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ATLANTIC SKIES: How bright do the stars shine? The magnitude system explained – SaltWire Network



Some of my readers have queried me as to why the brighter objects in the night sky have negative magnitude values, while the fainter ones have positive values, when, logically (at least to them), it should be the other way around.

For this seemingly “backward” rating system, we can thank the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who, in 129 BC, drew up the first recognized star chart. On this chart, he listed the magnitude (from Latin magnitudo or magnus meaning “great”) of the stars he could see in the night sky. Hipparchus listed the brightest stars that he could see with his naked eye as magnitude +1.0 stars, those half as bright as the magnitude +1.0 stars as magnitude 2.0 stars, and so on, until reaching magnitude +6.0, the faintest he could see.

His magnitude scale remained in use for rating the brightness of the stars (and other celestial objects by comparison) for the next 1,400 years. It wasn’t until 1609, when Italian astronomer Galileo (1564-1642) developed his first telescope and observed much fainter stars than those listed on the star charts in use at that time, that the magnitude scale was extended (with ascending positive numbers) to include the fainter stars.

In the mid-1850s, when astronomers discovered that some magnitude +1.0 stars are brighter than others, the scale was again extended outward, this time with ascending negative values to reflect the brighter stars.

The stars Rigel (Orion), Capella (Auriga), Arcturus (Bootes), and Vega (Lyra) were listed at magnitude 0.0, while stars brighter than these were given negative values. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is rated at magnitude -1.43 , while our sun is rated at magnitude -26.7.

Planets and other celestial objects can also be rated on the magnitude scale. Venus, at its brightest, shines at magnitude -4.4, while the full moon beams (on average) at magnitude -12.6.

The faintest stars that the average human, naked-eye can see (under a clear sky from a dark site) is magnitude +6.0, while binoculars can boost that to magnitude +10. In contrast, the Hubble Space Telescope can see stars as faint as magnitude +30.

With stronger telescopes, the magnitude scale for stars was again adjusted.


What does it mean?

A star’s apparent brightness or luminosity refers to the amount of light energy (from thermonuclear fusion within the star’s core) it emits, and how much of that energy passes per second through a square meter of the star’s surface area. Basically, how bright a star appears depends on how much of its light energy per second strikes the area of a light detector (in our case, the human eye). The apparent brightness we see or measure is inversely proportional to the square of our distance from the star, with the apparent brightness diminishing as the distance squares.

Astronomers use the terms “apparent magnitude” and “absolute magnitude” when denoting a star’s brightness. Apparent magnitude is how bright the star appears to an Earth-bound observer, and is directly related to a star’s apparent brightness.

Stellar measurements in the 19th century indicated that magnitude +1.0 stars are approximately 100 times brighter than magnitude +6.0 stars (i.e., it would take 100 magnitude +6.0 stars to provide as much light as a single magnitude +1.0 star). Subsequently, the stellar magnitude scale was modified so that a magnitude difference of five corresponded exactly to a factor of 100 times difference in brightness., while a difference of one magnitude equaled a difference factor of 2.512 in brightness.

This resulting stellar magnitude rating system was based on a logarithmic scale, with whole numbers, and fractions thereof, indicating varying ratios of brightness (e.g., 0 = 1 to 1; 0.2 = 1.2 to 1; 0.5 = 1.6 to 1; 1 = 2.5 to 1; 5 = 100 to 1, etc.). A star’s apparent magnitude depends on its intrinsic luminosity, its distance from Earth, and any dimness of the star’s light caused by the interference of interstellar dust along the line of sight of the observer.

When astronomers want to measure how intrinsically bright a star is regardless of its distance from Earth, they measure the star’s absolute magnitude, or its apparent magnitude if all the stars it is being compared to were placed at 10 parsecs distance from Earth. With one parsec equaling 3.26 light-years (a light-year is the distance light travels through the vacuum of space in one year; approximately 10 trillion kilometres), 10 parsecs equals 32.6 light-years, or approximately 100 trillion kms. A star’s absolute magnitude measures its true energy output (its luminosity).

As with the apparent magnitude scale, the absolute magnitude scale is also “backward”, giving less luminous stars ascending positive values, and more luminous stars ascending negative ones. For celestial objects such as comets and asteroids, the absolute magnitude scale (also with positive through negative values) is based on how bright the object would appear to an observer standing on the sun if the object were 1 AU (149,597,871 kms) away.

This week’s sky

Mercury (magnitude -0.8) is visible low (about eight degrees) above the northwest horizon shortly after 9 p.m., before dropping from view shortly after 10 p.m. This bright but small planet (heading towards its greatest eastern elongation from the sun on June 2) achieves an altitude of 18 degrees in the evening sky by May 31. It reaches its half-phase (called dichotomy) on May 29.

