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A brief review of Stellar Rotation

Abdul Azim Bin Abdul Rashid(A42862438)


This document is intended to explain very briefly the idea behind stellar rotation rather than

presenting the complex physics of it. It is not intended for those who want to study the basic

equations governing the motion. Detailed description of the physics can be obtained primarily from

Jean-Louis Tassoul’s, Stellar Rotation and Halil Kirbiyik’s, Rotation in stars. This paper begins by

presenting a historical development of the topic and proceeds with a discussion on differential

rotation of the Sun and its origin. Finally, the paper will end with a presentation of what we know

about the nature of stellar rotation from notable experiments and theoretical models involving

rotation in stars other than our Sun.


Studies of stellar evolution began when sunspots were first observed with refracting telescopes

at the turn of 17th century by Johannes Goldschmidths. Subsequently, measurements of the

westward motion of these spots across the solar disk were taken by Johannes Fabricius, Galileo

Galilei,Thomass Harrict and Christopher Scheiner [1].

Galilei found a spot traverses the solar disk in 14 days meanwhile Scheiner showed that the

apparent rotation of the Sun was 27 days. Scheiner demonstrated that different sunspots gave

different period of rotation. This was proven observationally in the 1800 s when Richard Carrington

and Gustov Sporer showed independently that the sun did not rotate uniformly and that the outer

visible envelope of the Sun does not rotate like a solid body rather its period of rotation varies as a

function of heliocentric latitude; minimum rotation period in the equatorial region and gradually

increasing toward the polar region [2].

In 1871,Johann Zollner developed a new spectroscope hoping to apply the Doppler effect found

by Christian Doppler to measure the rotation of the Sun. However, Walter S. Adams and George

E.Hale of the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory were the first to successfully achieved this[2].In 1877,

William de Wiveleslie Abney expressed the idea that the axial rotation of single star could be

determined from measurements of the widths of spectral lines. He proposed that the effect of a

star’s rotation on its spectrum would broaden all of the lines [3].Only after more than 20 years; the

axial rotation in stars was discovered. In 1909, Frank Schlesinger and Otto Struve did this by

observing binary stars like delta Librae and T Tauri.

In 1924, A.E.Eddington and Heinrich Vogt showed that a uniformly rotating star could not totally

be in radiative equilibrium. He suggested that meriodional circulation currents should exist as a

result of changing temperature and pressure on equipotential surfaces [4].Finally Christian T. Elvey

and Christine Westgate worked on statistical studies of line widths in early-type stars and found that

the O-, B-, A-, and early F-type stars frequently have large rotational velocities, while in late F-type

and other later types rapid rotation occurs only in close spectroscopic binaries. This paper will touch

upon these last 2 discoveries in detail.

Differential Rotation of the Sun

The first method to measure rotational velocity of a star is to determine the modulation

frequency of a star’s light due to the rotation of surface inhomogeneities (such as spots or plagues).

However, this method works only for the Sun because surface inhomogeneities of stars other than

the sun can hardly be inferred from observations; stars appear as point sources of radiation even

when observed using the most powerful telescopes.

Theoretically, if a star is observable, the modulation frequency  is a direct estimate of the

star’s rotation period Prot and is free of projection effects. Hence, given a radius for the star, this

period can be transformed into a true equatorial velocity, [1.]Even though this

formulation works well with the Sun at the equator, it does not represent the sun's rotation as a

whole because the Sun experiences differential rotation.

Differential rotation occurs when rotation rate of a gassy body varies by latitude. Generally,

gas near the equator spins around faster than gas near the poles. Differential rotation applies to any

type of fluid body such as planets, stars and even galaxies. Before the advent of direct measurement

via the Doppler Effect, differential rotation rate of the sun was calculated using observable sunspots.

For observed sunspots, the differential rotation can be calculated as:

However, it was found that direct measurements of the rotational velocity based on Doppler

shifts of spectral lines appeared to be more reliable [5]. The observed distribution of the angular

velocity over the solar surface is commonly represented as

Figure 1.Rotation of the solar surface determined from Doppler measurements [6](solid) and from sunspot rotation

Since we can’t observe the interior of the sun, scientists adopted the method of

helioseismology to study the distribution of the rotational velocity inside the Sun. From observed

data the surface pattern of differential rotation as a function of latitude prevails throughout most of

the solar convection zone, with equatorial regions moving faster than higher latitudes [1].

Figure 2: Angular velocity as a function of the relative radius according to the results of the GONG helioseismological
project [8]. The individual curves are labeled by the corresponding latitude values.

Current theories that attempt to explain how the equatorial acceleration originated and is

maintained in the solar convection zone revolve around the interaction of rotation with local

turbulent convection as well as with global turbulent convection in a rotating spherical shell. It can

be seen from figure above that the rotational non- uniformity extends throughout the whole

convection zone but dies out rapidly with depth in the radiative zone. This fact gives an important

hint that observational result agrees with the basic theoretical concept that differential rotation is

maintained by convection [5].

Origin of Differential rotation

In essence, a uniformly rotating star must transfer angular momentum somewhere for it to

produce the differential rotation effect. There are three distinct mechanisms for angular momentum

redistribution that might be operative;

a. Turbulent friction acting on the differential rotation

b. Large-scale meridional currents

c. Large-scale magnetic fields.

