Apparent magnitude (m) is a measure of the relative brightness of a star or other astronomical objects as seen by an observer. An object's apparent magnitude depends on its intrinsic luminosity, its distance, and any extinction of the object's light by interstellar dust along the line of sight to the observer.
The magnitude scale is an inverse logarithmic relation, where a difference of 1.0 in magnitude corresponds to a brightness ratio of 5√ or about 2.512. The brighter an object appears, the lower its magnitude. For example, a star of apparent magnitude 2.0 is 2.512 times brighter than a star of apparent magnitude 3.0. The brightest astronomical objects have negative apparent magnitudes: for example, Venus at −4.2 or Sirius at −1.46. The faintest naked-eye stars visible on the darkest night have apparent magnitudes of about +6.5. Apparent magnitudes range from −26.7 (the Sun) to fainter than +30 (such as the faintest objects detected in deep Hubble Space Telescope images).
Measurement of the apparent magnitude of celestial objects is termed photometry. It is often quantified at ultraviolet, visible, and infrared wavelengths, as measured through standard passband filters corresponding to various adopted photometric systems such as the UBV system or the Strömgren uvbyβ system. In accepted astronomical notation, apparent magnitude may be denoted as mV, as in "mV = 15" to describe a 15th-magnitude object, where "V" coresponds to the visual filter band. In amateur astronomy, apparent magnitude is often understood as meaning apparent visual magnitude (v), defined as the brightness of a star or other astronomical source across the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum when viewed by the human eye.
Absolute magnitude rather than apparent brightness is a measure of its true intrinsic luminosity, and is expressed on the same inverse logarithmic scale. Absolute magnitude is defined as the apparent magnitude that a star or object would have if it were observed from a standard reference distance of 10 parsecs.
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|Number of stars |
in the night sky
The scale used to indicate magnitude originates in the Hellenistic practice of dividing stars visible to the naked eye into six magnitudes. The brightest stars in the night sky were said to be of first magnitude (m = 1), whereas the faintest were of sixth magnitude (m = 6), which is 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), although that ratio was subjective as no photodetectors existed. This rather crude scale for the brightness of stars was popularized by Ptolemy in his Almagest and is generally believed to have originated with Hipparchus.
In 1856, Norman Robert Pogson formalized the system by defining a first magnitude star as a star that is 100 times as bright as a sixth-magnitude star, thereby establishing the logarithmic scale still in use today. This implies that a star of magnitude m is about 2.512 times as bright as a star of magnitude m + 1. This figure, the fifth root of 100, became known as Pogson's Ratio. The zero point of Pogson's scale was originally defined by assigning Polaris a magnitude of exactly 2. Astronomers later discovered that Polaris is slightly variable, so they switched to Vega as the standard reference star, assigning the brightness of Vega as the definition of zero magnitude at any specified wavelength.
Apart from small corrections, the brightness of Vega still serves as the definition of zero magnitude for visible and near infrared wavelengths, where its spectral energy distribution (SED) closely approximates that of a black body for a temperature of 11000 K. However, with the advent of infrared astronomy it was revealed that Vega's radiation includes an infrared excess presumably due to a circumstellar disk consisting of dust at warm temperatures (but much cooler than the star's surface). At shorter (e.g. visible) wavelengths, there is negligible emission from dust at these temperatures. However, in order to properly extend the magnitude scale further into the infrared, this peculiarity of Vega should not affect the definition of the magnitude scale. Therefore, the magnitude scale was extrapolated to all wavelengths on the basis of the black-body radiation curve for an ideal stellar surface at 11000 K uncontaminated by circumstellar radiation. On this basis the spectral irradiance (usually expressed in janskys) for the zero magnitude point, as a function of wavelength, can be computed. Small deviations are specified between systems using measurement apparatuses developed independently so that data obtained by different astronomers can be properly compared, but of greater practical importance is the definition of magnitude not at a single wavelength but applying to the response of standard spectral filters used in photometry over various wavelength bands.
