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Magnitude in Astronomy

Last updated date: 20th May 2024
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Magnitude Astronomy Meaning

The word “Magnitude” in astronomy is the amount of brightness a celestial object upholds. 

Talking about stars like Betelgeuse or a galaxy like Andromeda galaxy, they all have some brightness, which we can calculate by using the concept of magnitude astronomy.

However, magnitude is a unitless measurement of the brightness of astronomical objects in a pre-defined passband. The defined passband is either the visible or infrared spectrum. Moreover, we can observe the brightness across wavelengths as well.

On this page, we will understand magnitude astronomy and absolute magnitude astronomy in detail.

Magnitude of Astronomical Objects

Hipparchus of Nicaea was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and geographer. He introduced an imprecise even so systematic measurement for the determination of the magnitude of objects.

He is a well-known ancient astronomical observer. Also, he is one of the greatest astronomers of antiquity. 

Moreover, he introduced quantitative and accurate models for the movement of the Sun and Moon survival.

Magnitude Astronomy Definition

Here, we will understand the magnitude scale astronomy with a few examples on apparent visual magnitude:

Magnitude is the measure of the brightness of various celestial bodies, like stars and galaxies . 

Therefore, the brighter is the object, the lower is its magnitude in integers. 

In ancient times, astronomers ranked the star to six magnitude classes. The first magnitude class comprises the brightest stars. 

One magnitude is the ratio of brightness of 2.512 times. For instance, a star having a magnitude of 5.0 is 2.512 times brighter than a star of magnitude 6.0. 

Thus, a difference of five magnitudes relates to a brightness ratio of 100 to 1. 

After standardizing and assigning zero points, the brightest class was found to contain a huge range of luminosities. Furthermore, the negative magnitudes were introduced to spread the range.

Magnitude Scale Astronomy

Astronomers use two different measurements of magnitude:

  1. Apparent magnitude

  2. Absolute magnitude. 

Firstly, let’s talk about the apparent magnitude:

The apparent magnitude (m) is the object’s brightness, as it appears in the night sky from Earth. 

Apparent magnitude depends on an object's following attributes:

  1. i = Intrinsic luminosity

  2. Its distance

  3. Extinction reduces its brightness. 

Secondly, we have an absolute magnitude:

The absolute magnitude (M) describes the intrinsic luminosity an object emits. 

Likewise, the absolute magnitude (M) be equal to the apparent magnitude if the object is placed at some distance from the Earth. The distance should be around 10 parsecs for stars. 

Apparent Magnitude of a Star

The Apparent Magnitude (m)of a star is the brightness of an object as it seems to an observer on Earth.

For instance, the visual magnitude of stars are as follows:

  • Sun’s apparent magnitude is - 26.7. 

  • Furthermore, the Apparent Magnitude of the full Moon is around −11. 

  • Additionally, the apparent magnitude of the bright star Sirius, - 1.5. 

  • However, the faintest objects visible via the Hubble Space Telescope are of apparent magnitude 30. 

Apparent Brightness of Stars

Apparent brightness is how a star appears when we view it from Earth; however, it depends on the absolute brightness and the distance of the star from the Earth.

For instance, the apparent visual magnitude scale of a star is + 3, and the absolute visual magnitude is 0.8.

Here, absolute brightness is the luminosity that is a measure of the total power radiated by the sun.

Therefore, two stars that appear to be equally bright or glistening even so they are closer, dinner star, and the farther one, brighter.

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Absolute Magnitude Definition Astronomy

Absolute magnitude is the brightness an object exhibits when viewed from a distance of 10 parsecs (32.6 light-years). The Sun’s absolute magnitude is 4.8.

We must know that the absolute magnitude varies inversely with the brightness of celestial objects. 

So, if the magnitude of a star/galaxy is lower, it means that they are bright, and vice - versa.

The absolute magnitude of stars ranges from - 10 to +17. However, the magnitude of galaxies is lesser. Talking about the giant elliptical galaxy, M87, its absolute magnitude is - 22.

Here,  - 22 means the M87 galaxy is as bright as 60,000 stars of - 10 magnitude.

Absolute Magnitude Astronomy

The brightness of the star is true or absolute only if all the stars are at a uniform distance from the earth.

The absolute magnitude of stars is measured in comparison to our Sun.

For instance, 

If m of Sun = 1

m < 1,  brighter than the sun

Further, m > 1, less bright than Sun

Distance Modulus Astronomy

Do you know what distance modulus astronomy is? If not, to put it more simply, we have its definition:

A distance modulus is a way of expressing distances in astronomy. 

It describes distances on a logarithmic scale all things considered in the astronomical magnitude system.

Do You Know?

  • In 1850, Norman Robert Pogson, an English governmental astronomer proposed a mathematical scale of stellar magnitudes with the ratio of two successive magnitudes being the fifth root of one hundred (~2.512). 

  • Also, he referred to this relation as Pogson's ratio. Assuredly, this system is in current use.

  • Astronomers use a more complex definition of absolute magnitude for planets and small Solar System bodies. 

  • They measure the absolute magnitude on the basis of its brightness at one astronomical unit from the observer and the Sun.

FAQs on Magnitude in Astronomy

1. Describe Three Types of Magnitudes Employed in Astronomical Observations.

Ans: The types of magnitudes are:

Bolometric Magnitude

Astronomers use bolometric magnitude by including a star’s entire radiation. They consider that for most of the part as visible light. 

Monochromatic Magnitude

Astronomers measure the monochromatic magnitude in a few parts of a very narrow segment of the spectrum. 

Here, narrow-band magnitudes rely on slightly wider segments of the spectrum and broad-band magnitudes on areas that are wider.


Visual Magnitude:

A visual magnitude is a yellow magnitude because the eye is most sensitive to yellow light.

2. What is the Origin of Indian Astronomy?

Ans: William Petrie, an officer of the East India Company set up a private observatory in his residence in Egmore, Chennai.

The observatory was meant to provide navigational help to the company ships and ascertain the longitudes by observing the eclipses of the Moon and satellites of Jupiter.

Afterward, in 1790, this private observatory was taken over by astronomer Michael Topping (East India Company,). 

Thereupon, in 1792, the observatory expanded and shifted to a complex in the Nungambakkam area of Chennai. This was the first modern observatory outside Europe.

In early 1881, Mr. Blanford recommended the enhancements in solar observations to obtain accurate measures of the solar heating power at the earth’s surface and its periodic variations.

Furthermore, in May 1882, the governmental astronomer, Norman Pogson, proposed the need for photography and spectrography of the sun and the stars using a 20-inch telescope, to make a hill station in South India.

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