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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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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The Adult Life of a Star

Stars are like cars. They need fuel to go. And also like cars, they don’t have an infinite supply.

But here’s where the metaphor breaks down. They can never refuel.

Yup. That’s right. For their entire lives, stars are stuck with only the amount of fuel they formed with. They can’t get more.

What happens when you’re driving, and you run out of gas?

Well, if you can’t refuel, you’re gonna have to call a tow truck. But stars don’t have tow trucks, and for them, it’s not a matter of moving or not—it’s a matter of life and death, such as it is.

But how does that work?

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Stars: The Limits of “Normal”

How big—or small—can a star get?

As with most questions in astronomy, the answer to that is not definitive. But stellar models can give us a pretty good idea.

Mathematical models of stars tell us that their life—or, to use a less personifying term, function—depends on the balance between two opposing forces: internal pressure and gravity.

Stars produce energy to function. They don’t just do this to light up our skies and provide for life on their orbiting worlds. They need to produce energy to constantly support the weight of their own mass.

The more massive stars are, the more energy they need to produce—and the reverse is true too. There has to be a balance.

But is there a limit? Is there a point where balance is impossible?

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What is a “Normal” Star?

If we were talking about people, I’d say there’s no such thing as a “normal” person. We’re all weird in our own way—that’s what makes us unique and ourselves.

However, there’s such a thing as a functional human—a human with a combination of functional organ systems and/or prosthetics that makes daily life navigable. And just as no star is exactly alike, there are functional stars.

Nature makes mistakes all the time. It is not intelligent—it doesn’t know the best way to do anything. It doesn’t know the path of least resistance or least effort. It just tries everything at random, and we get to observe what happens.

A “normal” star is what happens when nature stumbles upon the right conditions. But…what does that mean?

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