Stellar Evolution Demystified

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.

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What Exactly are Supernovae?

This is one topic I bet you guys have been looking forward to since I first started posting about stellar evolution. Well, I won’t disappoint you!

In my last post, we covered how a massive star gets to the point of supernova. When it exhausts all the nuclear fuel in its core, iron ash is left behind—which can’t be fused or split for energy. That’s a dead end for the star, and the core begins to freely collapse…

Until a shockwave, originating in the center of the star, pushes outward. It’s stalled at first, but convection as in-falling material bounces off the dense core gives it a boost, and the star bursts apart.

Now, we’ll cover all the ins and outs of these spectacular explosions.

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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 About Binary Systems?

In the constellation of Perseus, there is a star named Algol that exists in a binary system. The binary consists of two stars: a massive main-sequence star and a less massive giant.

According to what we’ve explored so far…that doesn’t make any sense.

More massive stars evolve faster than less massive ones. They expand into giants before less massive stars do. In any one binary system out there, we should observe a more massive giant and a less massive main-sequence star, not the other way around.

But the Algol system is not alone in this peculiarity. Over half the stars in the universe are binaries, and in a number of those, the more massive star is still on the main sequence.

Why?

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What are White Dwarfs?

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.

But there’s way more to a white dwarf than that…

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What are Planetary Nebulae?

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.

Up until now, we’ve covered how stars form, evolve, and eventually meet their end. They form out of a giant molecular cloud, or GMC. Eventually one cloud fragments and the cores condense into multiple stars, forming a star cluster.

The star then evolves across the main sequence, runs out of hydrogen fuel, expands into a giant, and begins to fuse helium in its core, which causes the star to contract a little and get hotter.

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?

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How Low-Mass Stars Die

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…

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