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Astronomy

22.4 Further Evolution of Stars

Astronomy22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain what happens in a star’s core when all of the hydrogen has been used up
  • Define “planetary nebulae” and discuss their origin
  • Discuss the creation of new chemical elements during the late stages of stellar evolution

The “life story” we have related so far applies to almost all stars: each starts as a contracting protostar, then lives most of its life as a stable main-sequence star, and eventually moves off the main sequence toward the red-giant region.

As we have seen, the pace at which each star goes through these stages depends on its mass, with more massive stars evolving more quickly. But after this point, the life stories of stars of different masses diverge, with a wider range of possible behavior according to their masses, their compositions, and the presence of any nearby companion stars.

Because we have written this book for students taking their first astronomy course, we will recount a simplified version of what happens to stars as they move toward the final stages in their lives. We will (perhaps to your heartfelt relief) not delve into all the possible ways aging stars can behave and the strange things that happen when a star is orbited by a second star in a binary system. Instead, we will focus only on the key stages in the evolution of single stars and show how the evolution of high-mass stars differs from that of low-mass stars (such as our Sun).

Helium Fusion

Let’s begin by considering stars with composition like that of the Sun and whose initial masses are comparatively low—no more than about twice the mass of our Sun. (Such mass may not seem too low, but stars with masses less than this all behave in a fairly similar fashion. We will see what happens to more massive stars in the next section.) Because there are much more low-mass stars than high-mass stars in the Milky Way, the vast majority of stars—including our Sun—follow the scenario we are about to relate. By the way, we carefully used the term initial masses of stars because, as we will see, stars can lose quite a bit of mass in the process of aging and dying.

Remember that red giants start out with a helium core where no energy generation is taking place, surrounded by a shell where hydrogen is undergoing fusion. The core, having no source of energy to oppose the inward pull of gravity, is shrinking and growing hotter. As time goes on, the temperature in the core can rise to much hotter values than it had in its main-sequence days. Once it reaches a temperature of 100 million K (but not before such point), three helium atoms can begin to fuse to form a single carbon nucleus. This process is called the triple-alpha process, so named because physicists call the nucleus of the helium atom an alpha particle.

When the triple-alpha process begins in low-mass (about 0.8 to 2.0 solar masses) stars, calculations show that the entire core is ignited in a quick burst of fusion called a helium flash. (More massive stars also ignite helium but more gradually and not with a flash.) As soon as the temperature at the center of the star becomes high enough to start the triple-alpha process, the extra energy released is transmitted quickly through the entire helium core, producing very rapid heating. The heating speeds up the nuclear reactions, which provide more heating, and which accelerates the nuclear reactions even more. We have runaway generation of energy, which reignites the entire helium core in a flash.

You might wonder why the next major step in nuclear fusion in stars involves three helium nuclei and not just two. Although it is a lot easier to get two helium nuclei to collide, the product of this collision is not stable and falls apart very quickly. It takes three helium nuclei coming together simultaneously to make a stable nuclear structure. Given that each helium nucleus has two positive protons and that such protons repel one another, you can begin to see the problem. It takes a temperature of 100 million K to slam three helium nuclei (six protons) together and make them stick. But when that happens, the star produces a carbon nucleus.

Astronomy Basics

Stars in Your Little Finger

Stop reading for a moment and look at your little finger. It’s full of carbon atoms because carbon is a fundamental chemical building block for life on Earth. Each of those carbon atoms was once inside a red giant star and was fused from helium nuclei in the triple-alpha process. All the carbon on Earth—in you, in the charcoal you use for barbecuing, and in the diamonds you might exchange with a loved one—was “cooked up” by previous generations of stars. How the carbon atoms (and other elements) made their way from inside some of those stars to become part of Earth is something we will discuss in the next chapter. For now, we want to emphasize that our description of stellar evolution is, in a very real sense, the story of our own cosmic “roots”—the history of how our own atoms originated among the stars. We are made of “star-stuff.”

Becoming a Giant Again

After the helium flash, the star, having survived the “energy crisis” that followed the end of the main-sequence stage and the exhaustion of the hydrogen fuel at its center, finds its balance again. As the star readjusts to the release of energy from the triple-alpha process in its core, its internal structure changes once more: its surface temperature increases and its overall luminosity decreases. The point that represents the star on the H–R diagram thus moves to a new position to the left of and somewhat below its place as a red giant (Figure 22.16). The star then continues to fuse the helium in its core for a while, returning to the kind of equilibrium between pressure and gravity that characterized the main-sequence stage. During this time, a newly formed carbon nucleus at the center of the star can sometimes be joined by another helium nucleus to produce a nucleus of oxygen—another building block of life.

