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Starry sky crossed with the Milky Way and a shooting star Perseid Meteor.jpg
Starry sky crossed with the Milky Way and a shooting star

Starlight is the light emitted by stars. [1] It typically refers to visible electromagnetic radiation from stars other than the Sun observable from Earth during the night time although a component of starlight is observable from the Earth during the daytime.

Light electromagnetic radiation in or near visible spectrum

Light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The word usually refers to visible light, which is the visible spectrum that is visible to the human eye and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light is usually defined as having wavelengths in the range of 400–700 nanometres (nm), or 4.00 × 10−7 to 7.00 × 10−7 m, between the infrared and the ultraviolet. This wavelength means a frequency range of roughly 430–750 terahertz (THz).

Visible spectrum portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye

The visible spectrum is the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Electromagnetic radiation in this range of wavelengths is called visible light or simply light. A typical human eye will respond to wavelengths from about 380 to 740 nanometers. In terms of frequency, this corresponds to a band in the vicinity of 430–770 THz.

Electromagnetic radiation form of energy emitted and absorbed by charged particles, which exhibits wave-like behavior as it travels through space

In physics, electromagnetic radiation refers to the waves of the electromagnetic field, propagating (radiating) through space, carrying electromagnetic radiant energy. It includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, (visible) light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays.


Sunlight is the term used for the Sun's starlight observed during daytime. During nighttime, albedo describes solar reflections from other Solar System objects including moonlight.

Sunlight portion of the electromagnetic radiation given off by the Sun

Sunlight is a portion of the electromagnetic radiation given off by the Sun, in particular infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light. On Earth, sunlight is filtered through Earth's atmosphere, and is obvious as daylight when the Sun is above the horizon. When the direct solar radiation is not blocked by clouds, it is experienced as sunshine, a combination of bright light and radiant heat. When it is blocked by clouds or reflects off other objects, it is experienced as diffused light. The World Meteorological Organization uses the term "sunshine duration" to mean the cumulative time during which an area receives direct irradiance from the Sun of at least 120 watts per square meter. Other sources indicate an "Average over the entire earth" of "164 Watts per square meter over a 24 hour day".

Albedo ratio of reflected radiation to incident radiation

Albedo is the measure of the diffuse reflection of solar radiation out of the total solar radiation received by an astronomical body. It is dimensionless and measured on a scale from 0 to 1.

Moonlight light that reaches Earth from the Moon

Moonlight consists of mostly sunlight reflected from the parts of the Moon's surface where the Sun's light strikes.


Observation and measurement of starlight through telescopes is the basis for many fields of astronomy, [2] including photometry and stellar spectroscopy. [3] Hipparchus did not have a telescope or any instrument that could measure apparent brightness accurately, so he simply made estimates with his eyes. He sorted the stars into six brightness categories, which he called magnitudes. [4] He referred to the brightest stars in his catalog as first-magnitudes stars, which were the brightest stars and those so faint he could barely see them were sixth-magnitude stars. [4]

Astronomy natural science that deals with the study of celestial objects

Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It applies mathematics, physics, and chemistry in an effort to explain the origin of those objects and phenomena and their evolution. Objects of interest include planets, moons, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and comets; the phenomena also includes supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars, and cosmic microwave background radiation. More generally, all phenomena that originate outside Earth's atmosphere are within the purview of astronomy. A related but distinct subject is physical cosmology, which is the study of the Universe as a whole.

Hipparchus ancient Greek scholar

Hipparchus of Nicaea was a Greek astronomer, geographer, and mathematician. He is considered the founder of trigonometry but is most famous for his incidental discovery of precession of the equinoxes.

Starlight is also a notable part of personal experience and human culture, impacting a diverse range of pursuits including poetry, [5] astronomy, [2] and military strategy. [6]

Personal experience of a human being is the moment-to-moment experience and sensory awareness of internal and external events or a sum of experiences forming an empirical unity such as a period of life.

