Star Light, Star Bright

Some stars blaze furiously like a Glenn Campbell rhinestone, while others desperately twinkle at the edge of visibility. The reason for this is not the oft-quoted mantra of the real-estate barons "location, location, location" but rather it is the result of the more astronomically important "mass, mass, mass". All stars are made of hydrogen, helium and a small sprinkle of a few other elements, and it is the initial mass of these ingredients that will dictate the brightness, temperature and longevity of a newly formed star. The more massive a star is, the brighter and hotter is will burn and the shorter its life will be. The comparative brightness of stars in our night sky is more the function of how massive the star is, rather than the more intuitive distance at which it lies.

Our sun is often described as an "average" sized star, but it most certainly is not average if one is considering the full numerical population of stars in our Milky Way galaxy. By far the most common type of star is that of the low-mass Red Dwarf, so called because of its small mass and "cool-red" temperature. About 80% of the stars in the universe are Red Dwarfs and of the thirty stars that are closest to our own Sun, twenty of them are Red Dwarfs, including the closest one "Proxima Centauri". With a mass of less than about one third that of our Sun these energy misers will burn so dimly they go unseen without the aid of telescopes, talk about your silent majority! Turning down the nuclear furnace also gives these stars incredibly long lives, perhaps trillions of years as compared the fast and furious ten billion or so years that our sun will burn.

So when you gaze upwards to appreciate the night sky it is just the "James-Dean-live-fast, die-young" variety of stars that you see, while the vast majority of the stellar population sits quietly invisible, waiting for your mind to inquire about them.

Star light, star bright,

Most massive star I see tonight,