Evolution of a Star like the Sun on an H–R Diagram. In this plot the vertical axis is labeled “Luminosity (LSun),” and goes from 1.0 near the bottom to 10,000 near the top. The horizontal axis is labeled “Surface Temperature (K),” and goes from 9000 on the left to 3000 on the right. The main sequence is drawn as a diagonal red line beginning at L ~ 40 on the left down to T ~ 4000 at the bottom. The evolutionary path of the star is drawn as a black line. Beginning at L = 1 and T = 5500, the line moves upward away from the main sequence. This portion of the line is labeled “(a),” and is described in the caption. The line continues upward to L ~ 1000 and T ~ 3000 to point “(b),” labeled “Core helium flash.” From point b, the line (now dashed) moves downward to L ~ 100 and T ~ 5000 and labeled “(c),” and is described in the caption. From c, the line moves upward again. This portion of the line is labeled “(d),” and is described in the caption. The line culminates in a series of waves near L = 5000 and T ~ 3500 and is labeled “Helium shell flashes.”
Figure 22.16 Evolution of a Star Like the Sun on an H–R Diagram. Each stage in the star’s life is labeled. (a) The star evolves from the main sequence to be a red giant, decreasing in surface temperature and increasing in luminosity. (b) A helium flash occurs, leading to a readjustment of the star’s internal structure and to (c) a brief period of stability during which helium is fused to carbon and oxygen in the core (in the process the star becomes hotter and less luminous than it was as a red giant). (d) After the central helium is exhausted, the star becomes a giant again and moves to higher luminosity and lower temperature. By this time, however, the star has exhausted its inner resources and will soon begin to die. Where the evolutionary track becomes a dashed line, the changes are so rapid that they are difficult to model.

However, at a temperature of 100 million K, the inner core is converting its helium fuel to carbon (and a bit of oxygen) at a rapid rate. Thus, the new period of stability cannot last very long: it is far shorter than the main-sequence stage. Soon, all the helium hot enough for fusion will be used up, just like the hot hydrogen that was used up earlier in the star’s evolution. Once again, the inner core will not be able to generate energy via fusion. Once more, gravity will take over, and the core will start to shrink again. We can think of stellar evolution as a story of a constant struggle against gravitational collapse. A star can avoid collapsing as long as it can tap energy sources, but once any particular fuel is used up, it starts to collapse again.

The star’s situation is analogous to the end of the main-sequence stage (when the central hydrogen got used up), but the star now has a somewhat more complicated structure. Again, the star’s core begins to collapse under its own weight. Heat released by the shrinking of the carbon and oxygen core flows into a shell of helium just above the core. This helium, which had not been hot enough for fusion into carbon earlier, is heated just enough for fusion to begin and to generate a new flow of energy.

Farther out in the star, there is also a shell where fresh hydrogen has been heated enough to fuse helium. The star now has a multi-layered structure like an onion: a carbon-oxygen core, surrounded by a shell of helium fusion, a layer of helium, a shell of hydrogen fusion, and finally, the extended outer layers of the star (see Figure 22.17). As energy flows outward from the two fusion shells, once again the outer regions of the star begin to expand. Its brief period of stability is over; the star moves back to the red-giant domain on the H–R diagram for a short time (see Figure 22.16). But this is a brief and final burst of glory.

Layers inside a Low-mass Star before Death. The layers within the core are shown as concentric circles of various colors. Starting at the center are: “Carbon-oxygen core” in purple, “Helium fusion” in green, “Helium core” in yellow, and the “Hydrogen shell fusion” layer in teal. The cooler “Hydrogen envelope” is shown in orange.
Figure 22.17 Layers inside a Low-Mass Star before Death. Here we see the layers inside a star with an initial mass that is less than twice the mass of the Sun. These include, from the center outward, the carbon-oxygen core, a layer of helium hot enough to fuse, a layer of cooler helium, a layer of hydrogen hot enough to fuse, and then cooler hydrogen beyond.

