A stellar magnetic field is a magnetic field generated by the motion of conductive plasma inside a main sequence (hydrogen-burning) star. This motion is created through convection, which is a form of energy transport involving the physical movement of material. A localized magnetic field exerts a force on the plasma, effectively increasing the pressure without a comparable gain in density. As a result the magnetized region rises relative to the remainder of the plasma, until it reaches the star's photosphere. This creates starspots on the surface, and the related phenomenon of coronal loops.
The magnetic field of a star can be measured by means of the Zeeman effect. Normally the atoms in a star's atmosphere will absorb certain frequencies of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum, producing characteristic dark absorption lines in the spectrum. When the atoms are within a magnetic field, however, these lines become split into multiple, closely-space lines. The energy also becomes polarized with an orientation that depends on orientation of the magnetic field. Thus the strength and direction of the star's magnetic field can be determined by examination of the Zeeman effect lines.
A stellar spectropolarimeter is used to measure the magnetic field of a star. This instrument consists of a spectrograph combined with a polarimeter. The first instrument to be dedicated to the study of stellar magnetic fields was NARVAL, which was mounted on the Bernard Lyot Telescope at the Pic du Midi de Bigorre in the French Pyrenees mountains.
Various measurements—including magnetometer measurements over the last 150 years; 14C in tree rings; and 10Be in ice cores—have established substantial magnetic variability of the Sun on decadel, centennial and millennial time scales.
The magnetic fields linked to starspots and coronal loops are linked to flare activity, and the associated coronal mass ejection. The plasma is heated to tens of millions of kelvins, and the particles are accelerated away from the star's surface at extreme velocities.
Surface activity appears to be related to the age and rotation rate of main sequence stars. Young stars with a rapid rate of rotation exhibit strong activity. By contrast middle-aged, Sun-like stars with a slow rate of rotation show low levels of activity that varies in cycles. Some older stars display almost no activity, which may mean they have entered a lull that is comparable to the Sun's Maunder minimum. Measurements of the time variation in stellar activity can be useful for determining the differential rotation rates of a star.
A T Tauri star is a type of pre-main sequence star that is being heated through gravitational contraction and has not yet begun to burn hydrogen at its core. They are variable stars that are magnetically active. The magnetic field of these stars is thought to interact with its strong stellar wind, transferring angular momentum to the surrounding protoplanetary disk. This allows the star to brake its rotation rate as it collapses.
Small, M-class stars (with 0.1–0.6 solar masses) that exhibit rapid, irregular variability are known as flare stars. These fluctuations are believed to be caused by flares, although the activity is much stronger relative to the size of the star. The flares on this class of stars can extend up to 20% of the circumference, and radiate much of their energy in the blue and ultraviolet portion of the spectrum.
Planetary nebulae are created when a red giant star ejects its outer envelope, forming an expanding shell of gas. However it remains a mystery why these shells are not always spherically symmetrical. 80% of planetary nebulae do not have a spherical shape; instead forming bipolar or elliptical nebulae. One hypothesis for the formation of a non-spherical shape is the effect of the star's magnetic field. Instead of expanding evenly in all directions, the ejected plasma tends to leave by way of the magnetic poles. Observations of the central stars in at least four planetary nebulae have confirmed that they do indeed possess powerful magnetic fields.
After some massive stars have ceased thermonuclear fusion, a portion of their mass collapses into a compact body of neutrons called a neutron star. These bodies retain a significant magnetic field from the original star, but the collapse in size causes the strength of this field to increase dramatically. The rapid rotation of these collapsed neutron stars results in a pulsar, which emits a narrow beam of energy that can periodically point toward an observer.
An extreme form of a magnetized neutron star is the magnetar. These are formed as the result of a core-collapse supernova. The existence of such stars was confirmed in 1998 with the measurement of the star SGR 1806-20. The magnetic field of this star has increased the surface temperature to 18 million K and it releases enormous amounts of energy in gamma ray bursts.