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Magnitude (astronomy)

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For other uses, see Magnitude (disambiguation).

Top: Light sources of different magnitudes.


A very bright satellite flare can be seen in
the night sky.

Bottom: The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field


detected objects as faint as 30th magnitude
(left). Comet Borrelly, the colors show its
brightness over the range of three orders of
magnitude.

In astronomy, magnitude is the logarithmic measure of the brightness of an object,


measured in a specific wavelength or passband, usually in the visible or near-infrared
spectrum. An imprecise but systemic determination of the magnitude of objects was
introduced in ancient times by Hipparchus.
Astronomers use two different definitions of magnitude: apparent magnitude and absolute
magnitude. The apparent magnitude (m, or vmag for the visible spectrum) is the brightness

of an object as it appears in the night sky from Earth, while the absolute magnitude (Mv, V
and H) describes the intrinsic brightness of an object as it would appear if it were placed at
a certain distance from Earth. This distance is 10 parsecs for stars and 1 astronomical unit
for asteroids and planets. The size of an asteroid is typically estimated based on its absolute
magnitude.[1]
The brighter an object appears, the lower the value of its magnitude, with the brightest
objects reaching negative values. The Sun has an apparent magnitude of 27, the full moon
13, the brightest planet Venus measures 5, and Sirius, the brightest visible star in the
night sky is at 1.5. An apparent magnitude can also be assigned to man-made objects in
Earth orbit. The brightest satellite flares are ranked at 9, and the International Space
Station appears at a magnitude of 6. Since the scale is logarithmic, each step of one
magnitude changes the brightness by a factor of about 2.512. A magnitude 4 star is exactly
a hundred times brighter than a magnitude 9 star, as the difference of five magnitude steps
corresponds to (2.512)5 or 100.[2]

Contents
[hide]

1 History
o 1.1 Modern definition
2 Scale
3 Apparent and absolute magnitude
o 3.1 Apparent magnitude
o 3.2 Examples
o 3.3 Other scales
4 Problems
5 See also
6 Notes
7 References
8 External links

History[edit]
The magnitude system dates back roughly 2000 years to the Greek astronomer Hipparchus
(or the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemyreferences vary) who classified stars by their
apparent brightness, which they saw as size (magnitude means "bigness, size"[3]). To the
unaided eye, a more prominent star such as Sirius or Arcturus appears larger than a less
prominent star such as Mizar, which in turn appears larger than a truly faint star such as
Alcor. The following quote from 1736 gives an excellent description of the ancient nakedeye magnitude system:
The fixed Stars appear to be of different Bignesses, not because they really are so, but
because they are not all equally distant from us.[note 1] Those that are nearest will excel in
Lustre and Bigness; the more remote Stars will give a fainter Light, and appear smaller to

