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
  • The Scope of Astronomy
  • Astronomy as a Science
  • A Scale Model of Space
  • A Scale Model of Time
  • Questions

Chapter 2
Early Astronomy

  • The Night Sky
  • Motions in the Sky
  • Navigation
  • Constellations and Seasons
  • Cause of the Seasons
  • The Magnitude System
  • Angular Size and Linear Size
  • Phases of the Moon
  • Eclipses
  • Auroras
  • Dividing Time
  • Solar and Lunar 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 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
  • The Plurality of Worlds
  • The Birth of Modern Science
  • Layout of the Solar System
  • 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 4
Matter and Energy in the Universe

  • Matter and Energy
  • Rutherford and Atomic Structure
  • Early Greek Physics
  • Dalton and Atoms
  • The Periodic Table
  • Structure of the Atom
  • Energy
  • Heat and Temperature
  • Potential and Kinetic Energy
  • Conservation of Energy
  • Velocity of Gas Particles
  • States of Matter
  • Thermodynamics
  • Entropy
  • Laws of 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 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
  • 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
  • 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 6
The Terrestrial Planets

  • Studying 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
  • Mars Close-Up
  • 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 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
  • Tidal Forces in the Solar System
  • Moons of Gas Giant Planets
  • Geology of Large Moons
  • The Voyager Missions
  • 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
  • Discovery of Uranus and Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Uranus' Miranda
  • Neptune
  • Neptune's Triton
  • Pluto
  • The Discovery of Pluto
  • Pluto as a Dwarf Planet
  • Dwarf Planets
  • Questions

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
  • The Largest Kuiper Belt Objects
  • 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 9
Planet Formation and Exoplanets

  • 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 Exoplanets
  • Doppler Detection of Exoplanets
  • Transit Detection of Exoplanets
  • The Kepler Mission
  • Direct Detection of Exoplanets
  • Properties of Exoplanets
  • Implications of Exoplanet Surveys
  • Future Detection of Exoplanets
  • Questions

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 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 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 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
  • White Dwarfs
  • Supernovae
  • Seeing the Death of a Star
  • Supernova 1987A
  • Neutron Stars and Pulsars
  • Special Theory of Relativity
  • General Theory of Relativity
  • Black Holes
  • Properties of Black Holes
  • Questions

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
  • Gamma Ray Bursts
  • 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 15

  • 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
  • Black Hole in the Galactic Center
  • Stellar Populations
  • Formation of the Milky Way
  • Galaxies
  • The Shapley-Curtis Debate
  • Edwin 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 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
  • Radio Galaxies
  • The Discovery of Quasars
  • Quasars
  • Types of 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 17

  • 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
  • The Future of the Contents of the Universe
  • 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 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 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?
  • Unidentified Flying Objects or 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?

Nuclear Reactions in Main Sequence Stars

Schematic of the proton-proton chain nuclear fusion reaction

Studies of our own main sequence star, the Sun, reveal that its energy comes from a series of nuclear reactions called the proton-proton chain. This reaction has great importance for stellar evolution

1H + 1H → 2H + e+ + neutrino

2H + 1H → 3He + photon

3He + 3He → 4He + 1H + 1H + photon

It takes a typical proton tens of millions of years to take the first step in this chain. The second step occurs very quickly. The final step takes several million years. The timescale for any nuclear reaction chain is set by its slowest step. Imagine the process of growing vegetables: planting the seeds takes a few minutes, waiting for the vegetables to grow can take weeks or months, and harvesting them can take minutes. Even though some steps in the process are fast, in the end, we would say it takes weeks or months to grow vegetables. Each passage through the proton-proton chain liberates a tiny amount of mass-energy since the helium nucleus weighs less than the sum of the four protons. Energy emerges in three forms: neutrinos that flee the Sun's core at the speed of light, protons that participate in a new round of fusion, and photons that percolate through the Sun (still at the speed of light) until they leave the Sun's surface as visible light.

The proton-proton chain is the primary energy-producing process not only inside the Sun but also inside all main sequence stars less massive than about 1.5 solar masses. This reaction dominates if the central temperatures are less than about 15 million K. Since most main sequence stars have low mass, we see that the great majority of stars are using the lightest element to build the second-lightest element. This accounts for the highest peak in the cosmic abundance of elements.

