Scientists orchestrate a symphony of the stars

January 9, 2019, University of Portsmouth
In this imaginative visualisation of MaStar, a user of the Stellar Library selects a spectrum corresponding to a certain type of star. Of course, in reality there is no physical library location; the stellar spectra are stored digitally and available to anyone at Credit: Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital Inc.; SDSS collaboration

A new stellar library has been created by UK and US scientists to, for the first time, give us a window of understanding on to our and other galaxies.

Astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) today announced the opening of a new "stellar library" containing spectra of thousands of in the Milky Way.

For decades, astronomers have been trying to figure out what unique mix of stars best explains the light that we see from every . The library will help astronomers understand not only our own Galaxy, but galaxies across the Universe.

The announcement came at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, USA.

The new library is known as the "MaNGA Stellar Library," named after the SDSS's Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory (MaNGA) survey it was designed to support. MaNGA's goal is to understand the detailed internal structure of galaxies. Because galaxies are made of stars, so understanding a galaxy requires understanding the stars that compose it.

Renbin Yan of the University of Kentucky and Principal Investigator of the MaNGA Stellar Library project, said: "It's a bit like hearing a symphony. We hear the sound from the entire orchestra at once, but we can only understand the music if we know which instruments are playing." For galaxies, the "music" is the light coming from the mix of stars that make up a galaxy, along with its detailed history of star formation. The problem is that other galaxies are so far away that astronomers cannot distinguish individual stars in them. The solution is to study thousands of stars in our own Milky Way. Once they identify all of the possible "instruments" using stars in the Milky Way, they can decipher the "music" of distant galaxies.

A Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of all stars currently in the MaNGA Stellar Library, showing temperature and brightness (luminosity) of stars, along with information on their chemical makeup. Credit: SDSS collaboration

In a symphony, the sound of each instrument has its own unique tone; in the case of galaxies, the light of each type of star has a unique spectrum. A spectrum measures how much light a star gives off at different wavelengths, a pattern unique to each type of star. Like sheet music shows how a song will sound, "reading" a spectrum gives important information about a star, including its temperature, size and chemical composition.

By observing thousands of stars of all types, astronomers can build up a "library" of stellar spectra.

Claudia Maraston, Professor at the University of Portsmouth and local Principal Investigator of the project, said: "With such a library in hand, we can make complex models of galaxies and their light emitted from the combination of billions of different stars. Such models are crucial for astrophysics and cosmology."

The accurate spectra come from the spectrograph of the Mapping Nearby Galaxies at APO (MaNGA) programme, one of the SDSS's component surveys. MaNGA spends most of its time observing galaxies, but over the past three years, it has also measured spectra for more than 3,000 stars of all colours and sizes. These spectra have been collected into the MaNGA Stellar Library, or MaStar for short.

The MaNGA stellar library began out of necessity. At the beginning of the fourth phase of the SDSS in 2010, the MaNGA team realised that there was no suitable library of stellar spectra covering the wavelength range that MaNGA would use.

Daniel Thomas, Professor at the University of Portsmouth and former Science Team Chair of the MaNGA project said: "While the MaNGA team has already done a lot of fascinating science, the best is yet to come. We are all hugely excited about using our new models based on the MaStar library to decipher the music of distant galaxies."

Scientists orchestrate a symphony of the stars
Each coloured curve in this image shows the spectrum for one star in the MaNGA Stellar Library. The curves show the wavelengths of light, covering the entire visible spectrum and beyond, from ultraviolet to infrared (from left to right). The height of each the curve at each point shows the intensity of light at that wavelength. The peaks and valleys of each curve indicate the presence of different chemical elements. The top eight curves are for typical stars, labelled with their spectral type and sorted in order of temperature – the O star (top) is the hottest, while the M5 star (eighth from top) is the coolest (the Sun is a G star). The bottom three spectra are for giant stars, again sorted from hottest to coolest. Credit: Renbin Yan (University of Kentucky); SDSS collaboration

The MaStar project was made possible by the parallel observing capability in SDSS. At the same time as their colleagues use the infrared spectroscope to observe stars in our Galaxy, the MaStar team can use the MaNGA instrument to simultaneously observe other stars in the optical. This is enabled by the way SDSS uses fibres to observe the light from many stars at once.

This strategy of "piggybacking" on other SDSS observations allowed researchers from the MaNGA team to get the right spectra for the right stars to create the stellar library they so desperately needed.

All the spectra for all these stars have been released as part of the SDSS's Data Release 15, and are available online through the project's website at

Once astronomers have a library that includes the light for as many types of stars as possible, they can figure out how many of each type of star add up to make the galaxy spectrum, allowing them to understand the galaxy's history of star formation. In Yan's analogy, they can understand which instruments are making the music. The key is to include as many types of stars as possible in the library.

Professor Maraston said: "MaStar is the most complete and most comprehensive stellar library ever created,". "It will allow us to make the most accurate models of to date."

The MaNGA Stellar Library is expected to keep growing. With observations continuing at Apache Point Observatory until at least 2020, it will become the biggest and most inclusive stellar library ever made.

Explore further: Astronomers develop new tool to find merging galaxies

Related Stories

Astronomers develop new tool to find merging galaxies

January 9, 2019

Today, at the 233rd AAS meeting in Seattle, astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) announce that they have developed a new tool to find otherwise-hidden galaxy mergers in data from the Mapping Nearby Galaxies ...

Image: Hubble finds smiling face in a hunt for newborn stars

November 5, 2018

This image, taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), shows a patch of space filled with galaxies of all shapes, colors and sizes, many of which belong to the galaxy cluster SDSS J0952+3434.

Supermassive black holes stifle galaxy growth

April 7, 2017

An international team of scientists involved in the SDSS-IV MaNGA (Sloan Digital Sky Survey-IV Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory) project is studying approximately 10,000 galaxies near Earth. The researchers ...

Proof that some galaxies are LIERs

January 10, 2016

You might think that astronomers could easily tell the difference between a black hole and a white dwarf – but nature can be deceptive.

Recommended for you

Galactic center visualization delivers star power

March 21, 2019

Want to take a trip to the center of the Milky Way? Check out a new immersive, ultra-high-definition visualization. This 360-movie offers an unparalleled opportunity to look around the center of the galaxy, from the vantage ...

Physicists reveal why matter dominates universe

March 21, 2019

Physicists in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University have confirmed that matter and antimatter decay differently for elementary particles containing charmed quarks.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.