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Home Articles & How-To's Astrophotography & CCD Imaging Stellar Photometry

SteIIar Photometry
by Terry Moon
March 2004
In the second century BC, the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, introduced a
system where the brightest star in each constellation was classified as first
magnitude. In 140AD Ptolemy refined Hipparchus' system by using a brightness
scale of 1 to 6 where the brightest stars were called Magnitude 1 and the
faintest, that is those just visible to the naked eye, Magnitude 6. This scale is
still used today having been extended to objects fainter than 6th magnitude and
brighter than 1st magnitude. Accurate measurement of magnitudes, however,
was only made possible in the 20th century through the advent of photoelectric
Stellar photometry is that branch of astronomy that deals with the accurate
measurement of the brightness of stars and the changes in their brightness over
time. It probably had its beginnings in the 18th Century with the techniques
introduced by Bouger in 1729 and Lambert in 1760. The era of well-determined,
reproducible measure-ments may be considered as starting in 1850 when
Podgson defined an increase of 1 magnitude as equivalent to a decrease in
brightness of 0.4.
Following this Zollner constructed the first visual stellar
photometer in 1861. Photographic photometry was introduced in 1904 and the
international photoelectric system of Johnson and Morgan was established in
As photoelectric devices, such as photomultiplier tubes, photodiodes and charge-
coupled devices (CCDs), have replaced the photographic plate and visual
equipment in professional observatories, any discussion of the accurate
measurement of starlight now focuses on techniques using these devices.
PhotoeIectric Devices
Photoelectric detectors convert light into an electrical signal. There are three detector types:
the photomultiplier tube, photodiode and charge-coupled device (CCD).
The photomultiplier (Figure 1) is a vacuum-tube device with a special surface
that gives off electrons when light falls on it. A chain of diodes at different
voltages gives rise to a cascade of electrons thus multiply ing the original signal
a million times or more. Photomultiplier tubes have high gain and low noise but
are prone to damage (both mechanical and through exposure to very bright
light) and respond to only a limited range of wavelengths. In contrast the
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Figure 1: Photomultiplier
photodiode is a solid-state semiconductor device (Figure 2).
Light falling on it causes electrons to flow in the 'conduction
band' of the semiconductor material. Photodiodes are cheap,
robust and respond to light from the ultraviolet through to
the infrared but are not as sensitive as photomultiplier
tubes. The avalanche photodiode is a different type of
solid-state detector that not only detects the light falling on
it but also amplifies the signal generated by a factor of fifty
or more.
More recently astronomers have turned to CCDs (Figure 3).
These are solid-state devices with an array of picture
elements called pixels. Each pixel is a tiny detector - a CCD array can have tens
of thousands to one million or more pixels! In addition to providing excellent
images of astronomical objects in much shorter exposure times than
photographic film, the charge accumulated in each pixel from light falling on it
can be readout and measured. In this way the magnitudes of stars can be
measured accurately. CCDs are very sensitive, respond to light over a wide
range of wavelengths from the ultraviolet to infrared, and can measure many
stars at once in contrast to photomultiplier tubes and photodiodes that measure
one star at a time.
Figure 2:
Figure 3: CCDs
Measuring CoIours
The difference in colours of stars can be seen visually but measuring such
differences can tell us about the lives and times of stars. By carefully choosing
filters that isolate certain wavelengths of light astronomers determine the
luminosities, surface temperatures and gravities of stars and infer changes in
radius and differences in chemical composition. For binaries their orbital
dynamics can be determined from the light curves obtained through
photoelectric measurements.
The most common system in use is that introduced by Johnson and Morgan in
1951 known as the UBV system. It comprises three wavelength bands isolated
using ultraviolet, blue and green filters.
Since its initial introduction it has been extended to include red (R) and infrared
(I) bands. Of particular importance are measurements in the V band that can be
related to a star's intrinsic brightness (luminosity), and the B-V colour index,
formed by taking the difference in measurements in the B and V bands. The B-V
colour index serves as a good indicator of a stars surface temperature.
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Figure 4: Looking through atmosphere
Looking Through the Atmosphere
The Earth's atmosphere affects the starlight
that passes through it. In addition to
dimming stars, it changes their colours and
introduces fluctuations in brightness.
There are random fluctuations in both the
observed position and intensity of a star. The
latter is known as scintillation and commonly
referred to as 'twinkling' of stars. Usually
astronomers refer to both effects collectively
as 'seeing' and estimate how good or bad the
observing conditions are by noting the
apparent size of the image of a star in
seconds of arc.
In photoelectric photometry an estimate of the quality of the observing can be
made by taking a series of consecutive measurements then calculating how
much they vary from an average value.
Where the variations are 1% or less (corresponding to about 0.01 magnitude),
the conditions are considered to be 'photometric'.
As stars rise or set their brightness changes because they are being viewed
through different thicknesses of atmosphere. Figure 4 illustrates this - the scale
used is 'air masses' where an air mass = 1 corresponds to the thickness of
atmosphere through which a star is seen when it is overhead, i.e. at a Zenith
angle of 0
This change in the measured brightness of a star as it is viewed through different
thicknesses of atmosphere must be corrected for. Because the transparency of
the atmosphere may change from night to night measurements are corrected,
not to an air mass = 1, but to the magnitude that would be observed in the
absence of the atmosphere (i.e. air mass = 0). How much easier would photo-
electric photometry be on the Moon!
AAVSO 2001, Manual for Visual Observing of Variable Stars, American Association of
Variable Star Observers, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, Revised Edition - January
Douglas George 1995, 'Starting Out Right', CCD Astronomy, pp. 18-23, summer.
Kenneth J. Kaufmann 2000, 'Light Levels and Noise Guide: Detector Choices', Photonics
Spectra, July.
Albrecht Unsld 1969, The New Cosmos, Springer-Verlag, New York.
This is often stated as a magnitude difference of 5 corresponding to a change in
brightness of 100.
Zenith angle is measured from 0 directly overhead to 90 at the horizon.
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