Stellar evolution

Stellar evolution is the process by which a star changes over the course of time. Depending on the mass of the star, its lifetime can range from a few million years for the most massive to trillions of years for the least massive, which is considerably longer than the age of the universe. The table shows the lifetimes of stars as a function of their masses.[1] All stars are born from collapsing clouds of gas and dust, often called nebulae or molecular clouds. Over the course of millions of years, these protostars settle down into a state of equilibrium, becoming what is known as a main-sequence star.

Nuclear fusion powers a star for most of its life. Initially the energy is generated by the fusion of hydrogen atoms at the core of the main-sequence star. Later, as the preponderance of atoms at the core becomes helium, stars like the Sun begin to fuse hydrogen along a spherical shell surrounding the core. This process causes the star to gradually grow in size, passing through the subgiant stage until it reaches the red giant phase. Stars with at least half the mass of the Sun can also begin to generate energy through the fusion of helium at their core, whereas more-massive stars can fuse heavier elements along a series of concentric shells. Once a star like the Sun has exhausted its nuclear fuel, its core collapses into a dense white dwarf and the outer layers are expelled as a planetary nebula. Stars with around ten or more times the mass of the Sun can explode in a supernova as their inert iron cores collapse into an extremely dense neutron star or black hole. Although the universe is not old enough for any of the smallest red dwarfs to have reached the end of their lives, stellar models suggest they will slowly become brighter and hotter before running out of hydrogen fuel and becoming low-mass white dwarfs.[2]

Stellar evolution is not studied by observing the life of a single star, as most stellar changes occur too slowly to be detected, even over many centuries. Instead, astrophysicists come to understand how stars evolve by observing numerous stars at various points in their lifetime, and by simulating stellar structure using computer models.

Representative lifetimes of stars as a function of their masses
Representative lifetimes of stars as a function of their masses
The life cycle of a Sun-like star
Diagram of the life of Sun-like stars
Artist's depiction of the life cycle of a Sun-like star, starting as a main-sequence star at lower left then expanding through the subgiant and giant phases, until its outer envelope is expelled to form a planetary nebula at upper right
Star Life Cycle Chart
Chart of stellar evolution

Birth of a star

Starlifesimple
Simplistic representation of the stages of stellar evolution
Stellar evolution L vs T
Schematic of stellar evolution.

Protostar

Stellar evolution starts with the gravitational collapse of a giant molecular cloud. Typical giant molecular clouds are roughly 100 light-years (9.5×1014 km) across and contain up to 6,000,000 solar masses (1.2×1037 kg). As it collapses, a giant molecular cloud breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. In each of these fragments, the collapsing gas releases gravitational potential energy as heat. As its temperature and pressure increase, a fragment condenses into a rotating sphere of superhot gas known as a protostar.[3]

A protostar continues to grow by accretion of gas and dust from the molecular cloud, becoming a pre-main-sequence star as it reaches its final mass. Further development is determined by its mass. Mass is typically compared to the mass of the Sun: 1.0 M (2.0×1030 kg) means 1 solar mass.

Protostars are encompassed in dust, and are thus more readily visible at infrared wavelengths. Observations from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have been especially important for unveiling numerous Galactic protostars and their parent star clusters.[4][5]

Brown dwarfs and sub-stellar objects

Protostars with masses less than roughly 0.08 M (1.6×1029 kg) never reach temperatures high enough for nuclear fusion of hydrogen to begin. These are known as brown dwarfs. The International Astronomical Union defines brown dwarfs as stars massive enough to fuse deuterium at some point in their lives (13 Jupiter masses (MJ), 2.5 × 1028 kg, or 0.0125 M). Objects smaller than 13 MJ are classified as sub-brown dwarfs (but if they orbit around another stellar object they are classified as planets).[6] Both types, deuterium-burning and not, shine dimly and die away slowly, cooling gradually over hundreds of millions of years.

Sagittarius Star Cloud
A dense starfield in Sagittarius

Main sequence

For a more-massive protostar, the core temperature will eventually reach 10 million kelvin, initiating the proton–proton chain reaction and allowing hydrogen to fuse, first to deuterium and then to helium. In stars of slightly over 1 M (2.0×1030 kg), the carbon–nitrogen–oxygen fusion reaction (CNO cycle) contributes a large portion of the energy generation. The onset of nuclear fusion leads relatively quickly to a hydrostatic equilibrium in which energy released by the core maintains a high gas pressure, balancing the weight of the star's matter and preventing further gravitational collapse. The star thus evolves rapidly to a stable state, beginning the main-sequence phase of its evolution.

