Carbon star

A carbon star is typically an asymptotic giant branch star, a luminous red giant, whose atmosphere contains more carbon than oxygen; the two elements combine in the upper layers of the star, forming carbon monoxide, which consumes all the oxygen in the atmosphere, leaving carbon atoms free to form other carbon compounds, giving the star a "sooty" atmosphere and a strikingly ruby red appearance. There are also some dwarf and supergiant carbon stars, with the more common giant stars sometimes being called classical carbon stars to distinguish them.

In most stars (such as the Sun), the atmosphere is richer in oxygen than carbon. Ordinary stars not exhibiting the characteristics of carbon stars but cool enough to form carbon monoxide are therefore called oxygen-rich stars.

Carbon stars have quite distinctive spectral characteristics, and they were first recognized by their spectra by Angelo Secchi in the 1860s, a pioneering time in astronomical spectroscopy.


Echelle Spectra of the Carbon Star UU Aurigae
Echelle spectra of the carbon star UU Aurigae.

By definition carbon stars have dominant spectral Swan bands from the molecule C2. Many other carbon compounds may be present at high levels, such as CH, CN (cyanogen), C3 and SiC2. Carbon is formed in the core and circulated into its upper layers, dramatically changing the layers' composition. In addition to carbon, S-process elements such as barium, technetium, and zirconium are formed in the shell flashes and are "dredged up" to the surface.[1]

When astronomers developed the spectral classification of the carbon stars, they had considerable difficulty when trying to correlate the spectra to the stars' effective temperatures. The trouble was with all the atmospheric carbon hiding the absorption lines normally used as temperature indicators for the stars.

Carbon stars also show a rich spectrum of molecular lines at millimeter wavelengths and submillimeter wavelengths. In the carbon star IRC+10216 more than 50 different circumstellar molecules have been detected. This star is often used to search for new circumstellar molecules.


Carbon stars were discovered already in the 1860s when spectral classification pioneer Angelo Secchi erected the Secchi class IV for the carbon stars, which in the late 1890s were reclassified as N class stars.[2]


Using this new Harvard classification, the N class was later enhanced by an R class for less deeply red stars sharing the characteristic carbon bands of the spectrum. Later correlation of this R to N scheme with conventional spectra, showed that the R-N sequence approximately run in parallel with c:a G7 to M10 with regards to star temperature.[3]

MK-type R0 R3 R5 R8 Na Nb
giant equiv. G7-G8 K1-K2 ~K2-K3 K5-M0 ~M2-M3 M3-M4
Teff 4300 3900 ~3700 3450 --- ---

Morgan–Keenan C system

The later N classes correspond less well to the counterparting M types, because the Harvard classification was only partially based on temperature, but also carbon abundance; so it soon became clear that this kind of carbon star classification was incomplete. Instead a new dual number star class C was erected so to deal with temperature and carbon abundance. Such a spectrum measured for Y Canum Venaticorum, was determined to be C54, where 5 refers to temperature dependent features, and 4 to the strength of the C2 Swan bands in the spectrum. (C54 is very often alternatively written C5,4).[4] This Morgan–Keenan C system classification replaced the older R-N classifications from 1960–1993.

MK-type C0 C1 C2 C3 C4 C5 C6 C7
giant equiv. G4-G6 G7-G8 G9-K0 K1-K2 K3-K4 K5-M0 M1-M2 M3-M4
Teff 4500 4300 4100 3900 3650 3450 --- ---

The Revised Morgan–Keenan system

The two-dimensional Morgan–Keenan C classification failed to fulfill the creators' expectations:

  1. it failed to correlate to temperature measurements based on infrared,
  2. originally being two-dimensional it was soon enhanced by suffixes, CH, CN, j and other features making it impractical for en-masse analyses of foreign galaxies' carbon star populations,
  3. and it gradually occurred that the old R and N stars actually were two distinct types of carbon stars, having real astrophysical significance.

