Alpha process

The alpha process, also known as the alpha ladder, is one of two classes of nuclear fusion reactions by which stars convert helium into heavier elements, the other being the triple-alpha process.[1] The triple-alpha process consumes only helium, and produces carbon. After enough carbon has accumulated, the reactions below take place, all consuming only helium and the product of the previous reaction.

E  is the energy produced by the reaction, released primarily as gamma rays (γ).

It is a common misconception that the above sequence ends at (or , which is a decay product of [2]) because it is the most stable element - i.e., it has the highest nuclear binding energy per nucleon, and production of heavier nuclei requires energy (is endothermic) instead of releasing it (exothermic). (Nickel-62) is actually the most stable element[3]. However, the sequence ends at because conditions in the stellar interior cause the competition between photodisintegration and the alpha process to favor photodisintegration around iron[2][4], leading to more being produced than .

All these reactions have a very low rate at the temperatures and densities in stars and therefore do not contribute significantly to a star's energy production; with elements heavier than neon (atomic number > 10), they occur even less easily due to the increasing Coulomb barrier.

Alpha process elements (or alpha elements) are so-called since their most abundant isotopes are integer multiples of four, the mass of the helium nucleus (the alpha particle); these isotopes are known as alpha nuclides. Stable alpha elements are: C, O, Ne, Mg, Si, S, Ar, Ca. They are synthesized by alpha capture prior to the silicon fusing process, a precursor to Type II supernovae. Silicon and calcium are purely alpha process elements. Magnesium can be burned by proton capture reactions. As for oxygen, some authors consider it an alpha element, while others do not. Oxygen is surely an alpha element in low-metallicity population II stars. It is produced in Type II supernovas and its enhancement is well correlated with an enhancement of other alpha process elements. Sometimes carbon and nitrogen are considered alpha process elements, since they are synthesized in nuclear alpha-capture reactions.

The abundance of alpha elements in stars is usually expressed in a logarithmic manner:


Here and are the number of alpha elements and iron nuclei per unit volume. Theoretical galactic evolution models predict that early in the universe there were more alpha elements relative to iron. Type II supernovae mainly synthesize oxygen and the alpha-elements (Ne, Mg, Si, S, Ar, Ca and Ti) while Type Ia supernovae mainly produce elements of the iron peak (Ti, V, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co and Ni) but also alpha-elements.


  1. ^ Narlikar, Jayant V (1995). From Black Clouds to Black Holes. World Scientific. ISBN 978-9810220334.
  2. ^ a b Fewell, M. P. (1995-07-01). "The atomic nuclide with the highest mean binding energy". American Journal of Physics. 63: 653–658. doi:10.1119/1.17828. ISSN 0002-9505.
  3. ^ "The Most Tightly Bound Nuclei". Retrieved 2019-02-21.
  4. ^ Burbidge, E. Margaret; Burbidge, G. R.; Fowler, William A.; Hoyle, F. (1957-10-01). "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars". Reviews of Modern Physics. 29 (4): 547–650. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.29.547.

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An attosecond is 1×10−18 of a second (one quintillionth of a second). For context, an attosecond is to a second what a second is to about 31.71 billion years.The word "attosecond" is formed by the prefix atto and the unit second. Atto- was derived from the Danish word for eighteen (atten). Its symbol is as.

An attosecond is equal to 1000 zeptoseconds, or ​1⁄1000 of a femtosecond. Because the next higher SI unit for time is the femtosecond (10−15 seconds), durations of 10−17 s and 10−16 s will typically be expressed as tens or hundreds of attoseconds:

Times which can be expressed in attoseconds:

1 attosecond: the time it takes for light to travel the length of two hydrogen atoms

24 attoseconds: the atomic unit of time

43 attoseconds: the shortest pulses of laser light yet created

53 attoseconds: the second-shortest pulses of laser light created

84 attoseconds: the approximate half-life of a neutral pion

100 attoseconds: fastest-ever view of molecular motion

200 attoseconds (approximately): half-life of beryllium-8, maximum time available for the triple-alpha process for the synthesis of carbon and heavier elements in stars

320 attoseconds: estimated time it takes electrons to transfer between atoms

Bright giant

The luminosity class II in the Yerkes spectral classification is given to bright giants. These are stars which straddle the boundary between ordinary giants and supergiants, based on the appearance of their spectra.