A new star will sit at a specific point on the main sequence of the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, with the main-sequence spectral type depending upon the mass of the star. Small, relatively cold, low-mass red dwarfs fuse hydrogen slowly and will remain on the main sequence for hundreds of billions of years or longer, whereas massive, hot O-type stars will leave the main sequence after just a few million years. A mid-sized yellow dwarf star, like the Sun, will remain on the main sequence for about 10 billion years. The Sun is thought to be in the middle of its main sequence lifespan.

The evolutionary tracks of stars with different initial masses on the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram. The tracks start once the star has evolved to the main sequence and stop when fusion stops (for massive stars) and at the end of the red giant branch (for stars 1 M and less).[7]
A yellow track is shown for the Sun, which will become a red giant after its main-sequence phase ends before expanding further along the asymptotic giant branch, which will be the last phase in which the Sun undergoes fusion.

Mature stars

Eventually the core exhausts its supply of hydrogen and the star begins to evolve off of the main sequence. Without the outward pressure generated by the fusion of hydrogen to counteract the force of gravity the core contracts until either electron degeneracy pressure becomes sufficient to oppose gravity or the core becomes hot enough (around 100 MK) for helium fusion to begin. Which of these happens first depends upon the star's mass.

Low-mass stars

What happens after a low-mass star ceases to produce energy through fusion has not been directly observed; the universe is around 13.8 billion years old, which is less time (by several orders of magnitude, in some cases) than it takes for fusion to cease in such stars.

Recent astrophysical models suggest that red dwarfs of 0.1 M may stay on the main sequence for some six to twelve trillion years, gradually increasing in both temperature and luminosity, and take several hundred billion more to collapse, slowly, into a white dwarf.[8][9] Such stars will not become red giants as the whole star is a convection zone and it will not develop a degenerate helium core with a shell burning hydrogen. Instead, hydrogen fusion will proceed until almost the whole star is helium.

Star types
Internal structures of main-sequence stars, convection zones with arrowed cycles and radiative zones with red flashes. To the left a low-mass red dwarf, in the center a mid-sized yellow dwarf and at the right a massive blue-white main-sequence star.

Slightly more massive stars do expand into red giants, but their helium cores are not massive enough to reach the temperatures required for helium fusion so they never reach the tip of the red giant branch. When hydrogen shell burning finishes, these stars move directly off the red giant branch like a post-asymptotic-giant-branch (AGB) star, but at lower luminosity, to become a white dwarf.[2] A star with an initial mass above about 0.8 M will be able to reach temperatures high enough to fuse helium, and these "mid-sized" stars go on to further stages of evolution beyond the red giant branch.[10]

Mid-sized stars

Evolutionary track 1m
The evolutionary track of a solar mass, solar metallicity, star from main sequence to post-AGB

Stars of roughly 0.8–10 M become red giants, which are large non-main-sequence stars of stellar classification K or M. Red giants lie along the right edge of the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram due to their red color and large luminosity. Examples include Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus and Arcturus in the constellation of Boötes.

Mid-sized stars are red giants during two different phases of their post-main-sequence evolution: red-giant-branch stars, with inert cores made of helium and hydrogen-burning shells, and asymptotic-giant-branch stars, with inert cores made of carbon and helium-burning shells inside the hydrogen-burning shells.[11] Between these two phases, stars spend a period on the horizontal branch with a helium-fusing core. Many of these helium-fusing stars cluster towards the cool end of the horizontal branch as K-type giants and are referred to as red clump giants.