These different mechanisms led to a number of different ideas to explain the origin of the

motion. First, Lebedinskii [9] formulated an idea that rotation becomes non-uniform (differential)

due to the interaction of convection turbulence in star with global rotation. Turbulence in stars

germinated from convective instability [1].In addition, the convective turbulence in a rotating

medium is affected by the Coriolis force,a fictitious force exerted on a body when it moves in a

rotating reference frame. This backward reaction disturbs the rotation rendering it non-uniform.

Inevitably,once differential rotation is present, the meridional circulation current emerges[10]which

is a large-scale flow observed on both hemispheres of the solar surface[11].

Next, another process which contributes to the rotational slow-down is large scale magnetic

fields. Schatzman proposed that stars with convective envelopes experience braking of their rotation

by a magnetic stellar wind [12]. This torque acts on the convective envelope, and slows it down

relative to the radiative core. Furthermore, stars with flares on the surface eject charged particles

that will interact with the star's magnetic field. As a consequence, some particles will form a cloud

around the star while some will escape the star's gravity. Thus, a certain amount of angular

momentum is removed from the star. This is thought to be another mechanism (magnetic braking)

capable of slowing down the rotation of stars [2].

Rotation in other stars.

The second method to determine rotational velocities of stars is to extract rotational broadening

from a spectral line profile, from which one infers the projected equatorial velocity V sin i along the

line of sight [1].This is the method used by Otto Struve and his collaborators in 1909 to show

convincing evidence of axial rotation in stars. However because stars are far away, the inclination

angles in general are unknown and can only be deduced with statistical information.

Figure 3: Mean projected equatorial velocities for a number of different classes of stars as compared with normal main-
sequence stars[13].

According to figure 3, the rotational velocities along the main sequence (luminosity class V)

increase from very low values in the F-type stars to some maximum in the B-type stars. Rotation

becomes faster toward the early type stars. Early type giants (luminosity class III) rotate slower

compared to the main sequence stars (luminosity class V) of the same spectral type, but the

opposite is true in late A and F type stars. This result may be related to evolution and the presence

of convective envelopes in the late type stars. The presence of the envelope may lead to stellar wind

and thus cause a loss in angular momentum that inevitably slows the star down [2].Supergiants of all

spectral types do not show noticeable rotations. They show no sudden change in rotation either,

although rotational velocities up to 90 km s-1 are observed for spectral types earlier than F9. Finally,

apparent rotation velocities of Population II stars are also small, with v sin i values smaller than 50

km s-1.

On the other hand, Olson [17] did observations on the rotation of close binary stars. The result is as

shown below

Figure 4:The distribution of close binary stars (dots).The mean velocity graph for the main sequence single
stars(continuous line).

These stars are eclipsing binaries where the equatorial velocity of close binary stars is plotted

against spectral type in Figure 4 [17]. In the same graph, the mean velocity of single stars on the

mainsequence is also given. Clearly from the graph, the rotation velocities of the components in

close binary systems compared with single stars of the same spectral type are low. It is safe to

conclude that the presence of the component star slows down the stars. Kreiken[18] was the first to

note this fact.

. Effects of rotation.

Theoretical stellar models suggest that stellar rotation has significant effect on star's internal

structure and luminosity.

First, centripetal force causes rotation to shrink the internal pressure in the core. A change in the

internal structure induces effects in hydrogen burning where the rate becomes slower. As a result,

star will evolve differently. Mathematically, if the distribution of angular momentum is spherically

symmetric and star is spherical, then the mean centripetal force can be found expressed as


and our ordinary hydrostatic equilibrium equation becomes


Next, rotation reduces luminosity, and changes the shape of the star. It distorts the sphericity

and creates an oblateness where the star is flatter in polar regions. The evolutionary effect of this is

not significant, but it changes the spectrum of the star. Fast rotating stars appear to be cooler [2].


In tandem, various literatures on stellar rotation shown that our basic understanding of the

subject matter is almost complete. However, it is far from being a dead science. The main work on

stellar rotation today revolves around using complex equations and models to simulate stellar

rotation in various circumstances. These models would help us to better relate the effects of

rotation on the age and evolution of stars in general and ultimately help to further our

understanding on the nature of the universe.


[1]Jean-Louis Tassoul,Stellar Rotation

[2] Halil Kirbiyik,Rotation in stars

[3] M. Abney M.N. Roy.Astron. Soc., 37 (1877) 278

[4] A.S. Eddington M.N. Roy.Astron. Soc., 90 (1929) 54

[5] L L Kitchatinov The differential rotation of stars

[6] Howard R et al. Solar Phys. 83 321 (1983)

[7] Newton HW,Nun ML Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc 111 413(1951)

[8] Wilson PR, BurtonClay D,LiY Astrophys J 489 397(1997)

[9] Lebedinskii A I Astron. Zh. 18 10(1941)

[10] Kippenhahn R Astrophys. J 137 664 (1963)

[11] Duvall, T.L. Jr.: 1979, Large-scale solar velocity fields. Solar Phys. 63, 3 – 15.

[12] Schatzman E. Ann Astrophys 22 317(1962)

[13] Slettebak, A., in Stellar Rotation (Slettebak, A., ed.), p. 5, New York: Gordon and Breach, 1970

[14] E. C. Olson Publ. Astron. Soc. Paci_c 80 (1968) 185

[15] R. Kippenhahn, E. Meyer-Hofmeister, H.-C. Thomas Astron. Astrophys., 5 (1970) 155

[16] R.C. Smith M.N. Roy. Astron. Soc., 148 (1970) 275

[17] E. C. Olson Publ. Astron. Soc. Paci_c 80 (1968) 185

[18] E.A. Kreiken Z. Astrophys., 10 (1935) 199.