stars that are going through their death throes and have expanded tremendously.  The vast majority of “M” stars are of average size, and in fact, these average-sized “M” stars are the most common stars in the universe – yet there is not a single “normal” class “M” star visible to our naked eye, let alone as bright as the stars that form the Winter Hexagon.

I also added our Sun to the chart. DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN TO TRY TO DETERMINE COLOR. YOU WILL DAMAGE YOUR EYES. We were all taught as children to color our Sun yellow – and this is correct if you are talking about conventional color. But the Sun is a class G2 star, and I suggest you color its swatch the “apparent” color it would appear to our naked eye were we seeing it as just another bright star in our night sky. This means it would appear the same as Capella.

Binocular and telescope users can see many double stars, and some of these provide striking color contrast, such as the blue and gold of Albireo. Seeing two stars close together that are of different colors makes it even easier to see star colors but also presents a whole new set of challenges, and experienced observers frequently differ on what the colors of the double stars are. John Nanson has explored this in an excellent post to the “Star Splitters” blog that we co-author. To learn more about these stars and the special challenges of determining their colors, read John’s post here.

What we can surmise from the colors

As you can see from the temperature scale, blue stars are hot – red stars are “cool.” Cool, that is, as far as star temperatures go. They are still very, very hot: 3700 Kelvin is about 6,200 degrees Fahrenheit! (Steel melts at about half that temperature.)

So once you notice a star’s color, what more can it tell you about the star? A detailed answer is beyond this exercise, but it means you can make a very good guess about some other important characteristics of the star.

Here’s a summary in table form of what the spectral classification tells about the size and life expectancy of a star, and even hints at how it will probably die.

  • Ninety-five percent of all stars are on what is called the “main sequence.” Most of the stars that are not on the main sequence are white dwarfs. But a few others are giants or supergiants. Roughly one percent of the stars fall into one of the giant categories, such as Antares.
  • The lower limit for the mass of a star is 1/80th the mass of our Sun – or about 13 times the mass of Jupiter.
  • Temperatures are for a star’s surface. The interior is much hotter.
  • Age – “O” stars have short lives and thus die first, then “B,” etc. No “dwarf” “K” or “M” star has died yet – the universe isn’t old enough.

3 Responses

  1. […] Spica is about as close to first magnitude as you can get and very blue. Saturn will be at its brightest in March at about magnitude .4, so you should see it as brighter than Spica with a distinct yellow hue. (For more on star colors, how to see them, and what they tell us, see this post.) […]

  2. […] The pairs present some really nice color contrast , something that will be more apparent if you look at them in binoculars. Saturn has a yellowish tint, while it’s companion, Spica, is an icy blue. Mars is orange-to-red, while Regulus is white with just a hint of blue. Castor is white, but Pollux has a yellow tint.  (For more on the color of stars, please go here.) […]

  3. […] colors are subtle. You’ll see them better if you use binoculars and you might want to review this post on star colors to better know what to […]

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