A new revised Morgan–Keenan classification was published in 1993 by Philip Keenan, defining the classes: C-N, C-R and C-H. Later the classes C-J and C-Hd were added.[5] This constitutes the established classification system used today.[6]

class spectrum population MV theory temperature
range (K)[7]
example(s) # known
classical carbon stars
C-R: the old Harvard class R reborn: are still visible at the blue end of the spectrum, strong isotopic bands, no enhanced Ba line medium disc pop I 0 red giants? 5100-2800 S Cam ~25
C-N: the old Harvard class N reborn: heavy diffuse blue absorption, sometimes invisible in blue, s-process elements enhanced over solar abundance, weak isotopic bands thin disc pop I -2.2 AGB 3100-2600 R Lep ~90
non-classical carbon stars
C-J: very strong isotopic bands of C2 and CN unknown unknown unknown 3900-2800 Y CVn ~20
C-H: very strong CH absorption halo pop II -1.8 bright giants, mass transfer (all C-H:s are binary [8]) 5000-4100 V Ari, TT CVn ~20
C-Hd: hydrogen lines and CH bands weak or absent thin disc pop I -3.5 unknown ? HD 137613 ~7

Astrophysical mechanisms

Carbon stars can be explained by more than one astrophysical mechanism. Classical carbon stars are distinguished from non-classical ones on the grounds of mass, with classical carbon stars being the more massive.[9]

In the classical carbon stars, those belonging to the modern spectral types C-R and C-N, the abundance of carbon is thought to be a product of helium fusion, specifically the triple-alpha process within a star, which giants reach near the end of their lives in the asymptotic giant branch (AGB). These fusion products have been brought to the stellar surface by episodes of convection (the so-called third dredge-up) after the carbon and other products were made. Normally this kind of AGB carbon star fuses hydrogen in a hydrogen burning shell, but in episodes separated by 104-105 years, the star transforms to burning helium in a shell, while the hydrogen fusion temporarily ceases. In this phase, the star's luminosity rises, and material from the interior of the star (notably carbon) moves up. Since the luminosity rises, the star expands so that the helium fusion ceases, and the hydrogen shell burning restarts. During these shell helium flashes, the mass loss from the star is significant, and after many shell helium flashes, an AGB star is transformed into a hot white dwarf and its atmosphere becomes material for a planetary nebula.

The non-classical kinds of carbon stars, belonging to the types C-J and C-H, are believed to be binary stars, where one star is observed to be a giant star (or occasionally a red dwarf) and the other a white dwarf. The star presently observed to be a giant star accreted carbon-rich material when it was still a main-sequence star from its companion (that is, the star that is now the white dwarf) when the latter was still a classical carbon star. That phase of stellar evolution is relatively brief, and most such stars ultimately end up as white dwarfs. These systems are now being observed a comparatively long time after the mass transfer event, so the extra carbon observed in the present red giant was not produced within that star.[9] This scenario is also accepted as the origin of the barium stars, which are also characterized as having strong spectral features of carbon molecules and of barium (an s-process element). Sometimes the stars whose excess carbon came from this mass transfer are called "extrinsic" carbon stars to distinguish them from the "intrinsic" AGB stars which produce the carbon internally. Many of these extrinsic carbon stars are not luminous or cool enough to have made their own carbon, which was a puzzle until their binary nature was discovered.

The enigmatic hydrogen deficient carbon stars (HdC), belonging to the spectral class C-Hd, seems to have some relation to R Coronae Borealis variables (RCB), but are not variable themselves and lack a certain infrared radiation typical for RCB:s. Only five HdC:s are known, and none is known to be binary,[10] so the relation to the non-classical carbon stars is not known.

Other less convincing theories, such as CNO cycle unbalancing and core helium flash have also been proposed as mechanisms for carbon enrichment in the atmospheres of smaller carbon stars.

Other characteristics

VX Andromedae
Optical light image of the carbon star VX Andromedae.

Most classical carbon stars are variable stars of the long period variable types.

Observing carbon stars

Due to the insensitivity of night vision to red and a slow adaption of the red sensitive eye rods to the light of the stars, astronomers making magnitude estimates of red variable stars, especially carbon stars, have to know how to deal with the Purkinje effect in order not to underestimate the magnitude of the observed star.

Interstellar carbon sowers

Owing to its low surface gravity, as much as half (or more) of the total mass of a carbon star may be lost by way of powerful stellar winds. The star's remnants, carbon-rich "dust" similar to graphite, therefore become part of the interstellar dust. This dust is believed to be a significant factor in providing the raw materials for the creation of subsequent generations of stars and their planetary systems. The material surrounding a carbon star may blanket it to the extent that the dust absorbs all visible light.

