Chapter 13: Star Birth and Death

Chapter 1
How Science Works

  • The Scientific Method
  • Evidence
  • Measurements
  • Units and the Metric System
  • Measurement Errors
  • Estimation
  • Dimensions
  • Mass, Length, and Time
  • Observations and Uncertainty
  • Precision and Significant Figures
  • Errors and Statistics
  • Scientific Notation
  • Ways of Representing Data
  • Logic
  • Mathematics
  • Geometry
  • Algebra
  • Logarithms
  • Testing a Hypothesis
  • Case Study of Life on Mars
  • Theories
  • Systems of Knowledge
  • The Culture of Science
  • Computer Simulations
  • Modern Scientific Research
  • Astronomy
  • Astronomy as a Science
  • A Scale Model of Space
  • A Scale Model of Time
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 2
Early Astronomy

  • The Night Sky
  • Motions in the Sky
  • Navigation
  • Constellations and Seasons
  • The Seasons
  • The Magnitude System
  • Angular Size and Linear Size
  • Phases of the Moon
  • Eclipses
  • Aurora
  • Dividing Time
  • Solar Calendars
  • History of Astronomy
  • Stonehenge
  • Ancient Observatories
  • Counting and Measurement
  • Astrology
  • Greek Astronomy
  • Aristotle and Geocentric Cosmology
  • Aristarchus and Heliocentric Cosmology
  • The Dark Ages
  • Arab Astronomy
  • Indian Astronomy
  • Chinese Astronomy
  • Mayan Astronomy
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 3
The Copernican Revolution

  • Ptolemy and the Geocentric Model
  • The Renaissance
  • Copernicus and the Heliocentric Model
  • Tycho Brahe
  • Johannes Kepler
  • Elliptical Orbits
  • Kepler's Laws
  • Galileo Galilei
  • The Trial of Galileo
  • Isaac Newton
  • Newton's Law of Gravity
  • Periodic Processes
  • The Plurality of Worlds
  • The Birth of Modern Science
  • Layout of the Solar System
  • The Scale of the Solar System
  • The Idea of Space Exploration
  • Orbits
  • History of Space Exploration
  • Moon Landings
  • International Space Station
  • Manned versus Robotic Missions
  • Commercial Space Flight
  • Future of Space Exploration
  • Living in Space
  • Moon, Mars, and Beyond
  • Societies in Space
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 4
Matter and Energy in the Universe

  • Matter and Energy
  • Rutherford and Atomic Structure
  • Early Greek Physics
  • Dalton and Atoms
  • The Periodic Table
  • The Structure of the Atom
  • Energy
  • Heat and Temperature
  • Potential and Kinetic Energy
  • Conservation of Energy
  • Velocity of Gas Particles
  • States of Matter
  • Thermodynamics
  • Heat Transfer
  • Thermal Radiation
  • Wien's Law
  • Radiation from Planets and Stars
  • Internal Heat in Planets and Stars
  • Periodic Processes
  • Random Processes
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 5
The Earth-Moon System

  • Earth and Moon
  • Early Estimates of Earth's Age
  • How the Earth Cooled
  • Ages Using Radioactivity
  • Radioactive Half-Life
  • Ages of the Earth and Moon
  • Internal Heat and Geological Activity
  • Internal Structure of the Earth and Moon
  • Basic Rock Types
  • Layers of the Earth and Moon
  • Origin of Water on Earth
  • The Evolving Earth
  • Plate Tectonics
  • Volcanoes
  • Geological Processes
  • Impact Craters
  • The Geological Timescale
  • Mass Extinctions
  • Evolution and the Cosmic Environment
  • Earth's Atmosphere and Oceans
  • Weather Circulation
  • Environmental Change on Earth
  • The Earth-Moon System
  • Geological History of the Moon
  • Tidal Forces
  • Calculating Tidal Forces
  • Effects of Tidal Forces
  • Historical Studies of the Moon
  • Lunar Surface
  • Ice on the Moon
  • Origin of the Moon
  • Humans on the Moon
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 6
The Terrestrial Planets

