Absolute magnitude is a measure of the luminosity of a celestial object, on a logarithmic astronomical magnitude scale. An object's absolute magnitude is defined to be equal to the apparent magnitude that the object would have if it were viewed from a distance of exactly 10 parsecs (32.6 light-years), with no extinction (or dimming) of its light due to absorption by interstellar dust particles. By hypothetically placing all objects at a standard reference distance from the observer, their luminosities can be directly compared on a magnitude scale. As with all astronomical magnitudes, the absolute magnitude can be specified for different wavelength ranges corresponding to specified filter bands or passbands; for stars a commonly quoted absolute magnitude is the absolute visual magnitude, which uses the visual (V) band of the spectrum (in the UBV photometric system). Absolute magnitudes are denoted by a capital M, with a subscript representing the filter band used for measurement, such as MV for absolute magnitude in the V band.

The more luminous an object, the smaller the numerical value of its absolute magnitude. A difference of 5 magnitudes between the absolute magnitudes of two objects corresponds to a ratio of 100 in their luminosities, and a difference of n magnitudes in absolute magnitude corresponds to a luminosity ratio of 100(n/5). For example, a star of absolute magnitude MV=3 would be 100 times more luminous than a star of absolute magnitude MV=8 as measured in the V filter band. The Sun has absolute magnitude MV=+4.83.[1] Highly luminous objects can have negative absolute magnitudes: for example, the Milky Way galaxy has an absolute B magnitude of about −20.8.[2]

An object's absolute bolometric magnitude represents its total luminosity over all wavelengths, rather than in a single filter band, as expressed on a logarithmic magnitude scale. To convert from an absolute magnitude in a specific filter band to absolute bolometric magnitude, a bolometric correction is applied.

For Solar System bodies that shine in reflected light, a different definition of absolute magnitude (H) is used, based on a standard reference distance of one astronomical unit.


Stars and galaxies (M)Edit

In stellar and galactic astronomy, the standard distance is 10 parsecs (about 32.616 light-years, 308.57 petameters or 308.57 trillion kilometres). A star at 10 parsecs has a parallax of 0.1″ (100 milliarcseconds). Galaxies (and other extended objects) are much larger than 10 parsecs, their light is radiated over an extended patch of sky, and their overall brightness cannot be directly observed from relatively short distances, but the same convention is used. A galaxy's magnitude is defined by measuring all the light radiated over the entire object, treating that integrated brightness as the brightness of a single point-like or star-like source, and computing the magnitude of that point-like source as it would appear if observed at the standard 10 parsecs distance. Consequently, the absolute magnitude of any object equals the apparent magnitude it would have if it were 10 parsecs away.

The measurement of absolute magnitude is made with an instrument called a bolometer. When using an absolute magnitude, one must specify the type of electromagnetic radiation being measured. When referring to total energy output, the proper term is bolometric magnitude. The bolometric magnitude usually is computed from the visual magnitude plus a bolometric correction, Mbol = MV + BC. This correction is needed because very hot stars radiate mostly ultraviolet radiation, whereas very cool stars radiate mostly infrared radiation (see Planck's law).

Some stars visible to the naked eye have such a low absolute magnitude that they would appear bright enough to outshine the planets and cast shadows if they were at 10 parsecs from the Earth. Examples include Rigel (−7.0), Deneb (−7.2), Naos (−6.0), and Betelgeuse (−5.6). For comparison, Sirius has an absolute magnitude of 1.4, which is brighter than the Sun, whose absolute visual magnitude is 4.83 (it actually serves as a reference point). The Sun's absolute bolometric magnitude is set arbitrarily, usually at 4.75.[3][4] Absolute magnitudes of stars generally range from −10 to +17. The absolute magnitudes of galaxies can be much lower (brighter). For example, the giant elliptical galaxy M87 has an absolute magnitude of −22 (i.e. as bright as about 60,000 stars of magnitude −10).