Other classifications

Other types of carbon stars include:

See also

  • Barium star – Spectral class G to K giants, whose spectra indicate an overabundance of s-process elements by the presence of singly ionized barium
  • S-type star – A cool giant with approximately equal quantities of carbon and oxygen in its atmosphere
  • Technetium star – Star whose stellar spectrum contains absorption lines of technetium
  • Marc Aaronson, American astronomer and noted researcher of carbon stars


  • R Leporis, Hind's Crimson Star: an example of a carbon star
  • IRC +10216, CW Leonis: the most studied carbon star, and also the brightest star in the sky at N-band
  • La Superba, Y Canum Venaticorum: one of the brighter carbon stars


  1. ^ Savina, Michael R.; Davis, Andrew M.; Tripa, C. Emil; Pellin, Michael J.; Clayton, Robert N.; Lewis, Roy S.; Amari, Sachiko; Gallino, Roberto; Lugaro, Maria (2003). "Barium isotopes in individual presolar silicon carbide grains from the Murchison meteorite". Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. 67 (17): 3201. Bibcode:2003GeCoA..67.3201S. doi:10.1016/S0016-7037(03)00083-8.
  2. ^ Gottesman, S. (Spring 2009). "Classification of Stellar Spectra: Some History". AST2039 Materials. Retrieved 2012-03-21.
  3. ^ Clowes, C. (25 October 2003). "Carbon Stars". Archived from the original on 2012-02-05. Retrieved 2012-03-21.
  4. ^ Keenan, P. C.; Morgan, W. W. (1941). "The Classification of the Red Carbon Stars". The Astrophysical Journal. 94: 501. Bibcode:1941ApJ....94..501K. doi:10.1086/144356.
  5. ^ Keenan, P. C. (1993). "Revised MK Spectral Classification of the Red Carbon Stars". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 105: 905. Bibcode:1993PASP..105..905K. doi:10.1086/133252.
  6. ^ "Spectral Atlas of Carbon Stars". Retrieved 2012-03-21.
  7. ^ Tanaka, M.; et al. (2007). "Near-Infrared Spectra of 29 Carbon Stars: Simple Estimates of Effective Temperature". Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan. 59 (5): 939. Bibcode:2007PASJ...59..939T. doi:10.1093/pasj/59.5.939.
  8. ^ McClure, R. D.; Woodsworth, A. W. (1990). "The Binary Nature of the Barium and CH Stars. III – Orbital Parameters". The Astrophysical Journal. 352: 709. Bibcode:1990ApJ...352..709M. doi:10.1086/168573.
  9. ^ a b McClure, R. D. (1985). "The Carbon and Related Stars". Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. 79: 277. Bibcode:1985JRASC..79..277M.
  10. ^ Clayton, G. C. (1996). "The R Coronae Borealis Stars". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 108: 225. Bibcode:1996PASP..108..225C. doi:10.1086/133715.

External links

CH star

CH stars are particular type of carbon stars which are characterized by the presence of exceedingly strong absorption bands due to CH (methylidyne) in their spectra. They belong to the stellar population II, meaning they are metal poor and generally pretty middle-aged stars, and are under-luminous compared to the classical C–N carbon stars. The term 'CH star' was coined by Philip C. Keenan in 1942 as a sub-type of the C classification, which he used for carbon stars. The main molecular feature used in identifying the initial set of five CH stars lies in the Fraunhaufer G band.In 1975, Yasuho Yamashita noted that some higher temperature carbon stars displayed the typical spectral characteristics of a CH star, but did not have the same kinematic properties. That is, they did not have the higher space velocities characteristic of the older stellar population. These were dubbed CH-like stars. Many CH stars are known to be members of binary star systems, and it is reasonable to believe this is (or was) the case for all CH stars. Like Barium stars, they are probably the result of a mass transfer from a former classical carbon star companion, now a degenerate white dwarf, to the current CH-classed star.

CW Leonis

IRC +10216 or CW Leonis is a well-studied carbon star that is embedded in a thick dust envelope. It was first discovered in 1969 by a group of astronomers led by Eric Becklin, based upon infrared observations made with the 62 inches (1.6 m) Caltech Infrared Telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory. Its energy is emitted mostly at infrared wavelengths. At a wavelength of 5 μm, it was found to have the highest flux of any object outside the Solar System.

DY Persei

DY Persei is a variable star and carbon star in the Perseus constellation. At maximum it is 11th magnitude carbon star and at its faintest it drops to 16th magnitude. DY Persei the prototype of the very rare DY Persei class of variables, that pulsate like red variables but also fade from sight like R Coronae Borealis variables.


A dredge-up is a period in the evolution of a star where a surface convection zone extends down to the layers where material has undergone nuclear fusion. As a result, the fusion products are mixed into the outer layers of the stellar atmosphere where they can appear in the spectrum of the star.

The first dredge-up occurs when a main-sequence star enters the red-giant branch. As a result of the convective mixing, the outer atmosphere will display the spectral signature of hydrogen fusion: the 12C/13C and C/N ratios are lowered, and the surface abundances of lithium and beryllium may be reduced.