Overview of the CNO cycle

In main-sequence stars more massive than about 1.5 solar masses, where interior temperatures are higher than about 15 million Kelvin, another reaction series dominates in producing energy. This is the carbon cycle, sometimes also called the CNO cycle to reflect the involvement of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. The reactions are as follows:

12C + 1H → 13N + photon

13N → 13C + e+ + neutrino

13C + 1H → 14N + photon

14N + 1H → 15O + photon

15O → 15N + e+ + neutrino

15N + 1H → 12C + 4He

Although it looks much more complicated, the net result is that hydrogen atoms are consumed to produce helium-4 atoms with an associated release of energy. In a sense, carbon acts as a catalyst (a stimulant of change), because carbon-12 reappears at the end of the cycle to be used again in the first reaction of a subsequent cycle. Since carbon has six protons, it offers a fierce electrical resistance to fusion with another proton. Consequently, the carbon cycle requires a high temperature to operate, which can only be found in the core of a more massive star. For stars like the Sun, the carbon cycle provides less than 10% of the energy release.

In main-sequence stars both the proton-proton chain and the CNO cycle are active, but depending on the core temperature one or the other of these reactions consumes the majority of the hydrogen in the core. Major structural changes occur as the hydrogen is used up. How long do stars live? If we think of hydrogen as fuel, then the simplest estimate of a lifetime is to look at the size of the fuel tank. We might start by assuming that stars use their fuel at the same rate. The most massive stars have 100 times the mass of the Sun so they should last 100 times as long on the main sequence. The least massive stars have 1/10 the mass of the Sun, so they should last 1/10 the time

Stars do not use their fuel at the same rate. Since the energy comes from converting mass into energy, luminosity is a measure of how fast a star uses its fuel. So a better estimate of a lifetime is the amount of fuel (M) divided by the rate at which it is consumed (L). We assume only that the fuel is used at a roughly constant rate. The results are surprising. A star at the top of the main sequence (hot and high luminosity) has a mass of about 100 solar masses and a luminosity of about 106 times solar luminosity. It has 100 times the fuel of the Sun's but uses it a million times faster. The estimated main sequence lifetime is M/L = 100/106 = 10-4 times that of the Sun or only a million years. This is actually a slight underestimate because massive stars use a larger fraction of their total hydrogen fuel than low-mass stars. A star on the lower main sequence (cool and low luminosity) has a mass of only 0.1 solar mass and a luminosity of 10-3 times solar luminosity. The estimated main sequence lifetime in this case is M/L = 0.1/10-3 = 100 times that of the Sun or 1012 years.

Astronomers have studied brown dwarfs, which help us understand the relations between planets and stars. Brown dwarfs, of course, are hard to detect because of their faintness. Many brown dwarf candidates have been reported, including one with luminosity only 0.0004 that of the Sun — the lowest luminosity object yet found outside the Solar System. There have also been many false alarms, and it is hard to prove these objects are in the 13 to 80 MJupiter mass range needed to call them true brown dwarfs. The best example is an object called Gliese 229B, the spectrum of which shows methane and water vapor. The atmosphere of Gliese 229B has a temperature of 1000 K, too hot to be a planet but too cool to be a star. Recently, using infrared detectors sensitive to cool objects, astronomers have begun to discover brown dwarfs in increasing numbers. Despite their dim appearance, brown dwarfs are important in the census of stars — about 10% of the mass in the solar neighborhood is in the form of objects too cool to be fusing hydrogen into helium. Nearly 3000 have been detected, mostly from infrared surveys.

What are the implications of the calculation of stellar ages from the fuel consumption rate? Since low-mass stars live so long, none of them has ever left the main sequence. By contrast, high-mass stars evolve quickly and die. The extra amount of fuel is more than compensated for by the fast rate of consumption. Imagine a big armor-plated stretch limousine with a 30-gallon tank that could only get 5 miles to the gallon — a consumption rate of 0.2 gallons per mile. The limousine would travel 30/0.2 = 150 miles before stopping. A small economy car with a 10-gallon tank might get 50 miles to the gallon — a consumption rate of 0.02 gallons per mile. The economy car would travel 10/0.02 = 500 miles before stopping. If a group of stars forms together, the low-mass stars will be shining feebly long after the massive stars have blazed and quit.

Author: Chris Impey
Editor/Contributor: Erik Brogt
Editor/Contributor: Audra Baleisis