the Eye. Hence arise the Distribution of Stars, according to their Order and Dignity, into
Classes; the first Class containing those which are nearest to us, are called Stars of the first
Magnitude; those that are next to them, are Stars of the second Magnitude ... and so forth,
'till we come to the Stars of the sixth Magnitude, which comprehend the smallest Stars that
can be discerned with the bare Eye. For all the other Stars, which are only seen by the Help
of a Telescope, and which are called Telescopical, are not reckoned among these six Orders.
Altho' the Distinction of Stars into six Degrees of Magnitude is commonly received by
Astronomers; yet we are not to judge, that every particular Star is exactly to be ranked
according to a certain Bigness, which is one of the Six; but rather in reality there are almost
as many Orders of Stars, as there are Stars, few of them being exactly of the same Bigness
and Lustre. And even among those Stars which are reckoned of the brightest Class, there
appears a Variety of Magnitude; for Sirius or Arcturus are each of them brighter than
Aldebaran or the Bull's Eye, or even than the Star in Spica; and yet all these Stars are
reckoned among the Stars of the first Order: And there are some Stars of such an
intermedial Order, that the Astronomers have differed in classing of them; some putting the
same Stars in one Class, others in another. For Example: The little Dog was by Tycho
placed among the Stars of the second Magnitude, which Ptolemy reckoned among the Stars
of the first Class: And therefore it is not truly either of the first or second Order, but ought
to be ranked in a Place between both.[4]
Note that the brighter the star, the smaller the magnitude: Bright "first magnitude" stars are
"1st-class" stars, while stars barely visible to the naked eye are "sixth magnitude" or "6thclass". The system was a simple delineation of stellar brightness into six distinct groups but
made no allowance for the variations in brightness within a group.
Tycho Brahe attempted to directly measure the bigness of the stars in terms of angular
size, which in theory meant that a star's magnitude could be determined by more than just
the subjective judgment described in the above quote. He concluded that first magnitude
stars measured 2 arc minutes (2) in apparent diameter (1/30 of a degree, or 1/15 the
diameter of the full moon), with second through sixth magnitude stars measuring 3/2,
13/12, 3/4, 1/2, and 1/3, respectively.[5] The development of the telescope showed that
these large sizes were illusorystars appeared much smaller through the telescope.
However, early telescopes produced a spurious disk-like image of a star (known today as an
Airy disk) that was larger for brighter stars and smaller for fainter ones. Astronomers from
Galileo to Jaques Cassini mistook these spurious disks for the physical bodies of stars, and
thus into the eighteenth century continued to think of magnitude in terms of the physical
size of a star.[6] Johannes Hevelius produced a very precise table of star sizes measured
telescopically, but now the measured diameters ranged from just over six seconds of arc for
first magnitude down to just under 2 seconds for sixth magnitude.[6][7] By the time of
William Herschel astronomers recognized that the telescopic disks of stars were spurious
and a function of the telescope as well as the brightness of the stars, but still spoke in terms
of a star's size more than its brightness.[6] Even well into the nineteenth century the
magnitude system continued to be described in terms of six classes determined by apparent
size, in which

There is no other rule for classing the stars but the estimation of the observer; and hence it
is that some astronomers reckon those stars of the first magnitude which others esteem to
be of the second.[8]
However, by the mid-nineteenth century astronomers had measured the distances to stars
via stellar parallax, and so understood that stars are so far away as to essentially appear as
point sources of light. Following advances in understanding the diffraction of light and
astronomical seeing, astronomers fully understood both that the apparent sizes of stars were
spurious and how those sizes depended on the intensity of light coming from a star (this is
the star's apparent brightness, which can be measured in units such as watts/cm2) so that
brighter stars appeared larger.

Modern definition[edit]
Photometric measurements (made, for example, by using a light to project an artificial
star into a telescopes field of view and adjusting it to match real stars in brightness) had
shown that first magnitude stars are about 100 times brighter than sixth magnitude stars.
Thus in 1856 Norman Pogson of Oxford proposed that a logarithmic scale of
2.512 be adopted between magnitudes, so five magnitude steps corresponded precisely to a
factor of 100 in brightness.[9][10] Every interval of one magnitude equates to a variation in
brightness of 1001/5 or roughly 2.512 times. Consequently, a first magnitude star is about 2.5
times brighter than a second magnitude star, 2.52 brighter than a third magnitude star, 2.53
brighter than a fourth magnitude star, and so on.
This is the modern magnitude system, which measures the brightness, not the apparent size,
of stars. Using this logarithmic scale, it is possible for a star to be brighter than first class,
so Arcturus is magnitude 0, and Sirius is magnitude 1.46.

Scale[edit]
As mentioned above, the scale appears to work 'in reverse', with objects with a negative
magnitude being brighter than those with a positive magnitude. The 'larger' the negative
value, the brighter.

Objects appearing farther to the left on this line are brighter, while objects appearing farther
to the right are dimmer. Thus zero appears in the middle, with the brightest objects on the
far left, and the dimmest objects on the far right.