Carbon-12 (12C) is the more abundant of the two stable isotopes of carbon (carbon-13 being the other), amounting to 98.93% of the element carbon; its abundance is due to the triple-alpha process by which it is created in stars. Carbon-12 is of particular importance in its use as the standard from which atomic masses of all nuclides are measured, thus, its atomic mass is exactly 12 daltons by definition. Carbon-12 is composed of 6 protons, 6 neutrons, and 6 electrons.

Helium-weak star

Helium-weak stars are chemically peculiar stars which have a weak helium lines for their spectral type. Their helium lines place them in a later (ie. cooler) spectral type then their hydrogen lines.

Helium flash

A helium flash is a very brief thermal runaway nuclear fusion of large quantities of helium into carbon through the triple-alpha process in the core of low mass stars (between 0.8 solar masses (M☉) and 2.0 M☉) during their red giant phase (the Sun is predicted to experience a flash 1.2 billion years after it leaves the main sequence). A much rarer runaway helium fusion process can also occur on the surface of accreting white dwarf stars.

Low mass stars do not produce enough gravitational pressure to initiate normal helium fusion. As the hydrogen in the core is exhausted, some of the helium left behind is instead compacted into degenerate matter, supported against gravitational collapse by quantum mechanical pressure rather than thermal pressure. This increases the density and temperature of the core until it reaches approximately 100 million kelvin, which is hot enough to cause helium fusion (or "helium burning") in the core.

However, a fundamental quality of degenerate matter is that changes in temperature do not produce a change of volume of the matter until the thermal pressure becomes so very high that it exceeds degeneracy pressure. In main sequence stars, thermal expansion regulates the core temperature, but in degenerate cores this does not occur. Helium fusion increases the temperature, which increases the fusion rate, which further increases the temperature in a runaway reaction. This produces a flash of very intense helium fusion that lasts only a few minutes, but briefly emits energy at a rate comparable to the entire Milky Way galaxy.

In the case of normal low mass stars, the vast energy release causes much of the core to come out of degeneracy, allowing it to thermally expand, however, consuming as much energy as the total energy released by the helium flash, and any left-over energy is absorbed into the star's upper layers. Thus the helium flash is mostly undetectable to observation, and is described solely by astrophysical models. After the core's expansion and cooling, the star's surface rapidly cools and contracts in as little as 10,000 years until it is roughly 2% of its former radius and luminosity. It is estimated that the electron-degenerate helium core weighs about 40% of the star mass and that 6% of the core is converted into carbon.

Horizontal branch

The horizontal branch (HB) is a stage of stellar evolution that immediately follows the red giant branch in stars whose masses are similar to the Sun's. Horizontal-branch stars are powered by helium fusion in the core (via the triple-alpha process) and by hydrogen fusion (via the CNO cycle) in a shell surrounding the core. The onset of core helium fusion at the tip of the red giant branch causes substantial changes in stellar structure, resulting in an overall reduction in luminosity, some contraction of the stellar envelope, and the surface reaching higher temperatures.

Lead star

A lead star is a low-metallicity star with an overabundance of lead and bismuth as compared to other products of the S-process.


Oxygen-16 (16O) is a stable isotope of oxygen, having 8 neutrons and 8 protons in its nucleus. It has a mass of 15.99491461956 u. Oxygen-16 is the most abundant isotope of oxygen and accounts for 99.762% of oxygen's natural abundance. The relative and absolute abundance of 16O are high because it is a principal product of stellar evolution and because it is a primordial isotope, meaning it can be made by stars that were initially made exclusively of hydrogen. Most 16O is synthesized at the end of the helium fusion process in stars; the triple-alpha process creates 12C, which captures an additional 4He to make 16O. The neon-burning process creates additional 16O.

