Why Neutron Stars Should Exist

Above is a theoretical rendering of a white dwarf, the collapsed husk of a low-mass or medium-mass star. Interestingly enough, these strange cosmic objects—which begin their existence as intensely hot balls of carbon the size of the Earth—may eventually cool off and crystalize into giant space diamonds.

White dwarfs are made up of free-floating hydrogen and helium nuclei and degenerate electrons—and their mass is supported by the nature of these electrons.

But degenerate electrons, like any other material, have a specific material strength. What happens if they’ve, well…just got too much stuff to support?

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What Exactly are Supernovae?

This is one topic I bet you guys have been looking forward to since I first started posting about stellar evolution. Well, I won’t disappoint you!

In my last post, we covered how a massive star gets to the point of supernova. When it exhausts all the nuclear fuel in its core, iron ash is left behind—which can’t be fused or split for energy. That’s a dead end for the star, and the core begins to freely collapse…

Until a shockwave, originating in the center of the star, pushes outward. It’s stalled at first, but convection as in-falling material bounces off the dense core gives it a boost, and the star bursts apart.

Now, we’ll cover all the ins and outs of these spectacular explosions.

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How Massive Stars Die

When people think of star death, they most often think of supernovae (plural for supernova). So why haven’t I spent the past bunch of posts on star death talking about them?

Because supernovae are not actually the most common fate to await a star. Only a small fraction of the stars in our universe are massive enough to go supernova. Most stars die fairly quietly, gently expelling their outer layers and contracting to form white dwarfs.

No such gentle fate awaits the most massive stars.

But why do massive stars go supernova?

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What About Binary Systems?

In the constellation of Perseus, there is a star named Algol that exists in a binary system. The binary consists of two stars: a massive main-sequence star and a less massive giant.

According to what we’ve explored so far…that doesn’t make any sense.

More massive stars evolve faster than less massive ones. They expand into giants before less massive stars do. In any one binary system out there, we should observe a more massive giant and a less massive main-sequence star, not the other way around.

But the Algol system is not alone in this peculiarity. Over half the stars in the universe are binaries, and in a number of those, the more massive star is still on the main sequence.

Why?

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What are White Dwarfs?

Now that we’re finally talking about white dwarfs, we’re getting into the really cool stuff.

In my last post, we explored planetary nebulae, and we left off with a question: where does the fast wind that forms planetary nebulae come from? Well, remember that planetary nebulae are formed from the atmospheres of medium-mass stars, but there’s still the stellar interior to worry about.

White dwarfs are objects comparable in size to our own Earth. They are the remains of medium-mass stars like our own sun. Often, you can see a white dwarf at the center of a planetary nebula with a large telescope. Together, they form what’s left of a star after it loses stability completely.

But there’s way more to a white dwarf than that…

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What are Planetary Nebulae?

Meet the planetary nebula, one of the universe’s most gorgeous phenomena.

If you’ve ever looked through a telescope, you may have seen one of these before. Through a small telescope, one might look like a little planet—hence the name. But make no mistake, these nebulae have nothing to do with planets, and everything to do with stars.

Up until now, we’ve covered how stars form, evolve, and eventually meet their end. They form out of a giant molecular cloud, or GMC. Eventually one cloud fragments and the cores condense into multiple stars, forming a star cluster.

The star then evolves across the main sequence, runs out of hydrogen fuel, expands into a giant, and begins to fuse helium in its core, which causes the star to contract a little and get hotter.

Then, as the star runs out of helium fuel in its core, it expands into a giant a second time. This is the last time a medium-mass star will expand. It’s also the end of the line for the fuel in its core, since it can’t get hot enough to fuse carbon.

At this point, the star is so big that gravity at the surface is too weak to hold onto its atmosphere, especially in the face of the superwind of radiation pressure from the still-collapsing core.

The result is a planetary nebula…but what exactly is a planetary nebula? What is it made of? Why does it look the way it does?

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How Low-Mass Stars Die

When we talk about star death, we’re not really talking about death. We’re talking about the end of a functioning star. Astronomers tend to personify cosmic objects like stars, saying that they are born and die, when it’s more like they transition into something new.

With stars in particular, there’s two main courses their “life cycles,” such that they are, can take: one for massive stars and one for low-mass stars.

We can further subdivide low-mass star “deaths” into those of red dwarfs—like our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri—and those of medium-mass stars, like the sun.

But before we dive into the final stages of these stellar life cycles, let’s review what kinds of stars we’re talking about here…

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What are Variable Stars?

What if I told you that the “two” stars you see here are actually one and the same?

This star, known as L Carinae after its location in the southern constellation Carina, is actually what we call a variable star. It is fairly bright, and its brightness varies significantly. And it’s not alone.

You might be familiar with a few variable stars. Betelgeuse, the bright giant in Orion’s shoulder, was all the rage among astronomers not too long ago. Polaris, the North Star, is also a variable. So is Algol in Perseus.

We’ve actually talked about one type of variable stars before. A variable star is any star whose brightness varies significantly and repeatedly. That means that eclipsing binaries fall within the definition. Algol is this type of variable star.

Now, though, we’re interested specifically in intrinsic variables, stars whose brightness changes because of something going on internally—not because another object passes in front of them and dims their light similarly to casting a shadow, as is the case with eclipsing binaries.

But…why would a star change in brightness like that?

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Story of a Star Cluster

Meet M13, one of my favorite globular star clusters.

M13, also known as Messier 13 or the Hercules Cluster, is found—surprise surprise—in the constellation Hercules in the northern hemisphere.

The really cool thing about star clusters is that they look just as spectacular through a telescope as they do in a good image—that is, on a clear, dark night with good seeing conditions.

So…why am I showing you a picture of a star cluster? (Besides the fact that they’re gorgeous?)

Well…after all the talk I’ve done of stellar evolution, I know what you’re going to ask me next…how the heck do we know all this?

That’s a very good question—and one that star clusters can answer.

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What Happens After Helium Fusion?

Back in August—sorry I took so long!—we talked about the helium flash, an explosion that occurs within stars when helium nuclei begin to fuse within a degenerate core.

So…this is not what the helium flash would look like.

Even though it’s a powerful explosion, it happens in such a small region in the center of the star that we wouldn’t see it at all, and the star’s outer layers absorb most of the energy from the explosion. I just thought it was a cool picture 🙂

In any case…what happens after the helium flash?

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