The second dredge-up occurs in stars with 4–8 solar masses. When helium fusion comes to an end at the core, convection mixes the products of the CNO cycle. This second dredge-up results in an increase in the surface abundance of 4He and 14N, whereas the amount of 12C and 16O decreases.The third dredge-up occurs after a star enters the asymptotic giant branch and a flash occurs along a helium-burning shell. This dredge-up causes helium, carbon and the s-process products to be brought to the surface. The result is an increase in the abundance of carbon relative to oxygen, which can create a carbon star.The names of the dredge-ups are set by the evolutionary and structural state of the star in which each occurs, not by the sequence experienced by the star. As a result, lower-mass stars experience the first and third dredge-ups in their evolution but not the second.

EU Andromedae

EU Andromedae (often abbreviated to EU And) is a carbon star in the constellation Andromeda. Its apparent visual magnitude varies in an irregular manner between 10.7 and 11.8.Infrared observations of EU Andromedae show the presence of silicate grains, indicating the presence of an oxygen-rich circumstellar shell around the star, a combination known as a silicate star. Subsequently, a water maser was detected around this star (and for the first time around a carbon star), confirming the existence of the shell. The most recent observations suggest that the maser originated in a circumstellar disc, seen nearly edge-on, around an unseen companion with a minimum mass of 0.5 M☉. Carbon dioxide has been detected for the first time in a silicate carbon star around EU Andromedae.EU Andromedae is given as the standard star for the C-J5- spectral class. C-J spectral types are assigned to stars with strong isotopic bands of carbon molecules, defined as the ratio of 12C to 13C being less than four. A more complete spectral type includes the abundance indices C25 j3.5, which indicate the Swan band strength and the isotopic band ratio.

Eta Serpentis

Eta Serpentis (η Ser, η Serpentis) is a star in the constellation Serpens. In particular, it lies in Serpens Cauda, the snake's tail. The star has an apparent visual magnitude of 3.260, making it visible to the naked eye. Parallax measurements give a distance estimate of 60.5 light-years (18.5 parsecs) from the Earth.This star is larger than the Sun, with twice the mass and almost six times the radius. The spectrum matches a stellar classification of K0 III-IV, with the luminosity class of III-IV corresponding to an evolved star that lies between the subgiant and giant stages. The expanded outer envelope star is radiating about 19 times the luminosity of the Sun at an effective temperature of 4,890 K. At this temperature, it has an orange hue typical of a K-type star. Eta Serpentis displays solar-like oscillations with a period of 0.09 days.Eta Serpentis was previously classified as a carbon star, which would have made it the brightest carbon star in the sky, although this classification was since found to be erroneous.Eta Serpentis is currently 1.6 light years away from Gliese 710.

II Lupi

II Lupi (IRAS 15194-5115) is a Mira variable and carbon star located in the constellation Lupus. It is the brightest carbon star in the Southern Hemisphere at 12 μm.

In 1987, the infrared source IRAS 15194-5115 was identified as an extreme carbon star. It was seen to be strongly variable at optical and infrared wavelengths. It is very faint visually, 15th or 16th magnitude in a red filter and below 21st magnitude in a blue filter, but at mid-infrared wavelengths (N band) it is the third-brightest carbon star in the sky. A star at the location had earlier been catalogued as WOS 48, a possible S-type star, on the basis of strong LaO bands in its spectrum.On the basis of infrared photometry, IRAS 15194-5115 was given the variable star designation II Lupi in 1995, although the variability type was still unknown. More detailed infrared photometry confirmed that II Lupi was a Mira variable and showed regular variations with a period of 675 days over 18 years. The mean magnitude also dimmed and brightened during that time and has been characterised as a 6,900-day secondary period although less than a full cycle was observed. The secondary period could be interpreted as an isolated or irregular obscuration event in a dust shell surrounding the star.

LL Pegasi

LL Pegasi (AFGL 3068) is a Mira variable star surrounded by a pinwheel-shaped nebula, IRAS 23166+1655, thought to be a preplanetary nebula. It is a binary system that includes an extreme carbon star. The pair is hidden by the dust cloud ejected from the carbon star and is only visible in infrared light.