Apparent magnitudeEdit

The Greek astronomer Hipparchus established a numerical scale to describe the brightness of each star appearing in the sky. The brightest stars in the sky were assigned an apparent magnitude m = 1, and the dimmest stars visible to the naked eye are assigned m = 6.[5] The difference between them corresponds to a factor of 100 in brightness. For objects within the immediate neighborhood of the Sun, the absolute magnitude M and apparent magnitude m from any distance d (in parsecs) is related by:


where F is the radiant flux measured at distance d (in parsecs), F10 the radiant flux measured at distance 10 pc. The relation can be written in terms of logarithm:


where the insignificance of extinction by gas and dust is assumed. Typical extinction rates within the galaxy are 1 to 2 magnitudes per kiloparsec, when dark clouds are taken into account.[6]

For objects at very large distances (outside the Milky Way) the luminosity distance dL (distance defined using luminosity measurements) must be used instead of d (in parsecs), because the Euclidean approximation is invalid for distant objects and general relativity must be taken into account. Moreover, the cosmological redshift complicates the relation between absolute and apparent magnitude, because the radiation observed was shifted into the red range of the spectrum. To compare the magnitudes of very distant objects with those of local objects, a K correction might have to be applied to the magnitudes of the distant objects.

The absolute magnitude M can also be approximated using apparent magnitude m and stellar parallax p:


or using apparent magnitude m and distance modulus μ:



Rigel has a visual magnitude mV of 0.12 and distance about 860 light-years


Vega has a parallax p of 0.129″, and an apparent magnitude mV of 0.03


The Black Eye Galaxy has a visual magnitude mV of 9.36 and a distance modulus μ of 31.06


Bolometric magnitudeEdit

The bolometric magnitude Mbol, takes into account electromagnetic radiation at all wavelengths. It includes those unobserved due to instrumental passband, the Earth's atmospheric absorption, and extinction by interstellar dust. It is defined based on the luminosity of the stars. In the case of stars with few observations, it must be computed assuming an effective temperature.

Classically, the difference in bolometric magnitude is related to the luminosity ratio according to:[7]


which makes by inversion:



L is the Sun's luminosity (bolometric luminosity)
L is the star's luminosity (bolometric luminosity)
Mbol,⊙ is the bolometric magnitude of the Sun
Mbol,★ is the bolometric magnitude of the star.

In August 2015, the International Astronomical Union passed Resolution B2[8] defining the zero points of the absolute and apparent bolometric magnitude scales in SI units for power (watts) and irradiance (W/m2), respectively. Although bolometric magnitudes had been used by astronomers for many decades, there had been systematic differences in the absolute magnitude-luminosity scales presented in various astronomical references, and no international standardization. This led to systematic differences in bolometric corrections scales.[9] Combined with incorrect assumed absolute bolometric magnitudes for the Sun could lead to systematic errors in estimated stellar luminosities (and stellar properties calculated which rely on stellar luminosity, such as radii, ages, and so on).

Resolution B2 defines an absolute bolometric magnitude scale where Mbol = 0 corresponds to luminosity L0 = 3.0128×1028 W, with the zero point luminosity L0 set such that the Sun (with nominal luminosity 3.828×1026 W) corresponds to absolute bolometric magnitude Mbol,⊙ = 4.74. Placing a radiation source (e.g. star) at the standard distance of 10 parsecs, it follows that the zero point of the apparent bolometric magnitude scale mbol = 0 corresponds to irradiance f0 = 2.518021002×10−8 W/m2. Using the IAU 2015 scale, the nominal total solar irradiance ("solar constant") measured at 1 astronomical unit (1361 W/m2) corresponds to an apparent bolometric magnitude of the Sun of mbol,⊙ = −26.832.[9]

Following Resolution B2, the relation between a star's absolute bolometric magnitude and its luminosity is no longer directly tied to the Sun's (variable) luminosity:



L is the star's luminosity (bolometric luminosity) in watts
L0 is the zero point luminosity 3.0128×1028 W
Mbol is the bolometric magnitude of the star

The new IAU absolute magnitude scale permanently disconnects the scale from the variable Sun. However, on this SI power scale, the nominal solar luminosity corresponds closely to Mbol = 4.74, a value that was commonly adopted by astronomers before the 2015 IAU resolution.[9]

The luminosity of the star in watts can be calculated as a function of its absolute bolometric magnitude Mbol as:


using the variables as defined previously.

Solar System bodies (H)Edit

For planets and asteroids a definition of absolute magnitude that is more meaningful for non-stellar objects is used. The absolute magnitude, commonly called  , is defined as the apparent magnitude that the object would have if it were one Astronomical Unit (AU) from both the Sun and the observer, and in conditions of ideal solar opposition (an arrangement that is impossible in practice).[10] Solar System bodies are illuminated by the Sun, therefore the magnitude varies as a function of illumination conditions, described by the phase angle. This relationship is referred to as the phase curve. The absolute magnitude is the brightness at phase angle zero, an arrangement known as opposition.

