I'm working on a game concept that does some mild simulation of realistic stellar classes and luminosities. In particular, I'd like to roughly model the general frequencies of the classes and luminosities of the stars in the Milky Way.

Several sources, including Wikipedia's entry on stellar classifications, show a chart that includes the frequency distribution for spectral classification: the OBAFGKM categorization. So that's fine.

What I'm having trouble finding is any frequency distribution chart similar to that one but for the Yerkes luminosity categories: Ia+, Ia, Iab, Ib, II, III, IV, V, sub-dwarf and dwarf. I have a copy of the Hipparcos database, which contains a "Spectral Types" field, but it's highly incoherent text. Still, I could write some code to parse the values in that field to try to get a rough count of luminosity categories in those roughly 116,000 stars... but I'm a little perplexed that no such chart appears to exist already somewhere in Internetland. (Either that or my search-fu is weaker than usual.)

If anyone can point me to a chart of the frequency distribution for the luminosity categories noted above, or suggest a reasonably simple way for me to calculate those values myself, I'd appreciate it.

EDIT: Out of curiosity, I went ahead and did my own simple parsing of the spectrum fields from the Hipparcos dataset.

Out of 116472 rows, only 56284 (fewer than half) provided luminosity class data in the Spectrum field. Those 56284 rows broke down this way:

Ia0     16     0.03%
Ia     241     0.43%
Iab    191     0.34%
Ib     694     1.23%
I       17     0.03%
II    1627     2.89%
III  22026    39.13%
IV    6418    11.40%
V    24873    44.19%
VI      92     0.16%
VII     89     0.16%

Note: Around 1000+ rows gave an either/or value for luminosity class (e.g., "M1Ib/II"). In these cases, I counted only the first value provided. This probably skewed the results slightly compared to counting both luminosity classes.

I'm still very curious to know whether anyone else has produced or located a similar table of frequencies for the luminosity classes, if only to see how my very trivial analysis compares.

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    $\begingroup$ An interesting idea that I figure has probably been studied somewhere. But just to comment, I think this problem will face severe selection bias. I'm not sure what exactly your Hipparcos sample contains, but remember that brighter stars are easier to see. So what you might need to do, as an example, is reduce the list only to those stars close enough that if they were smaller than the faintest star, you'd still be able to see them. That way the sample is closer to "complete" and not biased by missing the stars you can't see. $\endgroup$
    – Warrick
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks @Warrick and I agree. The Hipparcos dataset does indeed cover only an extremely small number of stars, and is biased toward stars near Earth. So I'm not surprised if the approximately 50,000 stars for which a luminosity class was given aren't a representative sample. The good news is that the Gaia mission launched in 2013 is supposed to eventually provide similar data on 1 billion stars -- still only 1/100 of the Milky Way, but quite an improvement. In the meantime, I'm working with what there is to work with. ;) $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 9:52
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    $\begingroup$ Hmmm... I can't quite tell where he gets his numbers from, but the reference for that table on Wikipedia has a table (Table 1) with the relative frequency of different stellar types. If you just bin the star counts as a function of absolute magnitude, I imagine you can determine the relative frequencies of the luminosity classes. $\endgroup$
    – Warrick
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ I started to write an answer, but realised that this can't be done with the Hipparcos catalogue. Your table is massively incorrect because of the bias pointed out by @Warrick. Giants are rare, supergiants are superrare. This is merely a function of the relative lifetimes of these phases and the masses of star that go through them. Hipparcos hardly contains any M dwarfs, which are vastly the most numerous objects. A rough estimate would be 1-2% giants and perhaps 100 times fewer supergiants. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 9:54
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    $\begingroup$ @BartStewart The giants percentage comes from the number of evolved stars you see in a local sample (1%). See iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0143-0807/24/2/303 The figure for supergiants is just a guesstimate based on the relative rarity of >10 solar mass stars and the shortness of the AGB phase. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 15:42

2 Answers 2


Here is how you do it "properly" for the Hipparcos data. As Warrick correctly points out, what you have done in your question is massively biased towards giant and supergiant stars, which actually form the very small minority of stars.

You must form a volume limited sample. To do this, sort the stars by distance (1/parallax) and choose a cut off point. Your sample will always be incomplete, but the greater your distance cut off, the more incomplete it will be and it will become incomplete for more intrinsically luminous stars.

You have a philosophical problem to solve here in terms of what you are trying to achieve. The vast majority of stars in the Galaxy are faint M dwarfs with an absolute magnitude of $>10$. As Hipparcos is only complete to around magnitude 10-11, you will only get these M dwarfs in your subsample if you limit yourself to 10pc. But you will find that this sample contains no evolved stars (too rare) and no white dwarfs (too faint).

