How do you measure the mass of a star?
Measuring the mass of stars in binary systems is easy. Binary systems are sets of two or more stars in orbit about each other. By measuring the size of the orbit, the stars' orbital speeds, and their orbital periods, we can determine exactly what the masses of the stars are. We can take that knowledge and then apply it to similar stars not in multiple systems.
We also can easily measure the luminocity and temperature of any star. A plot of luminocity versus temperature for a set of stars is called a Hertsprung-Russel (H-R) diagram, and it turns out that most stars lie along a thin band in this diagram known as the main Sequence. Stars arrange themselves by mass on the Main Sequence, with massive stars being hotter and brighter than their small-mass bretheren. If a star falls on the Main Sequence, we therefore immediately know its mass.
In addition to these methods, we also have an excellent understanding of how stars work. Our models of stellar structure are excellent predictors of the properties and evolution of stars. As it turns out, the mass of a star determines its life history from day 1, for all times thereafter, not only when the star is on the Main Sequence. So actually, the position of a star on the H-R diagram is a good indicator of its mass, regardless of whether it's on the Main Sequence or not.
Get More 'Curious?' with Our New PODCAST:
- Podcast? Subscribe? Tell me about the Ask an Astronomer Podcast
- Subscribe to our Podcast | Listen to our current Episode
- Cool! But I can't now. Send me a quick reminder now for later.
- Is it possible to measure the temperature of the Sun?
- Can one star orbit another?
- How do we weigh objects in space?
- What is the largest star?
- How do we know the mass of the Earth and the Moon?
How to ask a question:
If you have a follow-up question concerning the above subject, submit it here. If you have a question about another area of astronomy, find the topic you're interested in from the archive on our site menu, or go here for help.
This page has been accessed 50512 times since September 29, 2002.
Last modified: January 25, 2003 1:17:10 PM
Ask an Astronomer is hosted by the Astronomy Department at Cornell University and is produced with PHP and MySQL.
Warning: Your browser is misbehaving! This page might look ugly. (Details)