With the modern magnitude systems, brightness over a very wide range is specified according to the logarithmic definition detailed below, using this zero reference. In practice such apparent magnitudes do not exceed 30 (for detectable measurements). The brightness of Vega is exceeded by four stars in the night sky at visible wavelengths (and more at infrared wavelengths) as well as the bright planets Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, and these must be described by negative magnitudes. For example, Sirius, the brightest star of the celestial sphere, has an apparent magnitude of −1.4 in the visible. Negative magnitudes for other very bright astronomical objects can be found in the table below.
Astronomers have developed other photometric zeropoint systems as alternatives to the Vega system. The most widely used is the AB magnitude system, in which photometric zeropoints are based on a hypothetical reference spectrum having constant flux per unit frequency interval, rather than using a stellar spectrum or blackbody curve as the reference. The AB magnitude zeropoint is defined such that an object's AB and Vega-based magnitudes will be approximately equal in the V filter band.
As the amount of light actually received by a telescope is reduced by transmission through the Earth's atmosphere, any measurement of apparent magnitude is corrected for what it would have been as seen from above the atmosphere. The dimmer an object appears, the higher the numerical value given to its apparent magnitude, with a difference of 5 magnitudes corresponding to a brightness factor of exactly 100. Therefore, the apparent magnitude m, in the spectral band x, would be given by
which is more commonly expressed in terms of common (base-10) logarithms as
where Fx is the observed flux density using spectral filter x, and Fx,0 is the reference flux (zero-point) for that photometric filter. Since an increase of 5 magnitudes corresponds to a decrease in brightness by a factor of exactly 100, each magnitude increase implies a decrease in brightness by the factor 5√ ≈ 2.512 (Pogson's ratio). Inverting the above formula, a magnitude difference m1 − m2 = Δm implies a brightness factor of
Example: Sun and Moon
The apparent magnitude of the Sun is −26.74 (brighter), and the mean apparent magnitude of the full moon is −12.74 (dimmer).
Difference in magnitude:
The Sun appears about 400000 times brighter than the full moon.
Sometimes one might wish to add brightnesses. For example, photometry on closely separated double stars may only be able to produce a measurement of their combined light output. How would we reckon the combined magnitude of that double star knowing only the magnitudes of the individual components? This can be done by adding the brightnesses (in linear units) corresponding to each magnitude.
Solving for yields
where mf is the resulting magnitude after adding the brightnesses referred to by m1 and m2.
Apparent bolometric magnitude
While apparent magnitude generally refers to a measurement in a particular filter band corresponding to some range of wavelengths, the apparent bolometric magnitude (mbol) is a measure of an object's apparent brightness integrated over all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum (also known as the object's irradiance). The zeropoint of the apparent bolometric magnitude scale is based on the definition that an apparent bolometric magnitude of 0 mag is equivalent to a received irradiance of 2.518×10-8 W·m-2 (Watts per square metre.)
While apparent magnitude is a measure of the brightness of an object as seen by a particular observer, absolute magnitude is a measure of the intrinsic brightness of an object. Flux decreases with distance according to an inverse-square law, so the apparent magnitude of a star depends on both its absolute brightness and its distance (and any extinction). For example, a star at one distance will have the same apparent magnitude as a star four times brighter at twice that distance. In contrast, the intrinsic brightness of an astronomical object, does not depend on the distance of the observer or any extinction.
The absolute magnitude M, of a star or astronomical object is defined as the apparent magnitude it would have as seen from a distance of 10 parsecs (about 32.6 light-years). The absolute magnitude of the Sun is 4.83 in the V band (green) and 5.48 in the B band (blue).
In the case of a planet or asteroid, the absolute magnitude H rather means the apparent magnitude it would have if it were 1 astronomical unit from both the observer and the Sun, and fully illuminated (a configuration that is only theoretically achievable, with the observer situated on the surface of the Sun).
