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Spectra of stars

Observation and analysis of the light coming from a star is the only way we have to determine the properties of the star. We can in fact find out a surprising amount of information about stars simply by the analysis of their spectra. A simple version of the type of stellar spectrum that you might observe is shown in Figure 1.

You can see that the spectrum is basically a continuous spectrum from violet to red but it is covered with many fine dark lines. These are absorption lines and in a real stellar spectrum there would be many hundreds of these spread across the whole spectrum. A black and white version of the spectrum of Sirius is shown below.

(Photograph taken by Villanova University)
By looking at the spectrum of a star astronomers can determine:
(a) the temperature of the star
(b) the velocity of the star along a line joining the star to the Earth
(c) the composition of the star

(a) the temperature of the star can be found by measuring the variation in intensity across the spectrum. M. When the wavelength of the peak intensity is found the temperature can be calculated using Wein's law.

(See also: Infra red and energy distribution)

(b) by comparing the absorption lines due to a certain element with the emission lines of the same element produced in the laboratory the shift of the lines can be measure. Knowing the shift of the lines the velocity of recession can be found using the equations for the Doppler effect.

(See: Doppler effect)

(c) the chemical composition of the star can be determined by looking at the absorption lines in the spectrum. These lines correspond to the emission lines of particular elements in the star.

Spectral classification

The spectra of stars are classified into a number of types first proposed by a group of astronomers, notably E.C.Pickering, at Harvard in about 1900. They gave each type of star a letter shown in the following list:


This list ranges from very hot O type stars to 'cool' M type stars. Types R, N and S are less common but are included for completeness. O and B stars are bluish white and M stars reddish in appearance from the Earth.

There is a very good mnemonic for remembering this series;

O Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me Right Now Sweetheart!

Examples of the spectra of stars of different types are given in the following photograph. A series of absorption lines can be seen crossing each spectrum.

Photography courtesy of: Courtney Seligman (for further information visit:

The following table gives a brief description the properties of the MAIN spectral classes.

Spectral class Surface temperature (K) Significant features
O >20 000 Helium ions
B 10 000 - 20 000 Atoms of helium and hydrogen
A 7000 - 10 000 Hydrogen atoms (Balmer series of spectral lines appear).
Calcium, magnesium and silicon ions
F 6000 - 7000 Calcium ions. Iron and sodium atoms and ions
G 5000 - 6000 Calcium ions (Ca II) strong. Other metallic lines
K 3500 - 5000 Neutral metal atoms and some molecular bands appearing.
M 2000 - 3500 Molecular bands such as titanium oxide (TiO) and metal atoms.

These broad classes of stars are divided into a more detailed classification with each main section being split into at least ten subdivisions. Therefore our Sun is a G type star but lies between the K and F types but nearer to the K and is therefore known as type G2.

The next table gives some examples of stars of different types.

Star Spectral class   Star Spectral class
Sirius A1   Capella G6
Vega A0   Aldebaran K5
Rigel B8   Arcturus K1
Procyon F5   Betelguese M2

(See also: Stellar types)

Luminosity of stars

Within each spectral class some stars will be larger and therefore brighter than others. The larger stars will generally have narrower spectral lines because of the reduced pressures in their outer atmosphere. (See later in the section on the broadening of spectral lines)
These extra classifications are shown below.

I Supergiants
II Bright giants
III Giants
IV Subgiants
V Main sequence dwarfs
VI Sub dwarfs
VII White dwarfs

Note: If the star is variable in brightness a V appears in the classification.

Betelguese is a red supergiant and so is classified as M2I.

© Keith Gibbs 2020