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 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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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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Observations of Star Birth


Astronomers have a pretty solid idea of how stars are born. They begin within the dense, cold dust of an interstellar cloud such as this one. They heat up and get more luminous as they contract, and then drop in luminosity as they continue to contract steadily toward the main sequence.

I’m going to spend at least the next ten or so posts talking about the main-sequence portion of a star’s life cycle. Basically, we’re talking about a star’s adulthood.

You know what, while we’re at it, why don’t I draw up an analogy between a star’s life cycle and that of a human:

  1. When a human is a mere fetus developing within its mother, a star is a protostar.
  2. We say a star has been “born” when it crosses the birth line—basically, satisfies certain expectations for its temperature and luminosity for its specific mass—and becomes visible.
  3. After that, a star steadily approaches adulthood. A “child” star is referred to as a Young Stellar Object (YSO) or a pre-main-sequence star.
  4. An “adult” star is one that has begun to fuse atomic nuclei in its core for fuel. At this stage, the star has reached the main sequence.
  5. When a star runs out of fuel, it leaves the main sequence. We’ll cover this evolution in depth very soon.

I explained this process in depth in my last post. But I also posed the question: how do astronomers know all this? Where’s the evidence? Continue reading

The Story of a Newborn Star


What happens when a star is born?

A couple of posts ago, I explained how a protostar forms out of a dense cloud core within the interstellar medium. But…wait. What exactly is a protostar again?

A protostar forms when one dense core of an interstellar cloud condenses enough so that gravity can overcome the repulsive forces between the particles, and collapse the cloud. A very cool object then forms in the cloud’s depths, visible only at infrared wavelengths—known as a protostar.

A protostar is compressed enough to be opaque no matter the wavelength—that is, no radiation can pass through it due to its density. However, what separates it from a “true” star is that it’s not compressed enough to generate energy by nuclear fusion.

Astronomers also define a protostar specifically as a young star that’s not yet detectable at visible wavelengths. In other words, protostars emit only longer-wavelength light—that is, infrared and radio waves.

You’d think that becoming a true star would be the next step for a protostar. But that’s not quite how it happens… Continue reading

The Orion Nebula: A Stellar Nursery

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One of my favorite objects to show people at astronomy outreach events is the Orion Nebula. Not only does it reside within a fairly well-known constellation, but it’s a gorgeous sight to see with a good telescope.

There’s no time like the present up here in the northern hemisphere. Orion is a winter constellation and rises high in the sky this time of year. Not to mention, as a stellar nursery, talking about the Orion Nebula follows on perfectly from my last couple posts on star formation.

If you’ve ever seen the Orion Nebula through a small telescope, you’re probably wondering what all the rage is about. It mostly just looks like a bluish haze around a star—like the telescope operator didn’t tune the focus quite right.

But if that’s all you’ve seen, I promise you, you’re missing out… Continue reading

Star Mass and Density


What makes a star shine bright?

Much earlier on—probably months ago now—I explained how something called the proton-proton chain generates massive amounts of energy within stars, and enables them to fuel whole solar systems. That’s the battery of a star.

We’ll address the proton-proton chain later, when we start talking about star life cycles. We’ve still got some talk about nebulas and interstellar space to go before we get that far. For now, what’s important is that the proton-proton chain depends on high density.

That is, stars will have the strongest batteries if they have very dense interiors. It doesn’t really matter how dense their middles and atmospheres are. But conditions in their cores must be very dense.

You’ll find, if you study stars closely, that there is a definite relation between their densities, masses, and luminosities. Continue reading

The Average Star


What the heck is the average star like?

We’ve talked about a lot of stars over the past few weeks. We’ve discovered the vast distances between the stars, looked more closely at what really makes a star bright, and covered all kinds of ways to classify stars—from their spectral type to their luminosity class.

Most importantly, we’ve looked at the H-R diagram, the diagram that classifies stars by their color, temperature, composition, and luminosity…and relates those properties with many other features stars have.

We know what kinds of stars are out there. We know they range from thousands of times smaller than the sun to thousands of times larger. We know they range from desperately faint to incredibly luminous. We know they come in all the colors of the rainbow.

But how many blue stars are there? How many small stars are there? Are most of them small, or are there about the same number of small stars as large ones? Continue reading

Star Types Demystified


By now, I’ve introduced you to a lot of different ways to classify stars.

Months ago, I talked about the different spectral classes—O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. Even before that, I told you about apparent visual magnitude, our ranking system for how bright stars appear to the naked eye.

More recently, we explored absolute visual magnitude and the related absolute bolometric magnitude and luminosity. All these are related to a star’s actual brightness, not just how bright they seem to be from Earth.

And last but not least, we talked about the H-R diagram and how to rank stars by their luminosity classification.

In short, it may seem like sorting stars is a complicated business. But it’s not really. And here, I intend to give you an overview to put all this together. Continue reading