Oxygen-burning process

The oxygen-burning process is a set of nuclear fusion reactions that take place in massive stars that have used up the lighter elements in their cores. Oxygen-burning is preceded by the neon-burning process and succeeded by the silicon-burning process. As the neon-burning process ends, the core of the star contracts and heats until it reaches the ignition temperature for oxygen burning. Oxygen burning reactions are similar to those of carbon burning; however, they must occur at higher temperatures and densities due to the larger Coulomb barrier of oxygen. Oxygen in the core ignites in the temperature range of (1.5–2.6)×109 K and in the density range of (2.6–6.7)×109g/cm3. The principal reactions are given below, where the branching ratios assume that the deuteron channel is open (at high temperatures):

Near 2×109K, the oxygen burning reaction rate is approximately 2.8×10−12(T9/2)33, where T9 is the temperature in billions of Kelvin. Overall, the major products of the oxygen-burning process are 28Si, 32,33,34S, 35,37Cl, 36,38Ar, 39,41K, and 40,42Ca. Of these, 28Si and 32S constitute 90% of the final composition. The oxygen fuel within the core of the star is exhausted after 0.01–5 years depending on the star's mass and other parameters. The silicon-burning process which follows creates iron, but this iron cannot react further to create energy to support the star.

During the oxygen-burning process, proceeding outward, there is an oxygen-burning shell, followed by a neon shell, a carbon shell, a helium shell, and a hydrogen shell. The oxygen-burning process is the last nuclear reaction in the star's core which does not proceed via the alpha process.

Photometric-standard star

Photometric-standard stars are a series of stars that have had their light output in various passbands of photometric system measured very carefully. Other objects can be observed using CCD cameras or photoelectric photometers connected to a telescope, and the flux, or amount of light received, can be compared to a photometric-standard star to determine the exact brightness, or stellar magnitude, of the object.A current set of photometric-standard stars for UBVRI photometry was published by Arlo U. Landolt in 1992 in the Astronomical Journal.


The photosphere is a star's outer shell from which light is radiated. The term itself is derived from Ancient Greek roots, φῶς, φωτός/phos, photos meaning "light" and σφαῖρα/sphaira meaning "sphere", in reference to it being a spherical surface that is perceived to emit light. It extends into a star's surface until the plasma becomes opaque, equivalent to an optical depth of approximately 2/3, or equivalently, a depth from which 50% of light will escape without being scattered.

In other words, a photosphere is the deepest region of a luminous object, usually a star, that is transparent to photons of certain wavelengths.

Q star

A Q-Star, also known as a grey hole, is a hypothetical type of a compact, heavy neutron star with an exotic state of matter. The Q stands for a conserved particle number. A Q-Star may be mistaken for a stellar black hole.

Red giant

A red giant is a luminous giant star of low or intermediate mass (roughly 0.3–8 solar masses (M☉)) in a late phase of stellar evolution. The outer atmosphere is inflated and tenuous, making the radius large and the surface temperature around 5,000 K (4,700 °C; 8,500 °F) or lower. The appearance of the red giant is from yellow-orange to red, including the spectral types K and M, but also class S stars and most carbon stars.

The most common red giants are stars on the red-giant branch (RGB) that are still fusing hydrogen into helium in a shell surrounding an inert helium core. Other red giants are the red-clump stars in the cool half of the horizontal branch, fusing helium into carbon in their cores via the triple-alpha process; and the asymptotic-giant-branch (AGB) stars with a helium burning shell outside a degenerate carbon–oxygen core, and a hydrogen burning shell just beyond that.