Apparent magnitudeEdit

The phase angle   can be calculated from the distances body-sun, observer-sun and observer-body, using the law of cosines.

The absolute magnitude   can be used to calculate the apparent magnitude   of a body. For an object reflecting sunlight,   and   are connected by the relation


where   is the phase angle, the angle between the body-Sun and body–observer lines.   is the phase integral (the integration of reflected light; a number in the 0 to 1 range).[11]

By the law of cosines, we have:



  • dBO is the distance between the body and the observer
  • dBS is the distance between the body and the Sun
  • dOS is the distance between the observer and the Sun
  • d0 is 1 AU, the average distance between the Earth and the Sun

Approximations for phase integral  Edit

The value of   depends on the properties of the reflecting surface, in particular on its roughness. In practice, different approximations are used based on the known or assumed properties of the surface.[11]


Diffuse reflection on sphere and flat disk
Brightness with phase for diffuse reflection models. The sphere is 2/3 as bright at zero phase, while the disk can't be seen beyond 90 degrees.

Planetary bodies can be approximated reasonably well as ideal diffuse reflecting spheres. Let   be the phase angle in degrees, then[12]


A full-phase diffuse sphere reflects two-thirds as much light as a diffuse flat disk of the same diameter. A quarter phase ( ) has   as much light as full phase ( ).

For contrast, a diffuse disk reflector model is simply  , which isn't realistic, but it does represent the opposition surge for rough surfaces that reflect more uniform light back at low phase angles.

The definition of the geometric albedo  , a measure for the reflectivity of planetary surfaces, is based on the diffuse disk reflector model. The absolute magnitude  , diameter   (in kilometers) and geometric albedo   of a body are related by[13][14]


Example: The Moon's absolute magnitude   can be calculated from its diameter   and geometric albedo  :[15]


We have  ,   At quarter phase,   (according to the diffuse reflector model), this yields an apparent magnitude of   The actual value is somewhat lower than that,   The phase curve of the Moon is too complicated for the diffuse reflector model.[16]

More advanced modelsEdit

Because Solar System bodies are never perfect diffuse reflectors, astronomers use different models to predict apparent magnitudes based on known or assumed properties of the body.[11] For planets, approximations for the correction term   in the formula for m have been derived empirically, to match observations at different phase angles. The approximations recommended by the Astronomical Almanac[17] are (with   in degrees):

Planet   Approximation for  
Mercury −0.613  
Venus −4.384
  •   (for  )
  •   (for  )
Earth −3.99[citation needed]  
Mars −1.601
  •   (for  )
  •   (for  )
Jupiter −9.395
  •   (for  )
  •   (for  )
Saturn −8.914
  •   (for planet and rings,   and  )
  •   (for the globe alone,  )
  •   (for the globe alone,  )
Uranus −7.110   (for  )
Neptune −7.00   (for   and  )

Here   is the effective inclination of Saturn's rings (their tilt relative to the observer), which as seen from Earth varies between 0° and 27° over the course of one Saturn orbit, and   is a small correction term depending on Uranus' sub-Earth and sub-solar latitudes.   is the Common Era year. Neptune's absolute magnitude is changing slowly due to seasonal effects as the planet moves along its 165-year orbit around the Sun, and the approximation above is only valid after the year 2000. For some circumstances, like   for Venus, no observations are available, and the phase curve is unknown in those cases.

Example: On 1 January 2019, Venus was   from the Sun, and   from Earth, at a phase angle of   (near quarter phase). Under full-phase conditions, Venus would have been visible at   Accounting for the high phase angle, the correction term above yields an actual apparent magnitude of   This is close to the value of   predicted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.[18]

  • [citation needed]Earth's albedo varies by a factor of 6, from 0.12 in the cloud-free case to 0.76 in the case of altostratus cloud. The absolute magnitude here corresponds to an albedo of 0.434. Earth's apparent magnitude cannot be predicted as accurately as that of most other planets.[17]


Asteroid 1 Ceres, imaged by the Dawn spacecraft at phase angles of 0°, 7° and 33°. The left image at 0° phase angle shows the brightness surge due to the opposition effect.
Phase integrals for various values of G
Relation between the slope parameter   and the opposition surge. Larger values of   correspond to a less pronounced opposition effect. For most asteroids, a value of   is assumed, corresponding to an opposition surge of  .

