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The Most Beautiful

April 30, 2017

Russian astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm von Struve discovered and catalogued thousands of binary stars — pairs of stars that are gravitationally bound to each other. But a system that he first saw in 1829 was so striking that he gave it a special name: Pulcherrima — “the most beautiful.” The name honors the contrasting colors of the two stars. One looks pale orange, while the other looks blue-white or even green.

The system is also known by an even older name: Izar, “the girdle,” because it represents the middle of Boötes, the herdsman. Regardless of what you call it, most skywatchers agree with Struve: Seen through a telescope, the pair is quite a beauty.

The orange star is a giant. It’s burned through its original hydrogen fuel and is nearing the end of its life. As a result, it’s puffed up to many times the diameter of the Sun. That “puffiness” caused the star’s outer layers to cool, which is why it looks orange.

Its companion is much hotter, so it shines almost pure white. It looks blue or green only when it’s compared to its orange companion. It’s less massive than the companion, so it has a lot longer to go before it reaches its own “giant” phase of life.

Boötes is in the east as night falls. Look for its brightest star, brilliant yellow-orange Arcturus. Izar is the first noticeable star to the left of Arcturus. To the unaided eye, it looks like a single point of light. But a telescope reveals the true beauty of this colorful duo.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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