Culture societys way of life within anthropology

Culture is the social behavior and norms found in human societies. Culture is considered a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies. Cultural universals are found in all human societies; these include expressive forms like art, music, dance, ritual, religion, and technologies like tool usage, cooking, shelter, and clothing. The concept of material culture covers the physical expressions of culture, such as technology, architecture and art, whereas the immaterial aspects of culture such as principles of social organization, mythology, philosophy, literature, and science comprise the intangible cultural heritage of a society.

The United States Army spent millions of dollars in the 1950s and onward to develop a starlight scope, that could amplify starlight, moonlight filtered by clouds, and the fluorescence of rotting vegetation about 50,000 times to allow a person to see in the night. [6] In contrast to previously developed active infrared system such as sniperscope, it was a passive device and did not require additional light emission to see. [6]

United States Army Land warfare branch of the United States Armed Forces

The United States Army (USA) is the land warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces. It is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States, and is designated as the Army of the United States in the United States Constitution. As the oldest and most senior branch of the U.S. military in order of precedence, the modern U.S. Army has its roots in the Continental Army, which was formed to fight the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783)—before the United States of America was established as a country. After the Revolutionary War, the Congress of the Confederation created the United States Army on 3 June 1784 to replace the disbanded Continental Army. The United States Army considers itself descended from the Continental Army, and dates its institutional inception from the origin of that armed force in 1775.

Fluorescence emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation

Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation. It is a form of luminescence. In most cases, the emitted light has a longer wavelength, and therefore lower energy, than the absorbed radiation. The most striking example of fluorescence occurs when the absorbed radiation is in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum, and thus invisible to the human eye, while the emitted light is in the visible region, which gives the fluorescent substance a distinct color that can be seen only when exposed to UV light. Fluorescent materials cease to glow nearly immediately when the radiation source stops, unlike phosphorescent materials, which continue to emit light for some time after.

Vegetation total of plant formations and plant communities

Vegetation is an assemblage of plant species and the ground cover they provide. It is a general term, without specific reference to particular taxa, life forms, structure, spatial extent, or any other specific botanical or geographic characteristics. It is broader than the term flora which refers to species composition. Perhaps the closest synonym is plant community, but vegetation can, and often does, refer to a wider range of spatial scales than that term does, including scales as large as the global. Primeval redwood forests, coastal mangrove stands, sphagnum bogs, desert soil crusts, roadside weed patches, wheat fields, cultivated gardens and lawns; all are encompassed by the term vegetation.

The average color of starlight in the observable universe is a shade of yellowish-white that has been given the name Cosmic Latte.

Observable universe A spherical part of the universe which contains all matter that can be observed from the Earth at the present time

The observable universe is a spherical region of the Universe comprising all matter that can be observed from Earth or its space-based telescopes and exploratory probes at the present time, because electromagnetic radiation from these objects has had time to reach the Solar System and Earth since the beginning of the cosmological expansion. There are at least 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. Assuming the Universe is isotropic, the distance to the edge of the observable universe is roughly the same in every direction. That is, the observable universe has a spherical volume centered on the observer. Every location in the Universe has its own observable universe, which may or may not overlap with the one centered on Earth.

Starlight spectroscopy, examination of the stellar spectra, was pioneered by Joseph Fraunhofer in 1814. [3] Starlight can be understood to be composed of three main spectra types, continuous spectrum, emission spectrum, and absorption spectrum. [1]

Oldest starlight

One of the oldest stars yet identified (oldest not most distant in this case) was identified in 2014, the star SMSS J031300.362670839.3 was determined to be 6000 light years away but date to 13.8 billion years ago. [7] The starlight shining on Earth would include this star. [7]


Night photography includes photographing subjects that are lit primarily by starlight. [8] Directly taking images of night sky is also a part of astrophotography. [9] Like other photography, it can be used for the pursuit of science and/or leisure. [10] [11] Subjects include nocturnal animals. [9] In many cases starlight photography may also overlap with a need to understand the impact of moonlight. [9]


Startlight intensity has been observed to be a function of its polarization.

