Each in a class of their own…

Ever wonder what makes stars different from one another? Lots of factors can come into play: size, composition, temperature, and age to name a few. Thankfully many stars are similar and can be grouped together by similarities. So here let’s talk about the history and science of stellar classification.

Shedding some light on spectra

In the middle of the 19th century, a German physicist by the name of Gustav Kirchhoff was doing a lot of research into the field of spectroscopy; collaborating closely with Robert Bunsen, inventor of the best piece of scientific equipment high schoolers are allowed to use. Kirchhoff in his research, came to the conclusion that spectroscopy was governed by three basic laws. These are known today as “Kirchhoff’s laws of spectroscopy” (not to be confused his circuit lawslaw of thermochemistry, or law of thermal radiation– basically this guy made more laws than Congress). Kirchhoff’s laws of spectroscopy dictate that:

  1. A solid (or liquid or gas under high pressure) will give off a continuous spectrum.
  2. A gas under low pressure (i.e. most gases we know of) will produce bright, discrete lines known as an emission spectrum.
  3. If you look at a source of a continuous spectrum from behind a source of an emission spectrum, you will see what looks like a continuous spectrum with black lines missing from it; think of if you took the emission spectrum and subtracted it from the continuous spectrum. This is called an absorption spectrum.

An example of Kirchhoff’s laws of spectroscopy. On the left you see an example of a continuous spectrum (Law 1) and an emission spectrum (Law 2) on the right. In the middle is an example of an absorption spectrum (Law 3), basically the removal of the emission line from the continuous spectrum. Credit: Penn State

Kirchhoff asserted that the wavelength or location of these emission or absorption lines was determined by what atoms or molecules were present in the source. This is true because each element or molecule has a unique atomic spectrum or signature. At the time that Kirchhoff came up with these laws scientists had yet to crack the secret of the internal structure of the atom. Meaning Kirchhoff made these laws based on purely on experimentation. It took another half a century for Niels Bohr to come up with a correct model of the atom that concluded the existence of discrete energy levels that successfully explained Kirchhoff’s emission and absorption lines (and later led to the formulation of quantum mechanics).

Enter the Harem

So back towards the end of the 19th century, a man by the name of Edward Pickering was the director of the Harvard College Observatory. Mr. Pickering decided to take it amongst himself to obtain spectra of as many stars as he could and then index and classify them. So Pickering did what any good scientist would do, he began to collect data. But as you well know, there are a lot of stars in the sky, so before he knew it he was inundated with tons of photographic plates (if you thought film was bad, its predecessor was worse- these plates were usually large heavy pieces of glass mixed with silver salts) containing stellar spectra. Legend has it that Pickering was getting so aggravated by the incompetence of his male research assistants that he exclaimed that his maid could do a better job. So he hired her. Her name was Williamina Fleming and along with Pickering she helped to publish the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra (named in honor of Henry Draper, the first man to take the spectrum of a star on a photographic plate), which had classifications for 10,351 different stars. Once Fleming left Pickering’s service, he hired several other women assistants. Out of this group of women, which became known officially as the “Harvard Computers”, but commonly as “Pickering’s Harem”, came some of the greatest early female astronomers, including Annie Jump CannonHenrietta Swan Leavitt, and Antonia Maury. The initial version of this catalog, published from 1918 to 1924 in 9 volumes, included the positions, magnitudes, and spectral classifications of over 225,000 stars.

Edward Pickering and his “harem” outside a Harvard building in 1913. Annie Jump Cannon stands two to the right of Pickering. Credit: UC- Berkeley

Differentiating the spectral classes

Alright, so how does that help astronomers? Well, in essence a star is a gas under high pressure, meaning it should give off a continuous spectrum according to Kirchhoff’s first law. But the outer layers of a star’s “atmosphere”, called the corona, is a gas under low pressure- meaning we actually see an absorption spectrum (Law 3). (In fact, it was the unexpected discovery of this absorption spectrum that helped us to realize that our Sun had an “atmosphere” or outer layer of hot gas surrounding it.) Since stars of the same size and mass are made up of pretty much the same stuff, they have similar spectra. In fact, this is how astronomers classify stars, by their spectral class. The different stellar spectral classes are O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. Type O stars are the hottest and Type M stars are the coolest. Each spectral class or spectral type has a unique spectrum.

