Apparent Magnitude - History


Visible to
human eye
to Vega
Number of stars
brighter than
apparent magnitude
Yes −1 250% 2
0 100% 4
1 40% 15
2 16% 48
3 6.3% 171
4 2.5% 513
5 1.0% 1 602
6 0.40% 4 800
No 7 0.16% 14 000
8 0.063% 42 000
9 0.025% 121 000
10 0.010% 340 000

The scale now used to indicate magnitude originates in the Hellenistic practice of dividing stars visible to the naked eye into six magnitudes. The brightest stars were said to be of first magnitude (m = 1), while the faintest were of sixth magnitude (m = 6), the limit of human visual perception (without the aid of a telescope). Each grade of magnitude was considered twice the brightness of the following grade (a logarithmic scale). This somewhat crude method of indicating the brightness of stars was popularized by Ptolemy in his Almagest, and is generally believed to originate with Hipparchus. This original system did not measure the magnitude of the Sun. (For a more detailed discussion of the history of the magnitude system, see Magnitude.)

In 1856, Norman Robert Pogson formalized the system by defining a typical first magnitude star as a star that is 100 times as bright as a typical sixth magnitude star; thus, a first magnitude star is about 2.512 times as bright as a second magnitude star. The fifth root of 100 is known as Pogson's Ratio. Pogson's scale was originally fixed by assigning Polaris a magnitude of 2. Astronomers later discovered that Polaris is slightly variable, so they first switched to Vega as the standard reference star, and then switched to using tabulated zero points for the measured fluxes. The magnitude depends on the wavelength band (see below).

The modern system is no longer limited to 6 magnitudes or only to visible light. Very bright objects have negative magnitudes. For example, Sirius, the brightest star of the celestial sphere, has an apparent magnitude of –1.4. The modern scale includes the Moon and the Sun. The full Moon has a mean apparent magnitude of –12.74 and the Sun has an apparent magnitude of –26.74. The Hubble Space Telescope has located stars with magnitudes of 30 at visible wavelengths and the Keck telescopes have located similarly faint stars in the infrared.

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