LP Andromedae

LP Andromedae (often abbreviated to LP And) is a carbon star in the constellation Andromeda. It is also a Mira variable whose mean apparent visual magnitude is 15.12 and has pulsations with an amplitude of 1.50 magnitudes and a period of 614 days.In 1974 LP Andromedae, known then as IRC+40540, was identified as a carbon star and also shown to be variable. It had previously been suspected of variability during the 2 Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). A detailed study of its spectrum showed an unusually cool star with a basic class of C8, and Swan band strength of 3.5. It also showed strong C13 isotopic bands. The period was narrowed down to around 614 days, one of the longest periods known for a Mira variable.This star has a dusty envelope with an estimated mass of 3.2 M☉, fueled by the star itself which is losing mass at a rate 1.9×10−5 M☉/yr. Such a high mass loss rate should place LP Andromedae close to the end of its asymptotic giant branch evolution. The envelope extends to a distance of 3 parsec from the star, and is mainly made of silicon carbide and carbon particles.

RU Camelopardalis

RU Camelopardalis, or RU Cam, is a W Virginis variable (type II Cepheid) in the constellation of Camelopardalis. It is also a Carbon star, which is very unusual for a Cepheid variable.

SU Andromedae

SU Andromedae is a carbon star in the constellation of Andromeda. It is a variable star classified as a slow irregular pulsating supergiant, and varies from an apparent visual magnitude of 8.5 at minimum brightness to a magnitude of 8.0 at maximum brightness with no clear period.

TT Cygni

TT Cygni is a carbon star. It is 561 parsecs (1,830 ly) away in Cygnus. It has an apparent magnitude of 7.44. It is called a carbon star because it has a high ratio of carbon to oxygen in its surface layers. The carbon was produced by helium fusion, dredged up from inside the star. A shell of carbon monoxide, about half a light year across, was emitted 6,000 years before the star was as it appears from Earth now.

TX Piscium

TX Piscium (19 Piscium) is a variable carbon star in the constellation Pisces. It is amongst the reddest naked eye stars, with a significant reddish hue when seen in binoculars. It is approximately 900 light years from Earth.

UU Aurigae

UU Aurigae is a carbon star and binary star in the constellation Auriga. It is approximately 341 parsecs (1,110 ly) from Earth.

U Camelopardalis

U Camelopardalis is a semiregular variable star in the constellation Camelopardalis. Based on parallax measurements made by the Hipparcos spacecraft, it is located about 3,000 light-years (1,000 parsecs) away from the Earth. Its apparent visual magnitude is about 8, which is dim enough that it cannot be seen with the unaided eye.

The spectral type of U Camelopardalis in the revised MK system is C-N5, which indicates a classical carbon star spectrum approximately corresponding to late K or early M. The C2 index is 5.5 which is typical of a C-N star. It is also given an alternative spectral type of MS4, indicating a star similar to an M4 class but with somewhat enhanced ZrO bands. The spectral type may vary between C3,9 and C6,4e.U Camelopardalis is a carbon star. These types of stars have greater levels of carbon in their atmospheres than oxygen, which means they form carbon compounds that make the star appear strikingly red. U Camelopardalis is nearly 4 magnitudes fainter at blue wavelengths than in the centre of the visual range. In the infra red K band it has an apparent magnitude of 0.37. Its brightness varies without a dominant period and it is classified as semi-regular, although a period of 400 days has been published. In the V photometric band the brightness varies by around half a magnitude, but the amplitude is nearly two magnitudes at blue wavelengths. The maximum visual magnitude has been given as 7.2.The shell of gas surrounding U Camelopardalis was imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012, showing a nearly perfect sphere of gas surrounding the star.U Cameloparadlis has a 10th magnitude companion 308" away. It is a B8 main sequence star, hotter but less luminous than U Cam itself. They are not thought to be physically associated.

U Hydrae

U Hydrae (U Hya) is a carbon star in the constellation Hydra. It is also a variable star, with its brightness ranging from 4.7 to 5.2 over a 450-day period, with some irregularity.

V Hydrae

V Hydrae (V Hya) is a carbon star in the constellation Hydra.

W Canis Majoris

W Canis Majoris is a carbon star in the constellation Canis Major. A cool star, it has a surface temperature of around 2,900 K and a radius 234 times that of the sun, with a bolometric absolute magnitude of −4.13 and distance estimated at 443 or 445 parsecs (1444-1450) light-years based on bolometric magnitude or radius.

W CMa is classified as an irregular star. Detailed analyses have found only very weak and probably spurious periods of approximately a month. It is a carbon star, an asymptotic giant branch star where carbon and s-process elements have been dreged up to the surface during thermal pulses of the helium burning shell.

W Orionis

W Orionis is a carbon star in the constellation Orion, approximately 400 parsecs (1,300 ly) away. It varies regularly in brightness between extremes of magnitude 4.4 and 6.9 roughly every 7 months.

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