Starlight becomes partially linearly polarized by scattering from elongated interstellar dust grains whose long axes tend to be oriented perpendicular to the galactic magnetic field. According to the Davis–Greenstein mechanism, the grains spin rapidly with their rotation axis along the magnetic field. Light polarized along the direction of the magnetic field perpendicular to the line of sight is transmitted, while light polarized in the plane defined by the rotating grain is blocked. Thus the polarization direction can be used to map the galactic magnetic field. The degree of polarization is on the order of 1.5% for stars at 1,000 parsecs' distance. [12]

Normally, a much smaller fraction of circular polarization is found in starlight. Serkowski, Mathewson and Ford [13] measured the polarization of 180 stars in UBVR filters. They found a maximum fractional circular polarization of , in the R filter.

The explanation is that the interstellar medium is optically thin. Starlight traveling through a kiloparsec column undergoes about a magnitude of extinction, so that the optical depth ~ 1. An optical depth of 1 corresponds to a mean free path, which is the distance, on average that a photon travels before scattering from a dust grain. So on average, a starlight photon is scattered from a single interstellar grain; multiple scattering (which produces circular polarization) is much less likely. Observationally, [12] the linear polarization fraction p ~ 0.015 from a single scattering; circular polarization from multiple scattering goes as , so we expect a circularly polarized fraction of .

Light from early-type stars has very little intrinsic polarization. Kemp et al. [14] measured the optical polarization of the Sun at sensitivity of ; they found upper limits of for both (fraction of linear polarization) and (fraction of circular polarization).

The interstellar medium can produce circularly polarized (CP) light from unpolarized light by sequential scattering from elongated interstellar grains aligned in different directions. One possibility is twisted grain alignment along the line of sight due to variation in the galactic magnetic field; another is the line of sight passes through multiple clouds. For these mechanisms the maximum expected CP fraction is , where is the fraction of linearly polarized (LP) light. Kemp & Wolstencroft [15] found CP in six early-type stars (no intrinsic polarization), which they were able to attribute to the first mechanism mentioned above. In all cases, in blue light.

Martin [16] showed that the interstellar medium can convert LP light to CP by scattering from partially aligned interstellar grains having a complex index of refraction. This effect was observed for light from the Crab Nebula by Martin, Illing and Angel. [17]

An optically thick circumstellar environment can potentially produce much larger CP than the interstellar medium. Martin [16] suggested that LP light can become CP near a star by multiple scattering in an optically thick asymmetric circumstellar dust cloud. This mechanism was invoked by Bastien, Robert and Nadeau, [18] to explain the CP measured in 6 T-Tauri stars at a wavelength of 768 nm. They found a maximum CP of . Serkowski [19] measured CP of for the red supergiant NML Cygni and in the long-period variable M star VY Canis Majoris in the H band, ascribing the CP to multiple scattering in circumstellar envelopes. Chrysostomou et al. [20] found CP with q of up to 0.17 in the Orion OMC-1 star-forming region, and explained it by reflection of starlight from aligned oblate grains in the dusty nebula.

Circular polarization of zodiacal light and Milky Way diffuse galactic light was measured at wavelength of 550 nm by Wolstencroft and Kemp. [21] They found values of , which is higher than for ordinary stars, presumably because of multiple scattering from dust grains.

See also

Related Research Articles

Polarization (waves) property of waves that can oscillate with more than one orientation

Polarization is a property applying to transverse waves that specifies the geometrical orientation of the oscillations. In a transverse wave, the direction of the oscillation is perpendicular to the direction of motion of the wave. A simple example of a polarized transverse wave is vibrations traveling along a taut string (see image); for example, in a musical instrument like a guitar string. Depending on how the string is plucked, the vibrations can be in a vertical direction, horizontal direction, or at any angle perpendicular to the string. In contrast, in longitudinal waves, such as sound waves in a liquid or gas, the displacement of the particles in the oscillation is always in the direction of propagation, so these waves do not exhibit polarization. Transverse waves that exhibit polarization include electromagnetic waves such as light and radio waves, gravitational waves, and transverse sound waves in solids. In some types of transverse waves, the wave displacement is limited to a single direction, so these also do not exhibit polarization; for example, in surface waves in liquids, the wave displacement of the particles is always in a vertical plane.

