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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How Were Atoms Discovered?

Welcome to my fourth “Science Answers” post! If you have a question, you can ask it in the comments here, or ask it in an email. Or find me on Facebook!

Q: (1) How did scientists find elements in the first place? Could there be more undiscovered elements?
(2) How did scientists create the periodic table?
(3) How do we know that everything is made up of atoms, when atoms are so small that they can’t even reflect light (a necessity for seeing them)?
(asked by Mukesh Garbyal)

Really good questions! I was asked these in a comment on my post “Types of Atoms,” and chose to answer them in a post of their own.

Let’s take this apart. I actually want to address the third part of the question first, since it contains a misconception: atoms can reflect light. Their interaction with light is actually why we can see anything in the world.

How?

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Helium Ignition in Stars

When I first began learning about stars, I expected them to be violent and chaotic places. And to an extent, they certainly are.

Pressures are unbelievably high in their cores—high enough to smash protons together, and this is no small feat. And near their surfaces, magnetic field loops twist and tangle and a number of eruptions disrupt satellite function on Earth from time to time.

Beyond the obvious, though, stars are actually surprisingly…peaceful.

While stable, they only produce enough energy to sustain their own mass. Their way of maintaining homeostasis is beautiful in its simplicity.

But this can’t last forever. Eventually, stars exhaust their hydrogen fuel. Their cores begin to contract and their outer envelope expands to enormous proportions.

What’s next for a star—and why?

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What Happens in an Expanding Star’s Core?

Depending on their mass, stars can remain stable for millions and even billions of years. The most massive stars live for “only” about 10 million years, but models predict that the least massive live for much longer—longer than cosmologists believe the universe has existed.

As long as stars are stable, they exist on the “main sequence.” That’s just a fancy word for the best balance between temperature and mass. For a while now, we’ve been exploring the main sequence in depth, and I’ve shown you how stars eventually lose stability and “leave” the main sequence.

As stars exhaust their fuel, their internal structures change drastically. Their cores contract, but their outer layers are forced to expand, and they become giants. You’d think the next thing we’d cover would be what happens to these giant stars, right?

Well…not quite! At this point, something downright weird is going on in their cores, and it’s well worth a closer look…

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How a Star Expands

Well, everyone, look who’s back!

For those of you who are not signed up for my newsletter, I’m sorry I’ve been away forever—life happened. It’s been a very rough three months. I hope you’re all doing well in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I know it’s pretty tough right now, but we’ll pull through. Hang in there! 🙂

And now, for some long-awaited astronomy…

Meet Betelgeuse, a bright star in the winter constellation Orion.

Betelgeuse is a cool red supergiant that we’ll talk about a lot more in just a couple weeks, when we cover variable stars. Not too long ago, it was the height of excitement among astronomers. No one was sure why it…well…appeared to be dimming.

Yeah. Like a lightbulb. It was literally getting fainter—considerably fainter.

It’s pretty normal for Betelgeuse, like any other variable star, to fluctuate in brightness over time, but it was doing something downright weird. We’ll explore what was going on with it soon enough.

For now, let’s take a look at why Betelgeuse, as a supergiant, is so darn big.

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