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 Goes On Inside a Star?

Our sun is undoubtedly the star we know the best. It’s only 93 million miles away—which might seem far, but isn’t that large a distance when you realize that the nearest neighboring star is a whole 4.3 light-years away.

As in, it takes light—yeah, that same stuff that hits the ground from your flashlight in a split second—a whole 4.3 years to get here.

We’re pretty familiar with our star’s interior. We know it produces most of its energy in its core, a relatively small but very hot region at its center. We also know that energy then radiates outward until it hits the convective layer.

There, the energy gets stuck in circulation for a bit until it finally manages to leave the sun’s surface.

But…how normal is that? Is it the same for all stars, or just the sun?

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Our Sun: Helioseismology

sun photosphere

We can’t see below the surface of the sun.

That makes sense, really. We can’t see below the surface of the Earth, either—we have to get creative if we want to find out what goes on below the crust.

In the sun’s case, we can’t see below its photosphere because the gases within are so dense, light can’t escape. And we depend on light to see anything.

So…if we can’t see inside the sun, how do we study it? Continue reading

Our Sun: The Photosphere

sun photosphere.jpg

Recognize this?

You might, if you’ve ever seen the sun through a telescope before. What you’re seeing is the photosphere, the layer of the sun whose light reaches Earth. This is the only layer you’ll ever see, without the aid of a solar eclipse.

Wait a second…what do I mean, layers? I mean, I know what a layer is, but what kind of layers does the sun have?

Well, it’s got a few, just like the Earth. Continue reading