Star formation is the process by which dense regions within molecular clouds in interstellar space, sometimes referred to as "stellar nurseries" or "star-forming regions", collapse and form stars. As a branch of astronomy, star formation includes the study of the interstellar medium (ISM) and giant molecular clouds (GMC) as precursors to the star formation process, and the study of protostars and young stellar objects as its immediate products. It is closely related to planet formation, another branch of astronomy. Star formation theory, as well as accounting for the formation of a single star, must also account for the statistics of binary stars and the initial mass function. Most stars do not form in isolation but as part of a group of stars referred as star clusters or stellar associations.

Interstellar medium matter and radiation in the space between the star systems in a galaxy, including ionic, atomic, or molecular gas, dust and cosmic rays, filling interstellar space and blending smoothly into the surrounding intergalactic space

In astronomy, the interstellar medium (ISM) is the matter and radiation that exists in the space between the star systems in a galaxy. This matter includes gas in ionic, atomic, and molecular form, as well as dust and cosmic rays. It fills interstellar space and blends smoothly into the surrounding intergalactic space. The energy that occupies the same volume, in the form of electromagnetic radiation, is the interstellar radiation field.

Reflection nebula in astronomy clouds of interstellar dust

In astronomy, reflection nebulae are clouds of interstellar dust which might reflect the light of a nearby star or stars. The energy from the nearby stars is insufficient to ionize the gas of the nebula to create an emission nebula, but is enough to give sufficient scattering to make the dust visible. Thus, the frequency spectrum shown by reflection nebulae is similar to that of the illuminating stars. Among the microscopic particles responsible for the scattering are carbon compounds and compounds of other elements such as iron and nickel. The latter two are often aligned with the galactic magnetic field and cause the scattered light to be slightly polarized.

Active galactic nucleus Compact region at the center of a galaxy that has a much higher than normal luminosity

An active galactic nucleus (AGN) is a compact region at the center of a galaxy that has a much higher than normal luminosity over at least some portion of the electromagnetic spectrum with characteristics indicating that the luminosity is not produced by stars. Such excess non-stellar emission has been observed in the radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet, X-ray and gamma ray wavebands. A galaxy hosting an AGN is called an "active galaxy". The radiation from an AGN is believed to result from the accretion of matter by a supermassive black hole at the center of its host galaxy.

Reionization process that caused the matter in the universe to reionize early in the history of the universe

In the field of Big Bang theory, and cosmology, reionization is the process that caused the matter in the universe to reionize after the lapse of the "dark ages".

In physics, the Faraday effect or Faraday rotation is a magneto-optical phenomenon—that is, an interaction between light and a magnetic field in a medium. The Faraday effect causes a rotation of the plane of polarization which is linearly proportional to the component of the magnetic field in the direction of propagation. Formally, it is a special case of gyroelectromagnetism obtained when the dielectric permittivity tensor is diagonal.

Owl Nebula planetary nebula in the constellation Ursa Major

The Owl Nebula is a planetary nebula located approximately 2,030 light years away in the constellation Ursa Major. It was discovered by French astronomer Pierre Méchain on February 16, 1781. When William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, observed the nebula in 1848, his hand-drawn illustration resembled an owl's head. It has been known as the Owl Nebula ever since.