Recreated stellar spectra of each spectral type (from top to bottom): O, B, A, F, G, K, M. Credit: ESA

With a name like that…

Now, like a lot of things in astronomy, this naming scheme is totally absurd and illogical. I wish I had a better explanation for why we have this naming scheme, but basically it’s a historical holdout from back when astronomers started classifying stars without really understanding them. Remember the Harem? Well in the first publication of the catalog in 1890, Williamina Fleming did most of the classification. She used a classification system that had been developed a few decades earlier by the Italian astronomer Angelo Secchi. Since she had so many stars, she took Secchi’s five classes and stretched them out to encompass fourteen classes from A to N. Then she added three more categories (O, P, Q) to encompass stars that would not have fit Secchi’s scheme. A through Q made sense. But then in 1897, Antonia Maury was working on a different set of stars and decided to reclassify what Fleming had done. So she scrapped the letters and made 22 classes from I to XXII…still made sense. Unfortunately, in her rearranging of Fleming’s classes, she wasn’t paying attention to the letters and moved some around, hence O and B moving towards the front.

Finally in 1901, Annie Jump Cannon (probably the most famous and accomplished of the Harem) was cataloging and decided to go back to the letter system and dropped all the letters except O, B, A, F, G, K, and M in that order. Why? I have no idea. For some reason after Ms. Jump Cannon came up with her system they had had enough reclassification and no one suggested, “Hey maybe we should have these make some kind of logical sense.” Astronomers can be infuriating sometimes.  The final crazy product is known today as the Harvard Spectral Classification. So, if you need a way to try to remember Ms. Jump Cannon’s crazy archaic classes, try “OBA Fine Gal (or Guy), Kiss Me!” Of course, the cockamamie lettering system wasn’t enough, Ms. Jump Cannon then needed to add ten subclasses from 0 to 9 for each letter. Meaning not only is a B-type star hotter than a K-type star, but a B1 star is hotter than a B5. Our star, the Sun, is a G2, meaning it’s pretty much right in the middle of the stellar pack.

Digging even deeper

But somehow the crazy letter and number combination still wasn’t quite exact enough. In 1943, three astronomers from the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin came up with another classification system that focused not only on the surface temperature of a star (which the Harvard Classification does), but also on the luminosity (or brightness). Basically, you can have a really big red giant star and a teeny tiny white dwarf star that are the same temperature and therefore have similar emission lines. However, you can look at how sharp those emission lines are and determine the surface gravity or pressure that that star must have. When introducing this new factor into the equation, the Yerkes astronomers came up with seven (I-VII) new classes that basically help to dictate what stage of life a star is in.

To try to help this make some visual sense, astronomers have developed a graph called the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram that correlates how bright a star is, how hot it is, and what spectral class it’s in. This pretty ingenious and very common graph helps to simplify a vast amount of knowledge. It’s really pretty obvious how the groups appear when looking at a filled out H-R diagram. Most stars, like our Sun (which is a G2V), are in class V, meaning they are still on the “Main Sequence” and are still fusing hydrogen into helium. As stars live and evolve, they move off of the main sequence and into other branches of the H-R diagram. Can you pick out where the Sun would be on this H-R diagram below?

A Hertzsprung-Russell diagram showing the major classes of stars. The temperature (and spectral classes) run from hottest to coldest, left to right. Generally size decreases from top to bottom. The “Main Sequence” is the diagonal line running through the middle, with the other evolutionary branches around it. Credit: Wikipedia

%d bloggers like this: