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A star is a huge, shining ball in space that produces a tremendous amount of light and other forms of energy. The sun is a star, and it supplies Earth with light and heat energy. The stars look like twinkling points of light -- except for the sun. The sun looks like a ball because it is much closer to Earth than any other star.

The sun and most other stars are made of gas and a hot, gaslike substance known as plasma. But some stars, called white dwarfs and neutron stars, consist of tightly packed atoms or subatomic particles. These stars are therefore much more dense than anything on Earth.

Stars come in many sizes. The sun's radius (distance from its center to its surface) is about 432,000 miles (695,500 kilometers). But astronomers classify the sun as a dwarf because other kinds of stars are much bigger. Some of the stars known as supergiants have a radius about 1,000 times that of the sun. The smallest stars are the neutron stars, some of which have a radius of only about 6 miles (10 kilometers).

About 75 percent of all stars are members of a binary system, a pair of closely spaced stars that orbit each other. The sun is not a member of a binary system. However, its nearest known stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, is part of a multiple-star system that also includes Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B.

The distance from the sun to Proxima Centauri is more than 25 trillion miles (40 trillion kilometers). This distance is so great that light takes 4.2 years to travel between the two stars. Scientists say that Proxima Centauri is 4.2 light-years from the sun. One light-year, the distance that light travels in a vacuum in a year, equals about 5.88 trillion miles (9.46 trillion kilometers).

Stars are grouped in huge structures called galaxies. Telescopes have revealed galaxies throughout the universe at distances of 12 billion to 16 billion light-years. The sun is in a galaxy called the Milky Way that contains more than 100 billion stars. There are more than 100 billion galaxies in the universe, and the average number of stars per galaxy may be 100 billion. Thus, more than 10 billion trillion stars may exist. But if you look at the night sky far from city lights, you can see only about 3,000 of them without using binoculars or a telescope.

Stars, like people, have life cycles -- they are born, pass through several phases, and eventually die. The sun was born about 4.6 billion years ago and will remain much as it is for another 5 billion years. Then it will grow to become a red giant. Late in the sun's lifetime, it will cast off its outer layers. The remaining core, called a white dwarf, will slowly fade to become a black dwarf.

Other stars will end their lives in different ways. Some will not go through a red giant stage. Instead, they will merely cool to become white dwarfs, then black dwarfs. A small percentage of stars will die in spectacular explosions called supernovae.

This article discusses Star (The stars at night) (Names of stars) (Characteristics of stars) (Fusion in stars) (Evolution of stars).

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