Metallicity fraction of mass of a star or other kind of astronomical object that is not in hydrogen or helium

In astronomy, metallicity is used to describe the abundance of elements present in an object that are heavier than hydrogen or helium. Most of the physical matter in the Universe is in the form of hydrogen and helium, so astronomers use the word "metals" as a convenient short term for "all elements except hydrogen and helium". This usage is distinct from the usual physical definition of a solid metal. For example, stars and nebulae with relatively high abundances of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and neon are called "metal-rich" in astrophysical terms, even though those elements are non-metals in chemistry.

In astronomy, extinction is the absorption and scattering of electromagnetic radiation by dust and gas between an emitting astronomical object and the observer. Interstellar extinction was first documented as such in 1930 by Robert Julius Trumpler. However, its effects had been noted in 1847 by Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve, and its effect on the colors of stars had been observed by a number of individuals who did not connect it with the general presence of galactic dust. For stars that lie near the plane of the Milky Way and are within a few thousand parsecs of the Earth, extinction in the visual band of frequencies is on the order of 1.8 magnitudes per kiloparsec.

Polarization is an important phenomenon in astronomy.


Polarimetry is the measurement and interpretation of the polarization of transverse waves, most notably electromagnetic waves, such as radio or light waves. Typically polarimetry is done on electromagnetic waves that have traveled through or have been reflected, refracted or diffracted by some material in order to characterize that object.

Cosmic dust dust floating in space

Cosmic dust, also called extraterrestrial dust or space dust, is dust which exists in outer space, or has fallen on Earth. Most cosmic dust particles are between a few molecules to 0.1 µm in size. Cosmic dust can be further distinguished by its astronomical location: intergalactic dust, interstellar dust, interplanetary dust and circumplanetary dust.

Polar (star) type of cataclysmic variable binary star system

A Polar is a highly magnetic type of cataclysmic variable binary star system, originally known as an AM Herculis star after the prototype member AM Herculis. Like other cataclysmic variables (CVs), polars contain two stars: an accreting white dwarf (WD), and a low-mass donor star which is transferring mass to the WD as a result of the WD's gravitational pull, overflowing its Roche lobe. Polars are distinguished from other CVs by the presence of a very strong magnetic field in the WD. Typical magnetic field strengths of polar systems are 10 million to 80 million gauss. The WD in the polar AN Ursae Majoris has the strongest known magnetic field among cataclysmic variables, with a field strength of 230 million gauss.

AM Herculis is a binary variable star located in the constellation Hercules. This star, along with the star AN Ursae Majoris, is the prototype for a category of cataclysmic variable stars called polars, or AM Her type stars.

GRW +70 8247 is a white dwarf located about 43 light-years from Earth in the constellation Draco. With a magnitude of about 13 it is visible only through a large telescope.

In astronomy, color–color diagrams are a means of comparing the apparent magnitudes of stars at different wavelengths. Astronomers typically observe at narrow bands around certain wavelengths, and objects observed will have different brightnesses in each band. The difference in brightness between two bands is referred to as color. On color–color diagrams, the color defined by two wavelength bands is plotted on the horizontal axis, and then the color defined by another brightness difference will be plotted on the vertical axis.

Gamma-ray burst emission mechanisms are theories that explain how the energy from a gamma-ray burst progenitor is turned into radiation. These mechanisms are a major topic of research as of 2007. Neither the light curves nor the early-time spectra of GRBs show resemblance to the radiation emitted by any familiar physical process.

Quintuplet cluster open cluster in the constellation Sagittarius

The Quintuplet cluster is a dense cluster of massive young stars about 100 light years from the Galactic Center (GC). Its name comes from the fact it has five prominent infrared sources residing in it. Along with the Arches cluster it is one of two in the immediate GC region. Due to heavy extinction by dust in the vicinity, it is invisible to optical observation and must be studied in the X-ray, radio, and infrared bands.

V4650 Sagittarii star

V4650 Sagittarii (qF362) is a luminous blue variable star (LBV) in the constellation of Sagittarius. Located some 25,000 light years away, the star is positioned on the edge of a starburst cluster known as the Quintuplet cluster.


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