Standard reference values
|Flux at m = 0, Fx,0|
It is important to note that the scale is logarithmic: the relative brightness of two objects is determined by the difference of their magnitudes. For example, a difference of 3.2 means that one object is about 19 times as bright as the other, because Pogson's Ratio raised to the power 3.2 is approximately 19.05.
A common misconception is that the logarithmic nature of the scale is because the human eye itself has a logarithmic response. In Pogson's time this was thought to be true (see Weber–Fechner law), but it is now believed that the response is a power law (see Stevens' power law).
Magnitude is complicated by the fact that light is not monochromatic. The sensitivity of a light detector varies according to the wavelength of the light, and the way it varies depends on the type of light detector. For this reason, it is necessary to specify how the magnitude is measured for the value to be meaningful. For this purpose the UBV system is widely used, in which the magnitude is measured in three different wavelength bands: U (centred at about 350 nm, in the near ultraviolet), B (about 435 nm, in the blue region) and V (about 555 nm, in the middle of the human visual range in daylight). The V band was chosen for spectral purposes and gives magnitudes closely corresponding to those seen by the light-adapted human eye, and when an apparent magnitude is given without any further qualification, it is usually the V magnitude that is meant, more or less the same as visual magnitude.
Because cooler stars, such as red giants and red dwarfs, emit little energy in the blue and UV regions of the spectrum their power is often under-represented by the UBV scale. Indeed, some L and T class stars have an estimated magnitude of well over 100, because they emit extremely little visible light, but are strongest in infrared.
Measures of magnitude need cautious treatment and it is extremely important to measure like with like. On early 20th century and older orthochromatic (blue-sensitive) photographic film, the relative brightnesses of the blue supergiant Rigel and the red supergiant Betelgeuse irregular variable star (at maximum) are reversed compared to what human eyes perceive, because this archaic film is more sensitive to blue light than it is to red light. Magnitudes obtained from this method are known as photographic magnitudes, and are now considered obsolete.
For objects within the Milky Way with a given absolute magnitude, 5 is added to the apparent magnitude for every tenfold increase in the distance to the object. For objects at very great distances (far beyond the Milky Way), this relationship must be adjusted for redshifts and for non-Euclidean distance measures due to general relativity.
Table of notable celestial objects
|−67.57||gamma-ray burst GRB 080319B||seen from 1 AU away|
|−44.00||star R136a1||seen from 1 AU away|
|−40.07||star Zeta1 Scorpii||seen from 1 AU away|
|−38.00||star Rigel||seen from 1 AU away||It would be seen as a large very bright bluish disk of 35° apparent diameter.|
|−30.30||star Sirius A||seen from 1 AU away|
|−29.30||star Sun||seen from Mercury at perihelion|
|−27.40||star Sun||seen from Venus at perihelion|
|−26.74||star Sun||seen from Earth||About 400,000 times brighter than mean full moon|
|−25.60||star Sun||seen from Mars at aphelion|
|−25.00||Minimum brightness that causes the typical eye slight pain to look at|
|−23.00||star Sun||seen from Jupiter at aphelion|
|−21.70||star Sun||seen from Saturn at aphelion|
|−20.20||star Sun||seen from Uranus at aphelion|
|−19.30||star Sun||seen from Neptune|
|−18.20||star Sun||seen from Pluto at aphelion|
|−16.70||star Sun||seen from Eris at aphelion|
|−14.20||An illumination level of 1 lux|
|−12.90||full moon||seen from Earth at perihelion||maximum brightness of perigee + perihelion + full moon (mean distance value is −12.74, though values are about 0.18 magnitude brighter when including the opposition effect)|
|−11.20||star Sun||seen from Sedna at aphelion|