  • Why Study Other Planets?
  • The Planets
  • The Terrestrial Planets
  • Mercury
  • Mercury's Orbit
  • Mercury's Surface
  • Venus
  • Volcanism on Venus
  • Venus and the Greenhouse Effect
  • Tectonics on Venus
  • Exploring Venus
  • Mars in Myth and Legend
  • Early Studies of Mars
  • A Close-Up View of Mars
  • Modern Views of Mars
  • Missions to Mars
  • Geology of Mars
  • Water on Mars
  • Polar Caps of Mars
  • Climate Change on Mars
  • Terraforming Mars
  • Life on Mars
  • The Moons of Mars
  • Martian Meteorites
  • Comparative Planetology
  • Incidence of Craters
  • Counting Craters
  • Counting Statistics
  • Internal Heat and Geological Activity
  • Magnetic Fields of the Terrestrial Planets
  • Mountains and Rifts
  • Radar Studies of Planetary Surfaces
  • Laser Ranging and Altimetry
  • Gravity and Atmospheres
  • Normal Atmospheric Composition
  • The Significance of Oxygen
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 7
The Giant Planets and Their Moons

  • The Gas Giant Planets
  • Atmospheres of the Gas Giant Planets
  • Clouds and Weather on Gas Giant Planets
  • Internal Structure of the Gas Giant Planets
  • Thermal Radiation from Gas Giant Planets
  • Life on Gas Giant Planets?
  • Why Giant Planets are Giant
  • Gas Laws
  • Ring Systems of the Giant Planets
  • Structure Within Ring Systems
  • The Origin of Ring Particles
  • The Roche Limit
  • Resonance and Harmonics
  • Effects of Tidal Forces
  • Satellite Systems of Gas Giant Planets
  • Geology of Large Satellites
  • The Voyager Mission
  • Jupiter
  • Jupiter's Galilean Moons
  • Jupiter's Ganymede
  • Jupiter's Europa
  • Jupiter's Callisto
  • Jupiter's Io
  • Volcanoes on Io
  • Saturn
  • Cassini Mission to Saturn
  • Saturn's Titan
  • Saturn's Enceladus
  • The Discoveries of Uranus and Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Uranus' Miranda
  • Neptune
  • Neptune's Triton
  • Pluto
  • The Discovery of Pluto
  • Is Pluto a Planet?
  • Dwarf Planets
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 8
Interplanetary Bodies

  • Interplanetary Bodies
  • Comets
  • Early Observations of Comets
  • Structure of the Comet Nucleus
  • Comet Chemistry
  • Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt
  • Kuiper Belt
  • Comet Orbits
  • Life Story of Comets
  • Quaoar and Outer Solar System Bodies
  • Meteors and Meteor Showers
  • Gravitational Perturbations
  • Asteroids
  • Surveys for Earth Crossing Asteroids
  • Asteroid Shapes
  • Composition of Asteroids
  • Introduction to Meteorites
  • Origin of Meteorites
  • Types of Meteorites
  • The Tunguska Event
  • The Threat from Space
  • Probability and Impacts
  • Impact on Jupiter
  • Interplanetary Opportunity
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 9
How Planetary Systems Form

  • Formation of the Solar System
  • Early History of the Solar System
  • Conservation of Angular Momentum
  • Angular Momentum in a Collapsing Cloud
  • Helmholtz Contraction
  • Safronov and Planet Formation
  • Collapse of the Solar Nebula
  • Why the Solar System Collapsed
  • From Planetesimals to Planets
  • Accretion and Solar System Bodies
  • Differentiation
  • Planetary Magnetic Fields
  • The Origin of Satellites
  • Solar System Debris and Formation
  • Gradual Evolution and a Few Catastrophies
  • Chaos and Determinism
  • Extrasolar Planets
  • Discoveries of Extrasolar Planets
  • Doppler Detection of Extrasolar Planets
  • Transit Detection of Extrasolar Planets
  • The Kepler Mission
  • Direct Detection of Extrasolar Planets
  • Properties of Extrasolar Planets
  • Implications of Extrasolar Planet Surveys
  • Future Detection of Extrasolar Planets
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 10
Detecting Radiation from Space