Recall that the last time the star was in this predicament, helium fusion came to its rescue. The temperature at the star’s center eventually became hot enough for the product of the previous step of fusion (helium) to become the fuel for the next step (helium fusing into carbon). But the step after the fusion of helium nuclei requires a temperature so hot that the kinds of lower-mass stars (less than 2 solar masses) we are discussing simply cannot compress their cores to reach it. No further types of fusion are possible for such a star.

In a star with a mass similar to that of the Sun, the formation of a carbon-oxygen core thus marks the end of the generation of nuclear energy at the center of the star. The star must now confront the fact that its death is near. We will discuss how stars like this end their lives in The Death of Stars, but in the meantime, Table 22.4 summarizes the stages discussed so far in the life of a star with the same mass as that of the Sun. One thing that gives us confidence in our calculations of stellar evolution is that when we make H–R diagrams of older clusters, we actually see stars in each of the stages that we have been discussing.

The Evolution of a Star with the Sun’s Mass
Stage Time in This Stage (years) Surface Temperature (K) Luminosity (LSun) Diameter
(Sun = 1)
Main sequence 11 billion 6000 1 1
Becomes red giant 1.3 billion 3100 at minimum 2300 at maximum 165
Helium fusion 100 million 4800 50 10
Giant again 20 million 3100 5200 180
Table 22.4

Mass Loss from Red-Giant Stars and the Formation of Planetary Nebulae

When stars swell up to become red giants, they have very large radii and therefore a low escape velocity.2 Radiation pressure, stellar pulsations, and violent events like the helium flash can all drive atoms in the outer atmosphere away from the star, and cause it to lose a substantial fraction of its mass into space. Astronomers estimate that by the time a star like the Sun reaches the point of the helium flash, for example, it will have lost as much as 25% of its mass. And it can lose still more mass when it ascends the red-giant branch for the second time. As a result, aging stars are surrounded by one or more expanding shells of gas, each containing as much as 10–20% of the Sun’s mass (or 0.1–0.2 MSun).

When nuclear energy generation in the carbon-oxygen core ceases, the star’s core begins to shrink again and to heat up as it gets more and more compressed. (Remember that this compression will not be halted by another type of fusion in these low-mass stars.) The whole star follows along, shrinking and also becoming very hot—reaching surface temperatures as high as 100,000 K. Such hot stars are very strong sources of stellar winds and ultraviolet radiation, which sweep outward into the shells of material ejected when the star was a red giant. The winds and the ultraviolet radiation heat the shells, ionize them, and set them aglow (just as ultraviolet radiation from hot, young stars produces H II regions; see Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space).

The result is the creation of some of the most beautiful objects in the cosmos (see the gallery in Figure 22.18 and Figure 22.1). These objects were given an extremely misleading name when first found in the eighteenth century: planetary nebulae. The name is derived from the fact that a few planetary nebulae, when viewed through a small telescope, have a round shape bearing a superficial resemblance to planets. Actually, they have nothing to do with planets, but once names are put into regular use in astronomy, it is extremely difficult to change them. There are tens of thousands of planetary nebulae in our own Galaxy, although many are hidden from view because their light is absorbed by interstellar dust.

As Figure 22.18 shows, sometimes a planetary nebula appears to be a simple ring. Others have faint shells surrounding the bright ring, which is evidence that there were multiple episodes of mass loss when the star was a red giant (see image (d) in Figure 22.18). In a few cases, we see two lobes of matter flowing in opposite directions. Many astronomers think that a considerable number of planetary nebulae basically consist of the same structure, but that the shape we see depends on the viewing angle (Figure 22.19). According to this idea, the dying star is surrounded by a very dense, doughnut-shaped disk of gas. (Theorists do not yet have a definite explanation for why the dying star should produce this ring, but many believe that binary stars, which are common, are involved.)