|−10.00||Comet Ikeya–Seki (1965)||seen from Earth||which was the brightest Kreutz Sungrazer of modern times|
|−9.50||Iridium (satellite) flare||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|−7.50||supernova of 1006||seen from Earth||the brightest stellar event in recorded history (7200 light-years away)|
|−6.50||The total integrated magnitude of the night sky||seen from Earth|
|−6.00||Crab Supernova of 1054||seen from Earth||(6500 light-years away)|
|−5.90||International Space Station||seen from Earth||when the ISS is at its perigee and fully lit by the Sun|
|−4.92||planet Venus||seen from Earth||maximum brightness when illuminated as a crescent|
|−4.14||planet Venus||seen from Earth||mean brightness|
|−4||Faintest objects observable during the day with naked eye when Sun is high|
|−3.99||star Epsilon Canis Majoris||seen from Earth||maximum brightness of 4.7 million years ago, the historical brightest star of the last and next five million years|
|−2.98||planet Venus||seen from Earth||minimum brightness when it is on the far side of the Sun|
|−2.94||planet Jupiter||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|−2.94||planet Mars||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|−2.5||Faintest objects visible during the day with naked eye when Sun is less than 10° above the horizon|
|−2.50||new moon||seen from Earth||minimum brightness|
|−2.48||planet Mercury||seen from Earth||maximum brightness at superior conjunction (unlike Venus, Mercury is at its brightest when on the far side of the Sun, the reason being their different phase curves)|
|−2.20||planet Jupiter||seen from Earth||mean brightness|
|−1.66||planet Jupiter||seen from Earth||minimum brightness|
|−1.47||star system Sirius||seen from Earth||Brightest star except for the Sun at visible wavelengths|
|−0.83||star Eta Carinae||seen from Earth||apparent brightness as a supernova impostor in April 1843|
|−0.72||star Canopus||seen from Earth||2nd brightest star in night sky|
|−0.55||planet Saturn||seen from Earth||maximum brightness near opposition and perihelion when the rings are angled toward Earth|
|−0.3||Halley's comet||seen from Earth||Expected apparent magnitude at 2061 passage|
|−0.27||star system Alpha Centauri AB||seen from Earth||Combined magnitude (3rd brightest star in night sky)|
|−0.04||star Arcturus||seen from Earth||4th brightest star to the naked eye|
|−0.01||star Alpha Centauri A||seen from Earth||4th brightest individual star visible telescopically in the night sky|
|+0.03||star Vega||seen from Earth||which was originally chosen as a definition of the zero point|
|+0.23||planet Mercury||seen from Earth||mean brightness|
|+0.50||star Sun||seen from Alpha Centauri|
|+0.46||planet Saturn||seen from Earth||mean brightness|
|+0.71||planet Mars||seen from Earth||mean brightness|
|+1.17||planet Saturn||seen from Earth||minimum brightness|
|+1.86||planet Mars||seen from Earth||minimum brightness|
|+3.03||supernova SN 1987A||seen from Earth||in the Large Magellanic Cloud (160,000 light-years away)|
|+3 to +4||Faintest stars visible in an urban neighborhood with naked eye|
|+3.44||Andromeda Galaxy||seen from Earth||M31|
|+4||Orion Nebula||seen from Earth||M42|
|+4.38||moon Ganymede||seen from Earth||maximum brightness (moon of Jupiter and the largest moon in the Solar System)|
|+4.50||open cluster M41||seen from Earth||an open cluster that may have been seen by Aristotle|
|+4.5||Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy||seen from Earth|
|+5.20||asteroid Vesta||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|+5.38||planet Uranus||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|+5.68||planet Uranus||seen from Earth||mean brightness|
|+5.72||spiral galaxy M33||seen from Earth||which is used as a test for naked eye seeing under dark skies|
|+5.8||gamma-ray burst GRB 080319B||seen from Earth||Peak visual magnitude (the "Clarke Event") seen on Earth on March 19, 2008 from a distance of 7.5 billion light-years.|
|+6.03||planet Uranus||seen from Earth||minimum brightness|