Venus (magnitude -4.3) appears only about 13 degrees above the western horizon shortly after 9 p.m., before setting shortly before 11 p.m.

Jupiter (magnitude -2.5) rises in the southeastern sky shortly before 1 a.m., reaching 22 degrees height in the southern sky before fading from view around 5:15 a.m.

Saturn (magnitude +0.48) follows Jupiter into the southeastern dawn sky around 1 a.m., rising to about 23 degrees above the southern horizon before it fades from sight shortly before 5 a.m.

Mars (magnitude +0.16) rises in the southeast around 2:30 a.m., reaching an altitude of about 20 degrees above the horizon before fading from view a few minutes before 5 a.m.

Currently at magnitude +4.5, Comet C/2020 F8 SWAN is now in the constellation of Perseus – the Warrior Prince. This fading comet will be difficult to see, as it reaches an altitude of only about 10 degrees above the northeastern horizon between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., before the glow of the rising sun overtakes it. With clear skies and an unobstructed view of the northeastern horizon, it might still be seen in binoculars and small scopes.

Until next week, clear skies.


May 29 – Mercury reaches dichotomy

May 30 – First quarter moon

Glenn K. Roberts lives in Stratford, P.E.I., and has been an avid amateur astronomer since he was a small child. He welcomes comments from readers, and anyone who would like to do so is encouraged to email him at


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New species of crested dinosaur identified in Mexico



A team of palaeontologists in Mexico have identified a new species of dinosaur after finding its 72 million-year-old fossilized remains almost a decade ago, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said on Thursday.

The new species, named Tlatolophus galorum, was identified as a crested dinosaur after 80% of its skull was recovered, allowing experts to compare it to other dinosaurs of that type, INAH said.

The investigation, which also included specialists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, began in 2013 with the discovery of an articulated tail in the north-central Mexican state of Coahuila, where other discoveries have been made.

“Once we recovered the tail, we continued digging below where it was located. The surprise was that we began to find bones such as the femur, the scapula and other elements,” said Alejandro Ramírez, a scientist involved in the discovery.

Later, the scientists were able to collect, clean and analyze other bone fragments from the front part of the dinosaur’s body.

The palaeontologists had in their possession the crest of the dinosaur, which was 1.32 meters long, as well as other parts of the skull: lower and upper jaws, palate and even a part known as the neurocranium, where the brain was housed, INAH said.

The Mexican anthropology body also explained the meaning of the name – Tlatolophus galorum – for the new species of dinosaur.

Tlatolophus is a mixture of two words, putting together a term from the indigenous Mexican language of Nahuatl that means “word” with the Greek term meaning “crest”. Galorum refers to the people linked to the research, INAH said.


(Reporting by Abraham Gonzalez; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

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Alberta family searches for answers in teen's sudden death after COVID exposure, negative tests –



A southern Alberta mother and father are grappling with the sudden, unexplained death of their 17-year-old daughter, and with few answers, they’re left wondering if she could be the province’s youngest victim of COVID-19.

Sarah Strate — a healthy, active Grade 12 student at Magrath High School who loved singing, dancing and being outdoors — died on Monday, less than a week after being notified she’d been exposed to COVID-19.

While two tests came back negative, her parents say other signs point to the coronavirus, and they’re waiting for more answers. 

“It was so fast. It’s all still such a shock,” said Sarah’s mother, Kristine Strate. “She never even coughed. She had a sore throat and her ears were sore for a while, and [she had] swollen neck glands.”

Kristine said Sarah developed mild symptoms shortly after her older sister — who later tested positive for COVID-19 —  visited from Lethbridge, one of Alberta’s current hot spots for the virus.

The family went into isolation at their home in Magrath on Tuesday, April 20. They were swabbed the next day and the results were negative.

‘Everything went south, super-fast’

By Friday night, Sarah had developed fever and chills. On Saturday, she started vomiting and Kristine, a public health nurse, tried to keep her hydrated.

“She woke up feeling a bit more off on Monday morning,” Kristine said. “And everything went south, super-fast.”

Sarah had grown very weak and her parents decided to call 911 when she appeared to become delirious.

“She had her blanket on and I was talking to her and, in an instant, she was unresponsive,” said Kristine, who immediately started performing CPR on her daughter.

When paramedics arrived 20 minutes later, they were able to restore a heartbeat and rushed Sarah to hospital in Lethbridge, where she died.

“I thought there was hope once we got her heart rate back. I really did,” recalled Sarah’s father, Ron.

“He was praying for a miracle, and sometimes miracles don’t come,” said Kristine.

