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.
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?
Stars are like headlights in a fog bank that’s impossibly thick in some places, and so thin as to be transparent in others. Sometimes, we get lucky enough for starlight to light up the fog. Other times, stars shine straight through it.
That “fog” is the interstellar medium. I’ve covered it in several posts already. We’ve gone over nebulae, the visible evidence of the stuff between the stars. I’ve talked about ways to study the interstellar medium. And I’ve introduced you to cool clouds, the clouds of mostly neutral hydrogen gas.
Now I want to introduce you to the intercloud medium. It’s different from cool HI clouds in that it’s ionized, rather than neutral.
Take a wild guess: how much energy do you think the sun generates?
Think about it. It definitely generates enough energy to power a world.
Humans depend on the photosynthesis of plants, which converts sunlight into energy. And that’s not all. Without energy from the sun, our atmosphere would behave very differently, and so would our oceans.
Everything that moves on Planet Earth does so because it has energy. And a lot of that energy comes from the sun. It doesn’t even stop there—obviously, the sun has plenty of energy to spare, if the recent influx of solar power means anything.
The sun is incredibly powerful. And it’s powerful enough to keep generating that kind of massive energy supply for billions of years.
If this quote really is from Cecilia Payne, then she had the right idea—at least for a female astronomer in the 1920s. Women in science back then faced an uphill battle to get recognized for any discoveries they made, and Payne was no different.
What’s so special about Payne, you might ask? Well, she wasn’t just one of the many “unsung heroes” of modern science. She was the one who figured out what stars are made of.
Yeah, that’s right. She sent a probe to the sun, collected a jar of star stuff, and brought it back to her laboratory…
Um, no, not really. It wasn’t that easy.
In fact, it was very difficult. She had far too many roadblocks than were fair. But she wasn’t out for money or recognition. She was just in it for the science. And science was what she got…
How hot would you say this star is? Take a wild guess.
Well…sorry, but I’m going to stop you for a moment just to make sure we’re all using Kelvins. The Kelvin scale is like the Celsius scale, except water freezes at 273 K instead of 0℃. 0 K is absolute zero, which is purely theoretical and doesn’t exist.
Now can you guess this star’s temperature?
I’ll give you another hint. This is a real photograph, so it’s impossible for this star to be any star other than our sun. How hot do you think our sun is?
Okay…I’ll tell you. It’s about 5800 K, which—for those of you unfamiliar with Kelvins—is about 5527℃. Kinda crazy, huh?
Next question. How do we know this? I mean, it’s not like we stuck a thermometer in the sun’s surface and actually measured it, right?
Everything we know about space comes from radiation.
Now wait just a moment here. That statement explains how astronomy is such a successful field of science—it’s based entirely on the information we can glean from radiation, after all. But how does that make sense?
I mean, it’s one thing to study radiation. It’s quite another thing to study matter, the “stuff” in the universe. How does one have anything to do with the other?
Well…that’s where atoms come in. Radiation does, in fact, have a lot to do with the “stuff” it comes from. And if it weren’t for that basic principle, astronomy as a science wouldn’t work.
Thankfully for astronomers, it does. So what’s the secret, then? What does radiation have to do with matter?
It might, or it might not. If it does, you might recognize it as the periodic table of the elements—more often known as simply the “periodic table.” It’s an ingenious way to organize elements that has worked for scientists for quite some time.
To fully appreciate the ingenuity of the periodic table, I’d have to take you through a few chemistry lessons. Never fear, I have every intention of doing so—later. For now, though, I just want to address enough of the world of atoms to talk about stellar spectra.
That just means the spectrums we get from stars, by the way. (Spectra is plural for spectrum.) And that means…well…we’ll talk about it later. Let’s talk about the different types of atoms first.
This is the periodic table, and it’s pretty much the most important table in all of chemistry.
All the little boxes on this “table” are elements, the simplest form of matter. You literally can’t break these down further. What’s the difference between an element and a substance, you ask?
Okay, well, think of it this way. In my post on matter and its forms, I used water as an example of a substance. Water has its own physical and chemical properties, it’s not a mixture of anything, and no matter how many times you divide it up, you’ll still have the same thing.
But water can be divided up into different things chemically.