|+6.49||asteroid Pallas||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|+6.5||Approximate limit of stars observed by a mean naked eye observer under very good conditions. There are about 9,500 stars visible to mag 6.5.|
|+6.64||dwarf planet Ceres||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|+6.75||asteroid Iris||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|+6.90||spiral galaxy M81||seen from Earth||This is an extreme naked-eyetarget that pushes human eyesight and the Bortle scale to the limit|
|+7 to +8||Extreme naked-eye limit, Class 1 on Bortle scale, the darkest skies available on Earth|
|+7.25||planet Mercury||seen from Earth||minimum brightness|
|+7.67||planet Neptune||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|+7.78||planet Neptune||seen from Earth||mean brightness|
|+8.00||planet Neptune||seen from Earth||minimum brightness|
|+8.10||moon Titan||seen from Earth||maximum brightness; largest moon of Saturn; mean opposition magnitude 8.4|
|+8.29||star UY Scuti||seen from Earth||Maximum brightness; largest known star by radius|
|+8.94||asteroid 10 Hygiea||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|+9.50||Faintest objects visible using common 7×50 binoculars under typical conditions|
|+10.20||moon Iapetus||seen from Earth||maximum brightness, brightest when west of Saturn and takes 40 days to switch sides|
|+10.7||Luhman 16||seen from Earth||Closest brown dwarfs|
|+11.05||star Proxima Centauri||seen from Earth||2nd closest star|
|+11.8||moon Phobos||seen from Earth||Maximum brightness; brightest moon of Mars|
|+12.23||star R136a1||seen from Earth||Most luminous and massive star known|
|+12.89||moon Deimos||seen from Earth||Maximum brightness|
|+12.91||quasar 3C 273||seen from Earth||brightest (luminosity distance of 2.4 billion light-years)|
|+13.42||moon Triton||seen from Earth||Maximum brightness|
|+13.65||dwarf planet Pluto||seen from Earth||maximum brightness, 725 times fainter than magnitude 6.5 naked eye skies|
|+13.9||moon Titania||seen from Earth||Maximum brightness; brightest moon of Uranus|
|+14.1||star WR 102||seen from Earth||Hottest known star|
|+15.4||centaur Chiron||seen from Earth||maximum brightness|
|+15.55||moon Charon||seen from Earth||maximum brightness (the largest moon of Pluto)|
|+16.8||dwarf planet Makemake||seen from Earth||Current opposition brightness|
|+17.27||dwarf planet Haumea||seen from Earth||Current opposition brightness|
|+18.7||dwarf planet Eris||seen from Earth||Current opposition brightness|
|+20.7||moon Callirrhoe||seen from Earth||(small ≈8 km satellite of Jupiter)|
|+22||Faintest objects observable in visible light with a 600 mm (24″) Ritchey-Chrétien telescope with 30 minutes of stacked images (6 subframes at 5 minutes each) using a CCD detector|
|+22.91||moon Hydra||seen from Earth||maximum brightness of Pluto's moon|
|+23.38||moon Nix||seen from Earth||maximum brightness of Pluto's moon|
|+25.0||moon Fenrir||seen from Earth||(small ≈4 km satellite of Saturn)|
|+27.6||planet Jupiter||seen from Earth||if it were located 5,000 AU (750 billion km) from the Sun|
|+27.7||Faintest objects observable with an 8-meter class ground-based telescope such as the Subaru Telescope in a 10-hour image|
|+28.2||Halley's Comet||seen from Earth||in 2003 when it was 28 AU from the Sun|
|+28.4||asteroid 2003 BH91||seen from Earth||observed magnitude of ≈15-kilometer Kuiper belt object Seen by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in 2003, dimmest known directly-observed asteroid.|
|+31.5||Faintest objects observable in visible light with Hubble Space Telescope|
|+34||Faintest objects observable in visible light with James Webb Space Telescope|
|+35||unnamed asteroid||seen from Earth||expected magnitude of dimmest known asteroid, a 950-meter Kuiper belt object discovered by the HST passing in front of a star in 2009.|
|+35||star LBV 1806-20||seen from Earth||a luminous blue variable star, expected magnitude at visible wavelengths due to interstellar extinction|
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