Strate’s parents say her health deteriorated quickly after being exposed to COVID-19. She died at Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge on Monday. (Ron Strate)

Searching for answers

At the hospital, the family was told Sarah’s lungs were severely infected and that she may have ended up with blood clots in both her heart and lungs, a condition that can be a complication of COVID-19.

But a second test at the hospital came back negative for COVID-19.

“There really is no other answer,” Ron said. “When a healthy 17-year-old girl, who was sitting up in her bed and was able to talk, and within 10 minutes is unconscious on our floor — there was no reason [for it].”

The province currently has no record of any Albertans under the age of 20 who have died of COVID-19.

According to the Strate family, the medical examiner is running additional blood and tissue tests, in an effort to uncover the cause of Sarah’s death.

‘Unusual but not impossible’

University of Alberta infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger, who was not involved in Sarah’s treatment, says it is conceivable that further testing could uncover evidence of a COVID-19 infection, despite two negative test results.

However, she hasn’t seen a similar case in Alberta.

“It would be unusual but not impossible because no test is perfect. We have had cases where an initial test is negative and then if you keep on thinking it’s COVID and you re-test, you then can find COVID,” she said.

According to Saxinger, the rate of false negatives is believed to be very low. But it can happen if there are problems with the testing or specimen collection.

She says people are more likely to test positive after symptoms develop. 

“The best sensitivity of the test is around day four or five of having symptoms,” she said. “So you can miss things if you test very, very early. And with new development of symptoms, it’s always a good time to re-test because then the likelihood of getting a positive test is a little higher. But again, no test is perfect.” 

Sarah deteriorated so quickly — dying five days after she first developed symptoms — she didn’t live long enough to make it to her follow-up COVID-19 test. Instead, it was done at the hospital.

‘An amazing kid’

The Strate family now faces an agonizing wait for answers — one that will likely take months — about what caused Sarah’s death.

But Ron, who teaches at the school where Sarah attended Grade 12, wants his daughter to be remembered for the life she lived, not her death.

Strate, pictured here at three years old, had plans to become a massage therapist. She attended Grade 12 at Magrath High School and was an active, healthy teenager who was involved in sports, music and the school’s suicide prevention group. (Ron Strate)

Sarah was one of five children. Ron says she was strong, active and vibrant and had plans to become a massage therapist after graduating from high school.

She played several sports and loved to sing and dance as part of a show choir. She was a leader in the school’s suicide prevention group and would stand up for other students who were facing bullying.

“She’s one of the leaders in our Hope Squad … which goes out and helps kids to not be scared,” he father said.

“She’s an amazing kid.”

Sarah would often spend hours helping struggling classmates, and her parents hope her kindness is not forgotten.

“She’d done so many good things. Honestly, I’ve got so many messages from parents saying, ‘You have no idea how much your daughter helped our kid,'” said Ron.

“This 17-year-old girl probably lived more of a life in 17 years than most adults will live in their whole lives. She was so special. I love her so much.”

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China launches key module of space station planned for 2022



BEIJING (Reuters) -China launched an unmanned module on Thursday containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent space station that it plans to complete by the end of 2022, state media reported.

The module, named “Tianhe”, or “Harmony of the Heavens”, was launched on the Long March 5B, China’s largest carrier rocket, at 11:23 a.m. (0323 GMT) from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan.

Tianhe is one of three main components of what would be China’s first self-developed space station, rivalling the only other station in service – the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS is backed by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. China was barred from participating by the United States.

“(Tianhe) is an important pilot project in the building of a powerful nation in both technology and in space,” state media quoted President Xi Jinping as saying in a congratulatory speech.

Tianhe forms the main living quarters for three crew members in the Chinese space station, which will have a life span of at least 10 years.

The Tianhe launch was the first of 11 missions needed to complete the space station, which will orbit Earth at an altitude of 340 to 450 km (211-280 miles).

In the later missions, China will launch the two other core modules, four manned spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft.

Work on the space station programme began a decade ago with the launch of a space lab Tiangong-1 in 2011, and later, Tiangong-2 in 2016.

Both helped China test the programme’s space rendezvous and docking capabilities.

China aims to become a major space power by 2030. It has ramped up its space programme with visits to the moon, the launch of an uncrewed probe to Mars and the construction of its own space station.

In contrast, the fate of the ageing ISS – in orbit for more than two decades – remains uncertain.

The project is set to expire in 2024, barring funding from its partners. Russia said this month that it would quit the project from 2025.

Russia is deepening ties with China in space as tensions with Washington rise.

Moscow has slammed the U.S.-led Artemis moon exploration programme and instead chosen to join Beijing in setting up a lunar research outpost in the coming years.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Liangping Gao; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Simon Cameron-Moore and Lincoln Feast.)

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