Diagram to Explain the Different Shapes of Planetary Nebulae. In the lower left-hand portion of this figure, a schematic representation of a planetary nebula is shown. A yellow ellipse, labeled “Torus” is drawn with a white dot labeled “Star” at its center. The long axis of the ellipse is oriented vertically. Several yellow arrows are drawn horizontally pointing away from the star. These are labeled “Stellar wind.” A faint figure-eight encloses the stellar wind on each side of the star and torus. Finally, a large, faint “Outer halo” surrounds the figure-eight and torus, centered on the star. At top left, directly above the star, the profile of a human eye is shown looking in the direction of the star. The line of sight is marked with a double-headed dashed arrow. What a planetary nebula would look like along this line of sight is illustrated with an image of Hubble 5 to the right of the eye. Another eye is drawn at lower right looking through the figure-eight toward the star. The line of sight is marked with a double-headed dashed arrow. What a planetary nebula would look like along this line of sight is illustrated with an image of the Helix Nebula above the eye.
Figure 22.19 Model to Explain the Different Shapes of Planetary Nebulae. The range of different shapes that we see among planetary nebulae may, in many cases, arise from the same geometric shape, but seen from a variety of viewing directions. The basic shape is a hot central star surrounded by a thick torus (or doughnut-shaped disk) of gas. The star’s wind cannot flow out into space very easily in the direction of the torus, but can escape more freely in the two directions perpendicular to it. If we view the nebula along the direction of the flow (Helix Nebula), it will appear nearly circular (like looking directly down into an empty ice-cream cone). If we look along the equator of the torus, we see both outflows and a very elongated shape (Hubble 5). Current research on planetary nebulae focuses on the reasons for having a torus around the star in the first place. Many astronomers suggest that the basic cause may be that many of the central stars are actually close binary stars, rather than single stars. (credit “Hubble 5”: modification of work by Bruce Balick (University of Washington), Vincent Icke (Leiden University, The Netherlands), Garrelt Mellema (Stockholm University), and NASA/ESA; credit “Helix”: modification of work by NASA, ESA, C.R. O’Dell (Vanderbilt University), and M. Meixner, P. McCullough)

As the star continues to lose mass, any less dense gas that leaves the star cannot penetrate the torus, but the gas can flow outward in directions perpendicular to the disk. If we look perpendicular to the direction of outflow, we see the disk and both of the outward flows. If we look “down the barrel” and into the flows, we see a ring. At intermediate angles, we may see wonderfully complex structures. Compare the viewpoints in Figure 22.19 with the images in Figure 22.18.

Planetary nebula shells usually expand at speeds of 20–30 km/s, and a typical planetary nebula has a diameter of about 1 light-year. If we assume that the gas shell has expanded at a constant speed, we can calculate that the shells of all the planetary nebulae visible to us were ejected within the past 50,000 years at most. After this amount of time, the shells have expanded so much that they are too thin and tenuous to be seen. That’s a pretty short time that each planetary nebula can be observed (when compared to the whole lifetime of the star). Given the number of such nebulae we nevertheless see, we must conclude that a large fraction of all stars evolve through the planetary nebula phase. Since we saw that low-mass stars are much more common than high-mass stars, this confirms our view of planetary nebulae as sort of “last gasp” of low-mass star evolution.

Cosmic Recycling

The loss of mass by dying stars is a key step in the gigantic cosmic recycling scheme we discussed in Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space. Remember that stars form from vast clouds of gas and dust. As they end their lives, stars return part of their gas to the galactic reservoirs of raw material. Eventually, some of the expelled material from aging stars will participate in the formation of new star systems.

However, the atoms returned to the Galaxy by an aging star are not necessarily the same ones it received initially. The star, after all, has fused hydrogen and helium to form new elements over the course of its life. And during the red-giant stage, material from the star’s central regions is dredged up and mixed with its outer layers, which can cause further nuclear reactions and the creation of still more new elements. As a result, the winds that blow outward from such stars include atoms that were “newly minted” inside the stars’ cores. (As we will see, this mechanism is even more effective for high-mass stars, but it does work for stars with masses like that of the Sun.) In this way, the raw material of the Galaxy is not only resupplied but also receives infusions of new elements. You might say this cosmic recycling plan allows the universe to get more “interesting” all the time.

Making Connections

The Red Giant Sun and the Fate of Earth

How will the evolution of the Sun affect conditions on Earth in the future? Although the Sun has appeared reasonably steady in size and luminosity over recorded human history, that brief span means nothing compared with the timescales we have been discussing. Let’s examine the long-term prospects for our planet.

The Sun took its place on the zero-age main sequence approximately 4.5 billion years ago. At that time, it emitted only about 70% of the energy that it radiates today. One might expect that Earth would have been a lot colder than it is now, with the oceans frozen solid. But if this were the case, it would be hard to explain why simple life forms existed when Earth was less than a billion years old. Scientists now think that the explanation may be that much more carbon dioxide was present in Earth’s atmosphere when it was young, and that a much stronger greenhouse effect kept Earth warm. (In the greenhouse effect, gases like carbon dioxide or water vapor allow the Sun’s light to come in but do not allow the infrared radiation from the ground to escape back into space, so the temperature near Earth’s surface increases.)

Carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has steadily declined as the Sun has increased in luminosity. As the brighter Sun increases the temperature of Earth, rocks weather faster and react with carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere. The warmer Sun and the weaker greenhouse effect have kept Earth at a nearly constant temperature for most of its life. This remarkable coincidence, which has resulted in fairly stable climatic conditions, has been the key in the development of complex life-forms on our planet.

As a result of changes caused by the buildup of helium in its core, the Sun will continue to increase in luminosity as it grows older, and more and more radiation will reach Earth. For a while, the amount of carbon dioxide will continue to decrease. (Note that this effect counteracts increases in carbon dioxide from human activities, but on a much-too-slow timescale to undo the changes in climate that are likely to occur in the next 100 years.)

Eventually, the heating of Earth will melt the polar caps and increase the evaporation of the oceans. Water vapor is also an efficient greenhouse gas and will more than compensate for the decrease in carbon dioxide. Sooner or later (atmospheric models are not yet good enough to say exactly when, but estimates range from 500 million to 2 billion years), the increased water vapor will cause a runaway greenhouse effect.

About 1 billion years from now, Earth will lose its water vapor. In the upper atmosphere, sunlight will break down water vapor into hydrogen, and the fast-moving hydrogen atoms will escape into outer space. Like Humpty Dumpty, the water molecules cannot be put back together again. Earth will start to resemble the Venus of today, and temperatures will become much too high for life as we know it.

All of this will happen before the Sun even becomes a red giant. Then the bad news really starts. The Sun, as it expands, will swallow Mercury and Venus, and friction with our star’s outer atmosphere will make these planets spiral inward until they are completely vaporized. It is not completely clear whether Earth will escape a similar fate. As described in this chapter, the Sun will lose some of its mass as it becomes a red giant. The gravitational pull of the Sun decreases when it loses mass. The result would be that the diameter of Earth’s orbit would increase (remember Kepler’s third law). However, recent calculations also show that forces due to the tides raised on the Sun by Earth will act in the opposite direction, causing Earth’s orbit to shrink. Thus, many astrophysicists conclude that Earth will be vaporized along with Mercury and Venus. Whether or not this dire prediction is true, there is little doubt that all life on Earth will surely be incinerated. But don’t lose any sleep over this—we are talking about events that will occur billions of years from now.

What then are the prospects for preserving Earth life as we know it? The first strategy you might think of would be to move humanity to a more distant and cooler planet. However, calculations indicate that there are long periods of time (several hundred million years) when no planet is habitable. For example, Earth becomes far too warm for life long before Mars warms up enough.

A better alternative may be to move the entire Earth progressively farther from the Sun. The idea is to use gravity in the same way NASA has used it to send spacecraft to distant planets. When a spacecraft flies near a planet, the planet’s motion can be used to speed up the spacecraft, slow it down, or redirect it. Calculations show that if we were to redirect an asteroid so that it follows just the right orbit between Earth and Jupiter, it could transfer orbital energy from Jupiter to Earth and move Earth slowly outward, pulling us away from the expanding Sun on each flyby. Since we have hundreds of millions of years to change Earth’s orbit, the effect of each flyby need not be large. (Of course, the people directing the asteroid had better get the orbit exactly right and not cause the asteroid to hit Earth.)

It may seem crazy to think about projects to move an entire planet to a different orbit. But remember that we are talking about the distant future. If, by some miracle, human beings are able to get along for all that time and don’t blow ourselves to bits, our technology is likely to be far more sophisticated than it is today. It may also be that if humans survive for hundreds of millions of years, we may spread to planets or habitats around other stars. Indeed, Earth, by then, might be a museum world to which youngsters from other planets return to learn about the origin of our species. It is also possible that evolution will by then have changed us in ways that allow us to survive in very different environments. Wouldn’t it be exciting to see how the story of the story of the human race turns out after all those billions of years?

Footnotes

  • 2 Recall that the force of gravity depends not only on the mass doing the pulling, but also on our distance from the center of gravity. As a red giant star gets a lot bigger, a point on the surface of the star is now farther from the center, and thus has less gravity. That’s why the speed needed to escape the star goes down.
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