Apparent and absolute magnitude[edit]

Two of the main types of magnitudes distinguished by astronomers are:

Apparent magnitude, the brightness of an object as it appears in the night sky. For
example, Alpha Centauri has higher apparent magnitude (i.e. lower value) than
Betelgeuse, because it is much closer to the Earth.
Absolute magnitude, which measures the luminosity of an object (or reflected light
for non-luminous objects like asteroids); it is the object's apparent magnitude as
seen from a specific distance. For stars it is 10 parsecs (32.6 light years). Betelgeuse
has much higher absolute magnitude than Alpha Centauri, because it is much more
luminous.

Usually only apparent magnitude is mentioned since it can be measured directly. Absolute
magnitude can be calculated from apparent magnitude and distance from:

This is known as the distance modulus, where d is the distance to the star measured in
parsecs, m is the apparent magnitude, and M is the absolute magnitude.
Other magnitudes scales exist such as bolometric magnitude.

Apparent magnitude[edit]
Main article: Apparent magnitude
Under the modern logarithmic magnitude scale, two objects, one of which is used as a
reference or baseline, whose intensities (brightnesses) measured from Earth in units of
power per unit area (such as Watts per square metre or Wm2) are I1 and Iref, will have
magnitudes m1 and mref related by

Using this formula, the magnitude scale can be extended beyond the ancient magnitude 16
range, and it becomes a precise measure of brightness rather than simply a classification
system. Astronomers can now measure differences as small as one-hundredth of a
magnitude. Stars that have magnitudes between 1.5 and 2.5 are called second-magnitude;
there are some 20 stars brighter than 1.5, which are first-magnitude stars (see the list of
brightest stars). For example, Sirius is magnitude 1.46, Arcturus is 0.04, Aldebaran is
0.85, Spica is 1.04, and Procyon (the little Dog) is 0.34. Under the ancient magnitude
system, all of these stars might have been classified as "stars of the first magnitude".
Magnitudes can also be calculated for objects far brighter than stars (such as the Sun and
Moon), and for objects too faint for the human eye to see (such as Pluto).

Examples[edit]

The following is a table giving apparent magnitudes for celestial objects and artificial
satellites ranging from the Sun to the faintest object visible with the Hubble Space
Telescope (HST):
Brightne
Brightne
Brightne
ss
Apparen
ss
Apparen
ss
Apparent
relative Exampl
t
relative Exampl
t
relative Exampl
magnitud
to
e
magnitu
to
e
magnitu
to
e
e
magnitu
de
magnitu
de
magnitu
de 0
de 0
de 0
3C 273
quasar /
limit of
SN 1006
4.56"
27
6.311010 Sun
7
631 supernov
13
6.31106
(1115 c
a
m)
telescope
s
Pluto
(max.) /
limit of
810"
ISS
26
2.511010
6
251
14
2.51106
(max.)
(2025 c
m)
telescope
s
Venus
25
11010
5
100
15
1106
(max.)

24

3.98109

39.8

23

1.58109

15.8

Faintest
objects
visible
during
the day
with the
naked
eye
when the
sun is
high[11]
Jupiter
(max.),
Mars

16

3.98107 Charon

17

1.58107

18

6.31108

19

2.51108

(max.)

(max.)

22

6.31108

6.31

Mercury

21

2.51108

2.51

Sirius

(max.)

20

1108

Vega,
Saturn

20

1108

(max.)

19

3.9810

18

1.5810

17

6.31106

16

2.51106

15

1106

Antares

21

Callirrho
3.9810 e (satellite

Polaris
Cor
0.0631
Caroli
0.0251 Acubens
Vesta
(max.),
0.01
Uranus

22

1.5810

23

6.311010

24

2.511010

25

11010

26

3.981011

27

visible
light
limit
of
1.581011
8m
telescope
s

0.398
0.158

of Jupiter)
9

(max.)