  • Observing the Universe
  • Radiation and the Universe
  • The Nature of Light
  • The Electromagnetic Spectrum
  • Properties of Waves
  • Waves and Particles
  • How Radiation Travels
  • Properties of Electromagnetic Radiation
  • The Doppler Effect
  • Invisible Radiation
  • Thermal Spectra
  • The Quantum Theory
  • The Uncertainty Principle
  • Spectral Lines
  • Emission Lines and Bands
  • Absorption and Emission Spectra
  • Kirchoff's Laws
  • Astronomical Detection of Radiation
  • The Telescope
  • Optical Telescopes
  • Optical Detectors
  • Adaptive Optics
  • Image Processing
  • Digital Information
  • Radio Telescopes
  • Telescopes in Space
  • Hubble Space Telescope
  • Interferometry
  • Collecting Area and Resolution
  • Frontier Observatories
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 11
Our Sun: The Nearest Star

  • The Sun
  • The Nearest Star
  • Properties of the Sun
  • Kelvin and the Sun's Age
  • The Sun's Composition
  • Energy From Atomic Nuclei
  • Mass-Energy Conversion
  • Examples of Mass-Energy Conversion
  • Energy From Nuclear Fission
  • Energy From Nuclear Fusion
  • Nuclear Reactions in the Sun
  • The Sun's Interior
  • Energy Flow in the Sun
  • Collisions and Opacity
  • Solar Neutrinos
  • Solar Oscillations
  • The Sun's Atmosphere
  • Solar Chromosphere and Corona
  • Sunspots
  • The Solar Cycle
  • The Solar Wind
  • Effects of the Sun on the Earth
  • Cosmic Energy Sources
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 12
Properties of Stars

  • Stars
  • Star Names
  • Star Properties
  • The Distance to Stars
  • Apparent Brightness
  • Absolute Brightness
  • Measuring Star Distances
  • Stellar Parallax
  • Spectra of Stars
  • Spectral Classification
  • Temperature and Spectral Class
  • Stellar Composition
  • Stellar Motion
  • Stellar Luminosity
  • The Size of Stars
  • Stefan-Boltzmann Law
  • Stellar Mass
  • Hydrostatic Equilibrium
  • Stellar Classification
  • The Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram
  • Volume and Brightness Selected Samples
  • Stars of Different Sizes
  • Understanding the Main Sequence
  • Stellar Structure
  • Stellar Evolution
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 13
Star Birth and Death

  • Star Birth and Death
  • Understanding Star Birth and Death
  • Cosmic Abundance of Elements
  • Star Formation
  • Molecular Clouds
  • Young Stars
  • T Tauri Stars
  • Mass Limits for Stars
  • Brown Dwarfs
  • Young Star Clusters
  • Cauldron of the Elements
  • Main Sequence Stars
  • Nuclear Reactions in Main Sequence Stars
  • Main Sequence Lifetimes
  • Evolved Stars
  • Cycles of Star Life and Death
  • The Creation of Heavy Elements
  • Red Giants
  • Horizontal Branch and Asymptotic Giant Branch Stars
  • Variable Stars
  • Magnetic Stars
  • Stellar Mass Loss
  • The Laws of Thermodynamics
  • Entropy
  • White Dwarfs
  • Supernovae
  • Seeing the Death of a Star
  • Supernova 1987A
  • Neutron Stars and Pulsars
  • Einstein's Theory of Relativity
  • Black Holes
  • Properties of Black Holes
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 14
The Milky Way