Subgiant phase

When a star exhausts the hydrogen in its core, it leaves the main sequence and begins to fuse hydrogen in a shell outside the core. The core increases in mass as the shell produces more helium. Depending on the mass of the helium core, this continues for several million to one or two billion years, with the star expanding and cooling at a similar or slightly lower luminosity to its main sequence state. Eventually either the core becomes degenerate, in stars around the mass of the sun, or the outer layers cool sufficiently to become opaque, in more massive stars. Either of these changes cause the hydrogen shell to increase in temperature and the luminosity of the star to increase, at which point the star expands onto the red giant branch.[12]

Red-giant-branch phase

Stellar Evolution (0.8-8 M☉)
Typical stellar evolution for 0.8-8 M☉

The expanding outer layers of the star are convective, with the material being mixed by turbulence from near the fusing regions up to the surface of the star. For all but the lowest-mass stars, the fused material has remained deep in the stellar interior prior to this point, so the convecting envelope makes fusion products visible at the star's surface for the first time. At this stage of evolution, the results are subtle, with the largest effects, alterations to the isotopes of hydrogen and helium, being unobservable. The effects of the CNO cycle appear at the surface during the first dredge-up, with lower 12C/13C ratios and altered proportions of carbon and nitrogen. These are detectable with spectroscopy and have been measured for many evolved stars.

The helium core continues to grow on the red giant branch. It is no longer in thermal equilibrium, either degenerate or above the Schoenberg-Chandrasekhar limit, so it increases in temperature which causes the rate of fusion in the hydrogen shell to increase. The star increases in luminosity towards the tip of the red-giant branch. Red giant branch stars with a degenerate helium core all reach the tip with very similar core masses and very similar luminosities, although the more massive of the red giants become hot enough to ignite helium fusion before that point.

Horizontal branch

In the helium cores of stars in the 0.8 to 2.0 solar mass range, which are largely supported by electron degeneracy pressure, helium fusion will ignite on a timescale of days in a helium flash. In the nondegenerate cores of more massive stars, the ignition of helium fusion occurs relatively slowly with no flash.[13] The nuclear power released during the helium flash is very large, on the order of 108 times the luminosity of the Sun for a few days[12] and 1011 times the luminosity of the Sun (roughly the luminosity of the Milky Way Galaxy) for a few seconds.[14] However, the energy is consumed by the thermal expansion of the initially degenerate core and thus cannot be seen from outside the star.[12][14][15] Due to the expansion of the core, the hydrogen fusion in the overlying layers slows and total energy generation decreases. The star contracts, although not all the way to the main sequence, and it migrates to the horizontal branch on the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, gradually shrinking in radius and increasing its surface temperature.

Core helium flash stars evolve to the red end of the horizontal branch but do not migrate to higher temperatures before they gain a degenerate carbon-oxygen core and start helium shell burning. These stars are often observed as a red clump of stars in the colour-magnitude diagram of a cluster, hotter and less luminous than the red giants. Higher-mass stars with larger helium cores move along the horizontal branch to higher temperatures, some becoming unstable pulsating stars in the yellow instability strip (RR Lyrae variables), whereas some become even hotter and can form a blue tail or blue hook to the horizontal branch. The morphology of the horizontal branch depends on parameters such as metallicity, age, and helium content, but the exact details are still being modelled.[16]

Asymptotic-giant-branch phase

After a star has consumed the helium at the core, hydrogen and helium fusion continues in shells around a hot core of carbon and oxygen. The star follows the asymptotic giant branch on the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, paralleling the original red giant evolution, but with even faster energy generation (which lasts for a shorter time).[17] Although helium is being burnt in a shell, the majority of the energy is produced by hydrogen burning in a shell further from the core of the star. Helium from these hydrogen burning shells drops towards the center of the star and periodically the energy output from the helium shell increases dramatically. This is known as a thermal pulse and they occur towards the end of the asymptotic-giant-branch phase, sometimes even into the post-asymptotic-giant-branch phase. Depending on mass and composition, there may be several to hundreds of thermal pulses.

There is a phase on the ascent of the asymptotic-giant-branch where a deep convective zone forms and can bring carbon from the core to the surface. This is known as the second dredge up, and in some stars there may even be a third dredge up. In this way a carbon star is formed, very cool and strongly reddened stars showing strong carbon lines in their spectra. A process known as hot bottom burning may convert carbon into oxygen and nitrogen before it can be dredged to the surface, and the interaction between these processes determines the observed luminosities and spectra of carbon stars in particular clusters.[18]

Another well known class of asymptotic-giant-branch stars are the Mira variables, which pulsate with well-defined periods of tens to hundreds of days and large amplitudes up to about 10 magnitudes (in the visual, total luminosity changes by a much smaller amount). In more-massive stars the stars become more luminous and the pulsation period is longer, leading to enhanced mass loss, and the stars become heavily obscured at visual wavelengths. These stars can be observed as OH/IR stars, pulsating in the infra-red and showing OH maser activity. These stars are clearly oxygen rich, in contrast to the carbon stars, but both must be produced by dredge ups.