If an object has an atmosphere, it reflects light more or less isotropically in all directions, and its brightness can be modelled as a diffuse reflector. Atmosphereless bodies, like asteroids or moons, tend to reflect light more strongly to the direction of the incident light, and their brightness increases rapidly as the phase angle approaches  . This rapid brightening near opposition is called the opposition effect. Its strength depends on the physical properties of the body's surface, and hence it differs from asteroid to asteroid.[11]

In 1985, the IAU adopted the semi-empirical  -system, based on two parameters   and   called absolute magnitude and slope, to model the opposition effect for the ephemerides published by the Minor Planet Center.[19]



the phase integral is  


  for   or  ,  ,  ,   and  .[20]

This relation is valid for phase angles  , and works best when  .[21]

The slope parameter   relates to the surge in brightness, typically 0.3 mag, when the object is near opposition. It is known accurately only for a small number of asteroids, hence for most asteroids a value of   is assumed.[21] In rare cases,   can be negative.[20][22] An example is 101955 Bennu, with  .[23]

In 2012, the  -system was officially replaced by an improved system with three parameters  ,   and  , which produces more satisfactory results if the opposition effect is very small or restricted to very small phase angles. However, as of 2019, this  -system has not been adopted by either the Minor Planet Center nor Jet Propulsion Laboratory.[11][24]

The apparent magnitude of asteroids varies as they rotate, on time scales of seconds to weeks depending on their rotation period, by up to   or more.[25] In addition, their absolute magnitude can vary with the viewing direction, depending on their axial tilt. In many cases, neither the rotation period nor the axial tilt are known, limiting the predictability. The models presented here do not capture those effects.[21][11]

Cometary magnitudesEdit

The brightness of comets is given separately as total magnitude ( , the brightness integrated over the entire visible extend of the coma) and nuclear magnitude ( , the brightness of the core region alone).[26] Both are different scales than the magnitude scale used for planets and asteroids, and can not be used for a size comparison with an asteroid's absolute magnitude H.

The activity of comets varies with their distance from the Sun. Their brightness can be approximated as


where   are the total and nuclear apparent magnitudes of the comet, respectively,   are its "absolute" total and nuclear magnitudes,   and   are the body-sun and body-observer distances,   is the Astronomical Unit, and   are the slope parameters characterising the comet's activity. For  , this reduces to the formula for a purely reflecting body.[27]

For example, the lightcurve of comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) can be approximated by  [28] On the day of its perihelion passage, 10 March 2013, comet PANSTARRS was   from the Sun and   from Earth. The total apparent magnitude   is predicted to have been   at that time. The Minor Planet Center gives a value close to that,  .[29]

For some comets that have been observed at heliocentric distances large enough to distinguish between light reflected from the coma, and light from the nucleus itself, an absolute magnitude analogous to that used for asteroids has been calculated, allowing to estimate the sizes of their nuclei.[30]


For a meteor, the standard distance for measurement of magnitudes is at an altitude of 100 km (62 mi) at the observer's zenith.[31][32]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Sun Fact Sheet". NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  2. ^ Karachentsev, I. D.; et al. (2004). "A Catalog of Neighboring Galaxies". The Astronomical Journal. 127 (4): 2031–2068. Bibcode:2004AJ....127.2031K. doi:10.1086/382905.
  3. ^ Cayrel de Strobel, G. (1996). "Stars resembling the Sun". Astronomy and Astrophysics Review. 7 (3): 243–288. Bibcode:1996A&ARv...7..243C. doi:10.1007/s001590050006.
  4. ^ Casagrande, L.; Portinari, L.; Flynn, C. (November 2006). "Accurate fundamental parameters for lower main-sequence stars". MNRAS (Abstract). 373 (1): 13–44. arXiv:astro-ph/0608504. Bibcode:2006MNRAS.373...13C. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2966.2006.10999.x.
  5. ^ Carroll, Bradley W.; Ostlie, Dale A. (2007). An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics (2nd ed.). Pearson. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-321-44284-0.
  6. ^ Unsöld, Albrecht; Baschek, Bodo (2013), The New Cosmos: An Introduction to Astronomy and Astrophysics (5th ed.), Springer Science & Business Media, p. 331, ISBN 978-3662043561
  7. ^ Carroll, Brad; Ostlie, Dale (2017). An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics. Cambridge. p. 62.
  8. ^ "IAU XXIX General Assembly Draft Resolutions Announced". Retrieved 2015-07-08.
  9. ^ a b c IAU Inter-Division A-G Working Group on Nominal Units for Stellar & Planetary Astronomy (13 August 2015). "IAU 2015 Resolution B2 on Recommended Zero Points for the Absolute and Apparent Bolometric Magnitude Scales" (PDF). Resolutions Adopted at the General Assemblies. arXiv:1510.06262. Bibcode:2015arXiv151006262M.
  10. ^ Luciuk, M., Astronomical Magnitudes (PDF), p. 8, retrieved 11 January 2019
  11. ^ a b c d e f Hannu Karttunen; Pekka Kröger; Heikki Oja; Markku Poutanen; Karl Johan Donner (2016). Fundamental Astronomy. Springer. p. 163. ISBN 9783662530450.
  12. ^ C. T. Whitmell (1907), "Brightness of a planet", The Observatory, 30: 97, Bibcode:1907Obs....30...96W
  13. ^ Bruton, D., Conversion of Absolute Magnitude to Diameter for Minor Planets, Stephen F. Austin State University, retrieved 12 January 2019
  14. ^ The   factor for a diffuse disk reflector can be computed as  , where  , the absolute magnitude of the Sun, and  
  15. ^ Albedo of the Earth, Department of Physics and Astronomy, retrieved 12 January 2019
  16. ^ Luciuk, M., Albedo - How bright is the Moon?, retrieved 12 January 2019
  17. ^ a b Mallama, Anthony; Hilton, James L. (October 2018). "Computing apparent planetary magnitudes for The Astronomical Almanac". Astronomy and Computing. 25: 10–24. arXiv:1808.01973. Bibcode:2018A&C....25...10M. doi:10.1016/j.ascom.2018.08.002.
  18. ^ JPL Horizons (Ephemeris Type "OBSERVER", Target Body "Venus [299]", Observer Location "Geocentric [500]", Time Span "Start=2019-01-01 00:00, Stop=2019-01-02 00:00, Step=1 d", QUANTITIES=9,19,20,24), Jet Propulsion Laboratory, retrieved 11 January 2019
  19. ^ Minor Planet Circular 10193 (PDF), Minor Planet Center, 27 December 1985, retrieved 11 January 2019
  20. ^ a b Lagerkvist, C.-I.; Williams, I. (1987), "Physical studies of asteroids. XV - Determination of slope parameters and absolute magnitudes for 51 asteroids", Astronomy and Astrophysics Supplement Series, 68: 295–315
  21. ^ a b c Dymock, R. (2007), "The H and G magnitude system for asteroids" (PDF), Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 117 (6): 342–343, retrieved 11 January 2019
  22. ^ JPL Horizons (Version 3.75) (PDF), Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 4 April 2013, p. 27, retrieved 11 January 2013
  23. ^ JPL Small-Body Database Browser - 101955 Bennu, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 19 May 2018, retrieved 11 January 2019
  24. ^ Shevchenko, V. G.; et al. (April 2016), "Asteroid observations at low phase angles. IV. Average parameters for the new H, G1, G2 magnitude system", Planetary and Space Science, 123: 101–116, doi:10.1016/j.pss.2015.11.007
  25. ^ Harris, A. W.; Warner, B. D.; Pravec, P. (2016). "Asteroid Lightcurve Derived Data V16.0". NASA Planetary Data System. 246: EAR-A-5-DDR-DERIVED-LIGHTCURVE-V16.0. Bibcode:2016PDSS..246.....H.
  26. ^ Guide to the MPES (PDF), Minor Planet Center, p. 11, retrieved 11 January 2019
  27. ^ Meisel, D. D.; Morris, C. S. (1976), "Comet brightness parameters: Definition, determination, and correlations", NASA. Goddard Space Flight Center the Study of Comets, Part 1, 393: 410–444, Bibcode:1976NASSP.393..410M
  28. ^ Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS), COBS, retrieved 11 January 2019
  29. ^ Minor Planet & Comet Ephemeris Service (C/2011 L4, ephemeris start date=2013-03-10), Minor Planet Center, retrieved 11 January 2019
  30. ^ Lamy, P. L.; Toth, I.; Fernandez, Y. R.; Weaver, H. A. (2004), The sizes, shapes, albedos, and colors of cometary nuclei (PDF), University of Arizona Press, Tucson, pp. 223–264, Bibcode:2004come.book..223L
  31. ^ "Glossary – Absolute magnitude of meteors". International Meteor Organization. Retrieved 2013-05-16.
  32. ^ "Solar System Dynamics Glossary – Absolute magnitude of Solar System bodies". NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retrieved 2013-05-16.

External linksEdit