  • The Distribution of Stars in Space
  • Stellar Companions
  • Binary Star Systems
  • Binary and Multiple Stars
  • Mass Transfer in Binaries
  • Binaries and Stellar Mass
  • Nova and Supernova
  • Exotic Binary Systems
  • How Multiple Stars Form
  • Environments of Stars
  • The Interstellar Medium
  • Effects of Interstellar Material on Starlight
  • Structure of the Interstellar Medium
  • Dust Extinction and Reddening
  • Groups of Stars
  • Open Star Clusters
  • Globular Star Clusters
  • Distances to Groups of Stars
  • Ages of Groups of Stars
  • Layout of the Milky Way
  • William Herschel
  • Isotropy and Anisotropy
  • Mapping the Milky Way
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 15
Galaxies

  • The Milky Way Galaxy
  • Mapping the Galaxy Disk
  • Spiral Structure in Galaxies
  • Mass of the Milky Way
  • Dark Matter in the Milky Way
  • Galaxy Mass
  • The Galactic Center
  • Stellar Populations
  • Formation of the Milky Way
  • Galaxies
  • Shapley, Curtis and Hubble
  • Distances to Galaxies
  • Classifying Galaxies
  • Spiral Galaxies
  • Elliptical Galaxies
  • Lenticular Galaxies
  • Dwarf and Irregular Galaxies
  • Overview of Galaxy Structures
  • The Local Group
  • Light Travel Time
  • Galaxy Size and Luminosity
  • Mass to Light Ratios
  • Dark Matter in Galaxies
  • Gravity of Many Bodies
  • Galaxy Evolution
  • Galaxy Interactions
  • Galaxy Formation
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 16
The Expanding Universe

  • Galaxy Redshifts
  • The Expanding Universe
  • Cosmological Redshifts
  • The Hubble Relation
  • Relating Redshift and Distance
  • Galaxy Distance Indicators
  • Size and Age of the Universe
  • The Hubble Constant
  • Large Scale Structure
  • Galaxy Clustering
  • Clusters of Galaxies
  • Overview of Large Scale Structure
  • Dark Matter on the Largest Scales
  • The Most Distant Galaxies
  • Black Holes in Nearby Galaxies
  • Active Galaxies
  • The Discovery of Quasars
  • Quasars
  • Gravitational Lensing
  • Properties of Quasars
  • The Quasar Power Source
  • Quasars as Probes of the Universe
  • Star Formation History of the Universe
  • Expansion History of the Universe
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 17
Cosmology

  • Cosmology
  • Early Cosmologies
  • Relativity and Cosmology
  • The Big Bang Model
  • The Cosmological Principle
  • Universal Expansion
  • Cosmic Nucleosynthesis
  • Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
  • Discovery of the Microwave Background Radiation
  • Measuring Space Curvature
  • Cosmic Evolution
  • Evolution of Structure
  • Mean Cosmic Density
  • Critical Density
  • Dark Matter and Dark Energy
  • Age of the Universe
  • Precision Cosmology
  • Fate of the Universe
  • Alternatives to the Big Bang Model
  • Space-Time
  • Particles and Radiation
  • The Very Early Universe
  • Mass and Energy in the Early Universe
  • Matter and Antimatter
  • The Forces of Nature
  • Fine-Tuning in Cosmology
  • The Anthropic Principle in Cosmology
  • String Theory and Cosmology
  • The Multiverse
  • The Limits of Knowledge
  • Questions
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 18
Life On Earth