Starfield (astronomy)

A starfield refers to a set of stars visible in an arbitrarily-sized field of view, usually in the context of some region of interest within the celestial sphere. For example: the starfield surrounding the stars Betelgeuse and Rigel could be defined as encompassing some or all of the Orion constellation.

Stellar atmosphere

The stellar atmosphere is the outer region of the volume of a star, lying above the stellar core, radiation zone and convection zone.

Stellar mass

Stellar mass is a phrase that is used by astronomers to describe the mass of a star. It is usually enumerated in terms of the Sun's mass as a proportion of a solar mass (M☉). Hence, the bright star Sirius has around 2.02 M☉. A star's mass will vary over its lifetime as additional mass becomes accreted, such as from a companion star, or mass is ejected with the stellar wind or pulsational behavior.

Stellar nucleosynthesis

Stellar nucleosynthesis is the theory explaining the creation (nucleosynthesis) of chemical elements by nuclear fusion reactions between atoms within stars. Stellar nucleosynthesis has occurred continuously since the original creation of hydrogen, helium and lithium during the Big Bang. It is a highly predictive theory that today yields excellent agreement between calculations based upon it and the observed abundances of the elements. It explains why the observed abundances of elements in the universe grow over time and why some elements and their isotopes are much more abundant than others. The theory was initially proposed by Fred Hoyle in 1946, who later refined it in 1954. Further advances were made, especially to nucleosynthesis by neutron capture of the elements heavier than iron, by Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William Alfred Fowler and Hoyle in their famous 1957 B2FH paper, which became one of the most heavily cited papers in astrophysics history.

Stars evolve because of changes in their composition (the abundance of their constituent elements) over their lifespans, first by burning hydrogen (main sequence star), then helium (red giant star), and progressively burning higher elements. However, this does not by itself significantly alter the abundances of elements in the universe as the elements are contained within the star. Later in its life, a low-mass star will slowly eject its atmosphere via stellar wind, forming a planetary nebula, while a higher–mass star will eject mass via a sudden catastrophic event called a supernova. The term supernova nucleosynthesis is used to describe the creation of elements during the evolution and explosion of a pre-supernova massive star (12–35 times the mass of the sun). Those massive stars are the most prolific source of new isotopes from carbon (Z = 6) to nickel (Z = 28).

The advanced sequence of burning fuels is driven by gravitational collapse and its associated heating, resulting in the subsequent burning of carbon, oxygen and silicon. However, most of the nucleosynthesis in the mass range A = 28–56 (from silicon to nickel) is actually caused by the upper layers of the star collapsing onto the core, creating a compressional shock wave rebounding outward. The shock front briefly raises temperatures by roughly 50%, thereby causing furious burning for about a second. This final burning in massive stars, called explosive nucleosynthesis or supernova nucleosynthesis, is the final epoch of stellar nucleosynthesis.

A stimulus to the development of the theory of nucleosynthesis was the discovery of variations in the abundances of elements found in the universe. The need for a physical description was already inspired by the relative abundances of isotopes of the chemical elements in the solar system. Those abundances, when plotted on a graph as a function of atomic number of the element, have a jagged sawtooth shape that varies by factors of tens of millions (see history of nucleosynthesis theory). This suggested a natural process that is not random. A second stimulus to understanding the processes of stellar nucleosynthesis occurred during the 20th century, when it was realized that the energy released from nuclear fusion reactions accounted for the longevity of the Sun as a source of heat and light.

Triple-alpha process

The triple-alpha process is a set of nuclear fusion reactions by which three helium-4 nuclei (alpha particles) are transformed into carbon.

Yellow giant

A yellow giant is a luminous giant star of low or intermediate mass (roughly 0.5–11 solar masses (M)) in a late phase of its stellar evolution. The outer atmosphere is inflated and tenuous, making the radius large and the surface temperature as low as 5,200-7500 K. The appearance of the yellow giant is from white to yellow, including the spectral types F and G. About 10.6 percent of all giant stars are yellow giants.

Star systems
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