Post-AGB

NGC6543
The Cat's Eye Nebula, a planetary nebula formed by the death of a star with about the same mass as the Sun

These mid-range stars ultimately reach the tip of the asymptotic-giant-branch and run out of fuel for shell burning. They are not sufficiently massive to start full-scale carbon fusion, so they contract again, going through a period of post-asymptotic-giant-branch superwind to produce a planetary nebula with an extremely hot central star. The central star then cools to a white dwarf. The expelled gas is relatively rich in heavy elements created within the star and may be particularly oxygen or carbon enriched, depending on the type of the star. The gas builds up in an expanding shell called a circumstellar envelope and cools as it moves away from the star, allowing dust particles and molecules to form. With the high infrared energy input from the central star, ideal conditions are formed in these circumstellar envelopes for maser excitation.

It is possible for thermal pulses to be produced once post-asymptotic-giant-branch evolution has begun, producing a variety of unusual and poorly understood stars known as born-again asymptotic-giant-branch stars.[19] These may result in extreme horizontal-branch stars (subdwarf B stars), hydrogen deficient post-asymptotic-giant-branch stars, variable planetary nebula central stars, and R Coronae Borealis variables.

Massive stars

VLTI reconstructed view of the surface of Antares
Reconstructed image of Antares, a red supergiant

In massive stars, the core is already large enough at the onset of the hydrogen burning shell that helium ignition will occur before electron degeneracy pressure has a chance to become prevalent. Thus, when these stars expand and cool, they do not brighten as much as lower-mass stars; however, they were much brighter than lower-mass stars to begin with, and are thus still brighter than the red giants formed from less-massive stars. These stars are unlikely to survive as red supergiants; instead they will destroy themselves as type II supernovas.

Extremely massive stars (more than approximately 40 M), which are very luminous and thus have very rapid stellar winds, lose mass so rapidly due to radiation pressure that they tend to strip off their own envelopes before they can expand to become red supergiants, and thus retain extremely high surface temperatures (and blue-white color) from their main-sequence time onwards. The largest stars of the current generation are about 100-150 M because the outer layers would be expelled by the extreme radiation. Although lower-mass stars normally do not burn off their outer layers so rapidly, they can likewise avoid becoming red giants or red supergiants if they are in binary systems close enough so that the companion star strips off the envelope as it expands, or if they rotate rapidly enough so that convection extends all the way from the core to the surface, resulting in the absence of a separate core and envelope due to thorough mixing.[20]

The core grows hotter and denser as it gains material from fusion of hydrogen at the base of the envelope. In all massive stars, electron degeneracy pressure is insufficient to halt collapse by itself, so as each major element is consumed in the center, progressively heavier elements ignite, temporarily halting collapse. If the core of the star is not too massive (less than approximately 1.4 M, taking into account mass loss that has occurred by this time), it may then form a white dwarf (possibly surrounded by a planetary nebula) as described above for less-massive stars, with the difference that the white dwarf is composed chiefly of oxygen, neon, and magnesium.

Evolved star fusion shells
The onion-like layers of a massive, evolved star just before core collapse. (Not to scale.)

Above a certain mass (estimated at approximately 2.5 M and whose star's progenitor was around 10 M), the core will reach the temperature (approximately 1.1 gigakelvins) at which neon partially breaks down to form oxygen and helium, the latter of which immediately fuses with some of the remaining neon to form magnesium; then oxygen fuses to form sulfur, silicon, and smaller amounts of other elements. Finally, the temperature gets high enough that any nucleus can be partially broken down, most commonly releasing an alpha particle (helium nucleus) which immediately fuses with another nucleus, so that several nuclei are effectively rearranged into a smaller number of heavier nuclei, with net release of energy because the addition of fragments to nuclei exceeds the energy required to break them off the parent nuclei.