  • Nature of Life
  • Chemistry of Life
  • Molecules of Life
  • The Origin of Life on Earth
  • Origin of Complex Molecules
  • Miller-Urey Experiment
  • Pre-RNA World
  • RNA World
  • From Molecules to Cells
  • Metabolism
  • Anaerobes
  • Extremophiles
  • Thermophiles
  • Psychrophiles
  • Xerophiles
  • Halophiles
  • Barophiles
  • Acidophiles
  • Alkaliphiles
  • Radiation Resistant Biology
  • Importance of Water for Life
  • Hydrothermal Systems
  • Silicon versus Carbon
  • DNA and Heredity
  • Life as Digital Information
  • Synthetic Biology
  • Life in a Computer
  • Natural Selection
  • Tree Of Life
  • Evolution and Intelligence
  • Culture and Technology
  • The Gaia Hypothesis
  • Life and the Cosmic Environment
  • Chapter Quiz

Chapter 19
Life in the Universe

  • Life in the Universe
  • Astrobiology
  • Life Beyond Earth
  • Sites for Life
  • Complex Molecules in Space
  • Life in the Solar System
  • Lowell and Canals on Mars
  • Implications of Life on Mars
  • Extreme Environments in the Solar System
  • Rare Earth Hypothesis
  • Are We Alone?
  • UFOs
  • The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
  • The Drake Equation
  • The History of SETI
  • Recent SETI Projects
  • Recognizing a Message
  • The Best Way to Communicate
  • The Fermi Question
  • The Anthropic Principle
  • Where Are They?
  • Chapter Quiz

Mass Limits for Stars


What factors determine the range of possible star masses? When astronomers carry out surveys, they find stars that span a factor of a thousand in mass. Mass is the most fundamental property of a star, determining its lifetime, method of energy production, and eventual fate. The most massive stars are about a hundred times the Sun's mass and the least massive stars are about a tenth of the Sun's mass. Yet gravity can cause the collapse of gas clouds with an enormous range of masses. Why are there not enormous stars a thousand or more times the mass of the Sun? And why are there not pint-sized stars one hundredth the mass of the Sun or less? It turns out that physics limits the range of star masses.

Eight hundred light-years away in the Orion constellation, a gigantic murky cloud called the "Witch Head" nebula is brewing baby stars. The stellar infants are revealed as pink dots in this image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Wisps of green in the cloud are carbon-rich molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are found on barbecue grills and in automobile exhaust on Earth. This image was obtained as part of the Spitzer Space Telescope Research Program for Teachers and Students, involving high school teachers and their students from across the United States. The infrared image is a three-color composite, in which light with a wavelength of 4.5 microns is blue, 8.0-micron light is green, and 24-micron light is red.

There are physical reasons for the mass limits on stars. If a cloud is dense and cool enough to contract but has less than about 8% of a solar mass, it will contract but never develop a high enough central pressure and temperature to reach a main sequence state (i.e. no extensive fusion of hydrogen). Protostars from about 0.01 to 0.08 solar mass may heat up temporarily due to their gravitational contraction and may even develop a few feeble nuclear reactions involving the creation of deuterium, but eventually they fade without settling on the main sequence for any appreciable time. Smaller objects, including even Jupiter-sized planets, also warm up temporarily due to their gravitational contraction; they may glow for a while in the infrared, but they fade and they don't have enough gravity for any nuclear reactions to start.

Eta Carinae is about 100 times more massive than the Sun

The definition of the upper bound on star mass is a subject of active research. Since massive stars are very rare, the few examples known are very far from the Earth. In most cases, the mass is inferred from limited observations and a model for the star, so it's quite uncertain. There are a handful of stars with inferred masses 200 to 500 times the mass of the Sun. The most massive star with a reliable mass estimate, because it is in a binary system, is HD 15558, at 150 times the mass of the Sun. Why doesn't a star form if the mass is too high? If the cloud is dense enough to contract but is more than about 100 solar masses, the contraction is violent and produces an extremely high central temperature and pressure. Under these conditions, so much energy is generated inside the new star that the star is very luminous and may blow itself apart almost immediately without spending much time on the main sequence. This rapid destruction leads to some of the most spectacular events in the night sky. Explosions of massive stars explain many features of our starry surroundings.


Author: Chris Impey
Editor/Contributor: Erik Brogt