Astronomy Lecture 1: What Is a Star?

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In this first lecture of three in the Frontiers of Science unit on astronomy, Columbia University professor David Helfand sifts through astrophysics jargon to explain the basic physics behind stars—"our signposts for measuring our place in the Universe and its history"—and how they evolve over cosmic time. A lecture video and companion PowerPoint presentation are also available on FoSO.

Astronomy Lecture 1: What Is a Star?

Discipline:
Resource type:

What Is a Star?

In this first lecture video of three in the Frontiers of Science unit on astronomy, Columbia University professor David Helfand sifts through astrophysics jargon to explain the basic physics behind stars—"our signposts for measuring our place in the Universe and its history"—and how they evolve over cosmic time. A lecture transcript and companion PowerPoint presentation are also available on FoSO.

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Scale Model of the Solar System

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This activity introduces students to the scale model and how it is used in science. Students collaborate (or compete!) to construct a scale model of the solar system using colored cards. This task works especially well as a warm-up in the first meeting of a small class, and may be useful in any class—not just one on astronomy—where scale models are introduced.

Astronomy Lecture 1: What Is a Star?

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Stellar parallax.

In this PowerPoint presentation, the first of three in the Frontiers of Science unit on astronomy, Columbia University professor David Helfand sifts through astrophysics jargon to explain the basic physics behind stars—"our signposts for measuring our place in the Universe and its history"—and how they evolve over cosmic time. A lecture video and transcript are also available on FoSO.

Planetary Habitation and Detection

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The theoretical equilibrium temperature of a planet as a function of distance from the Sun.

In the first of these two multipart questions, students will apply their understanding of stellar luminosity and planetary equilibrium to estimate and interpret the theoretical "habitable zone" in our solar system. In the second question, students will use a simulation of Doppler spectroscopy to understand how detecting "wobble" is used to estimate a star's mass and orbital period. This assignment also gives students a chance to read and interpret a graph with a logarithmic scale and to consider the utility of simulations in science.

Planetary Habitation and Detection

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The theoretical equilibrium temperature of a planet as a function of distance from the Sun. (answer)

In the first of these two multipart questions, students will apply their understanding of stellar luminosity and planetary equilibrium to estimate and interpret the theoretical "habitable zone" in our solar system. In the second question, students will use a simulation of Doppler spectroscopy to understand how detecting "wobble" is used to estimate a star's mass and orbital period. This assignment also gives students a chance to read and interpret a graph with a logarithmic scale and to consider the utility of simulations in science.

Stars and Galaxies

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Main sequence plot question.

This assignment requires students to apply their understanding of galaxies, distance, the HR diagram, and the characteristics of stars (size, brightness, temperature) to a set of calculations and interpretations.

Stars and Galaxies

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Colliding galaxies NGC 4038 and NGC 4039.

This assignment requires students to apply their understanding of galaxies, distance, the HR diagram, and the characteristics of stars (size, brightness, temperature) to a set of calculations and interpretations.

HR Diagrams

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M55 globular cluster.

This assignment requires students to read and interpret Hertzsprung-Russell (HR) diagrams, showing the correlation between a star's temperature and its luminosity. Students will also gain experience with estimating the magnitude of error, identifying sources of error, identifying the limitations of particular methods of measurement, and interpreting logarithmic scales.

HR Diagrams

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Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

This assignment requires students to read and interpret Hertzsprung-Russell (HR) diagrams, showing the correlation between a star's temperature and its luminosity. Students will also gain experience with estimating the magnitude of error, identifying sources of error, identifying the limitations of particular methods of measurement, and interpreting logarithmic scales.