EDIT: This has piqued my interest again, so I have a practical (approximate) solution, based on a two-part process. The first part involves a paper I wrote (actully an undergraduate experiment) based on the nearest 1000 stars to the Sun (from the Gliese & Jahreiss catalogue CNS3). This sample is roughly complete down to mid M-dwarfs, so everything else I say, and the results I give, only applies to a sample of stars more massive than that.

If you look at this volume-limited sample of 1000 nearby stars you can straight away say something about the relative numbers of different types of stars in the Galactic disk (saying something about stars anywhere else in the Galaxy is filled with much more uncertainty). A colour-magnitude diagram is shown below, and from this we see that:

The Sun is among the brightest of stars - brighter than 95% of other stars.

About 6% of the population are white dwarfs (though a few faint, old white dwarfs may still be missing from the sample). This makes sense. If you integrate a typical mass function assuming only stars more massive than about 1$M_{\odot}$ have even had time to become white dwarfs, then this is what you get.

Only 0.9% of the population are giants. The reason for this is that only a small proportion of stars are massive enough to have evolved into giants on the lifetime of the Galaxy. But once they are there, their lifetimes are short compared to the main sequence phase and most have become white dwarfs (see above).

There are a handful of objects, maybe 0.5%, that could be classified as subdwarfs, between the main sequence and the white dwarfs.

So, in broad terms: 92.5% of stars (above $\sim 0.2M_{\odot}$) are main sequence (class V), 6% are white dwarfs, 1% are giants (class III) and 0.5% are subdwarfs (class VI).

Nearest 1000 stars

There are no very massive stars or supergiants in the immediate solar neighbourhood. That is because they are very rare. To get a better estimate we need to look at a larger volume limited sample. To do this I took all the stars (about 7000) from the Hipparcos catalogue that are closer than 50pc and assumed this was complete to just below a solar luminosity and assumed that those stars with an absolute magnitude brighter than the Sun (1949 stars with $M_V<4.5$ represent 5% of the total population in this volume. The absolute magnitude vs colour diagram for this sample is shown below.

Of these 1949 luminous stars, I find roughly 190 are giants - giving a giant fraction of $5\times 190/1940=0.5$%, in reasonable agreement with the nearby star sample based on smaller numbers. There are still NO supergiants, even in this larger sample. Thus supergiants have a frequency of $\leq 5 \times 1/1949 = 0.0025$%. i.e. less than 1 star per 40,000 is a supergiant.

Hipparcos CMD of 7000 stars closer than 50pc

  • $\begingroup$ "There are no very massive stars or supergiants in the immediate solar neighbourhood. That is because they are very rare." I was just wondering, what then is the nearest massive or supergiant star? Perhaps Betelgeuse? $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ There are some OB stars in Sco Cen at about 120pc, but Betelgeuse is I think the closest cool supergiant, just a little further than this. @JoeBlow $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 17:30

There are other techniques to construct what you're interested in than making a volume limited sample. What you're trying to construct is called a "luminosity function," it's the distribution in luminosity normalized so that the area under the curve integrates to the volume density of stars. Constructing a volume limited sample is, perhaps the simplest method of addressing the problem @RobJeffries describes, known as Malmquist bias. Another technique, known as $1/V_{\mathrm{max}}$, can be summarized as binning by luminosity, then weighting each star by the true volume it could occupy and still be in the luminosity bin. If you have a minimum flux for stars in the sample, $F_{\mathrm{min}}$, no maximum flux, and a maximum distance $d_{\mathrm{max}}$, then the weighting for each star will be:$$w_i = \frac{3}{\Omega \operatorname{min}\left(d_{\mathrm{max}}, \sqrt{\frac{L_i}{4\pi F_{\mathrm{min}}}}\right)^3\,\Delta L_i},$$ where $\Omega$ is the solid angle on the sky of the survey, $d_{\mathrm{max}}$ is the maximum distance allowed, $L_i$ is the luminosity of the individual star labeled with index $i$, and $\Delta L_i$ is the width of the luminosity bin star $i$ is in.

You'll also need to figure out where your sample comes from. It is well known that the population of stars in the Milky Way varies by location:

At present the galaxy is thought to contain two or three luminous populations (e.g. Wyse 1992). The thin disk and stellar halo correspond to Baade's Pop. I and II, respectively. Still under debate is the existence of a thick disk population which might correspond to the thick disks seen in some other disk galaxies.

If you limit your study to a single star cluster you can even discover its age. Constructing a Hertzsprung-Russell (HR) diagram, a bivariate distribution on which luminosity is along one axis, and measuring where the stars are pealing away from the main sequence is one way to measure the age of a star cluster.


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