14

3.98105

13

1.58105

12
11

full
moon

3.98103

Ceres

1.58103

6.31104

6.31104 Neptune

28

6.311012

2.51104

2.51104

29

2.511012

30

11012

31

3.981013

10

1104

3.98103

typical
limit of
naked
eye[note 2]

1.58103

Iridium
flare

(max.)

10

1104

11

3.98105

12

(max.)

1.58105

typical
limit of
7x50
binocula
rs

32

1.581013

Fenrir
(satellite
of Saturn)

visible
light
limit of
HST

Other scales[edit]
Under the Vega system for measuring the brightness of astronomical brightness, the star
Vega is defined to have an apparent magnitude of zero as measured through all filters,
although this is only an approximation e.g. its actual brightness has been measured to be
0.03 in the V (visual) band. The brightest star, Sirius, has a Vega magnitude of 1.46. or
1.5. However, Vega has been found to vary in brightness, and other standards are in

common use.[12] One such system is the AB magnitude system, in which the reference is a
source with a constant flux density per unit frequency. Another is the STMAG system, in
which the reference source is instead defined to have constant flux density per unit
wavelength.

Problems[edit]
The human eye is easily fooled, and Hipparchus's scale has had problems. For example, the
human eye is more sensitive to yellow/red light than to blue, and photographic film more to
blue than to yellow/red, giving different values of visual magnitude and photographic
magnitude. Apparent magnitude can also be affected by factors such as dust in the
atmosphere or light cloud cover absorbing some of the light.
Furthermore, many people find it counter-intuitive that a high magnitude star is dimmer
than a low magnitude star.

See also[edit]
Astronomy portal

AB magnitude
Color-color diagram
List of brightest stars
Photometric-standard star
UBV photometric system

Notes[edit]
1.

Jump up ^ Today astronomers know that the brightness of stars is a function of


both their distance and their own luminosity.
2.
Jump up ^ Under very dark skies, such as are found in remote rural areas

References[edit]
1.
2.

Jump up ^ "GlossaryAbsolute magnitude (H)". NASA. 21 August 2015.


Jump up ^ "Apparent & absolute magnitude". ESAeducational support. 14 May
2013.

3.

Jump up ^ Heifetz, M.; Tirion, W. (2004), A walk through the heavens: a guide to
stars and constellations and their legends, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 6
4.
Jump up ^ Keill, J. (1739), An introduction to the true astronomy (3rd Ed.),
London, pp. 4748
5.
Jump up ^ Thoren, V. E. (1990), The Lord of Uraniborg, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, p. 306
6.
^ Jump up to: a b c Graney, C. M.; Grayson, T. P. (2011), "On the Telescopic Disks of
Stars: A Review and Analysis of Stellar Observations from the Early 17th through the

7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.

Middle 19th Centuries", Annals of Science 68 (3): 351373,


doi:10.1080/00033790.2010.507472
Jump up ^ Graney, C. M. (2009), "17th Century Photometric Data in the Form of
Telescopic Measurements of the Apparent Diameters of Stars by Johannes Hevelius", Baltic
Astronomy 18 (34): 253263, arXiv:1001.1168, Bibcode:2009BaltA..18..253G
Jump up ^ Ewing, A.; Gemmere, J. (1812), Practical Astronomy, Burlington, N.
J.: Allison & Co., p. 41
Jump up ^ Hoskin, M. (1999), The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 258
Jump up ^ Tassoul, J. L.; Tassoul, M. (2004), A Concise History of Solar and
Stellar Physics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 47
Jump up ^ http://sky.velp.info/daystars.php
Jump up ^ Milone, E. F. (2011), Astronomical Photometry: Past, Present and
Future, New York: Springer, pp. 182184, ISBN 978-1-4419-8049-6

External links[edit]

Rothstein, Dave (18 September 2003). "What is apparent magnitude?". Cornell


University. Retrieved 23 December 2011.
"Magnitude (astronomy)". MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on 1 January
2009. Retrieved 23 December 2011.
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