Consider that we can’t really take a photo like this of our galaxy. We’re inside it, and space travel has not advanced to the point where we can leave it just yet. There’s no way we can get a camera out to take a picture from this perspective.
Most things in the universe–like stars, planets, and even other galaxies–can be measured using their angular diameters. That is, we use trigonometry to find their actual sizes based on how large they appear to us in the sky.
But that doesn’t work for an object that we’re inside of.
In order measure the size of our own galaxy, early astronomers had to get a bit creative–with variable stars.
Whaddya know…after what seems like a geological age, we’re finally done with stellar evolution! And we’ve covered a truly ridiculous amount of information.
We’ve covered a star’s relatively gentle, humble beginnings within the collapsing cores of giant molecular clouds (or GMCs). We’ve explored how stars begin fusing hydrogen nuclei for fuel and how their interiors work.
We’ve covered how they evolve across the main sequence, and how they eventually exhaust their fuel, lose stability, and expand into giants.
We’ve delved into the way low- and medium-mass stars quietly expel their atmospheres and shrink into inert balls of carbon called white dwarfs. And we’ve watched as massive stars burst apart in brilliant supernova explosions and then collapse into some of the most extreme objects in the universe, neutron stars and black holes.
Those three end states–white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes–are known as compact objects, and we’ve explored them too.
If it all seems super complicated…I understand. But now, just as I did once with types of stars, I’m going to give you an overview to put it all together.
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.
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…
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?
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 🙂
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.
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?