A star with a core mass too great to form a white dwarf but insufficient to achieve sustained conversion of neon to oxygen and magnesium, will undergo core collapse (due to electron capture) before achieving fusion of the heavier elements.[21] Both heating and cooling caused by electron capture onto minor constituent elements (such as aluminum and sodium) prior to collapse may have a significant impact on total energy generation within the star shortly before collapse.[22] This may produce a noticeable effect on the abundance of elements and isotopes ejected in the subsequent supernova.

Supernova

Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula, the shattered remnants of a star which exploded as a supernova, the light of which reached Earth in 1054 AD

Once the nucleosynthesis process arrives at iron-56, the continuation of this process consumes energy (the addition of fragments to nuclei releases less energy than required to break them off the parent nuclei). If the mass of the core exceeds the Chandrasekhar limit, electron degeneracy pressure will be unable to support its weight against the force of gravity, and the core will undergo sudden, catastrophic collapse to form a neutron star or (in the case of cores that exceed the Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit), a black hole. Through a process that is not completely understood, some of the gravitational potential energy released by this core collapse is converted into a Type Ib, Type Ic, or Type II supernova. It is known that the core collapse produces a massive surge of neutrinos, as observed with supernova SN 1987A. The extremely energetic neutrinos fragment some nuclei; some of their energy is consumed in releasing nucleons, including neutrons, and some of their energy is transformed into heat and kinetic energy, thus augmenting the shock wave started by rebound of some of the infalling material from the collapse of the core. Electron capture in very dense parts of the infalling matter may produce additional neutrons. Because some of the rebounding matter is bombarded by the neutrons, some of its nuclei capture them, creating a spectrum of heavier-than-iron material including the radioactive elements up to (and likely beyond) uranium.[23] Although non-exploding red giants can produce significant quantities of elements heavier than iron using neutrons released in side reactions of earlier nuclear reactions, the abundance of elements heavier than iron (and in particular, of certain isotopes of elements that have multiple stable or long-lived isotopes) produced in such reactions is quite different from that produced in a supernova. Neither abundance alone matches that found in the Solar System, so both supernovae and ejection of elements from red giants are required to explain the observed abundance of heavy elements and isotopes thereof.

The energy transferred from collapse of the core to rebounding material not only generates heavy elements, but provides for their acceleration well beyond escape velocity, thus causing a Type Ib, Type Ic, or Type II supernova. Current understanding of this energy transfer is still not satisfactory; although current computer models of Type Ib, Type Ic, and Type II supernovae account for part of the energy transfer, they are not able to account for enough energy transfer to produce the observed ejection of material.[24] However, neutrino oscillations may play an important role in the energy transfer problem as they not only affect the energy available in a particular flavour of neutrinos but also through other general-relativistic effects on neutrinos.[25][26]

Some evidence gained from analysis of the mass and orbital parameters of binary neutron stars (which require two such supernovae) hints that the collapse of an oxygen-neon-magnesium core may produce a supernova that differs observably (in ways other than size) from a supernova produced by the collapse of an iron core.[27]

The most massive stars that exist today may be completely destroyed by a supernova with an energy greatly exceeding its gravitational binding energy. This rare event, caused by pair-instability, leaves behind no black hole remnant.[28] In the past history of the universe, some stars were even larger than the largest that exists today, and they would immediately collapse into a black hole at the end of their lives, due to photodisintegration.

Star life cycles red dwarf en
Stellar evolution of low-mass (left cycle) and high-mass (right cycle) stars, with examples in italics

Stellar remnants

After a star has burned out its fuel supply, its remnants can take one of three forms, depending on the mass during its lifetime.

White and black dwarfs

For a star of 1 M, the resulting white dwarf is of about 0.6 M, compressed into approximately the volume of the Earth. White dwarfs are stable because the inward pull of gravity is balanced by the degeneracy pressure of the star's electrons, a consequence of the Pauli exclusion principle. Electron degeneracy pressure provides a rather soft limit against further compression; therefore, for a given chemical composition, white dwarfs of higher mass have a smaller volume. With no fuel left to burn, the star radiates its remaining heat into space for billions of years.

A white dwarf is very hot when it first forms, more than 100,000 K at the surface and even hotter in its interior. It is so hot that a lot of its energy is lost in the form of neutrinos for the first 10 million years of its existence, but will have lost most of its energy after a billion years.[29]

The chemical composition of the white dwarf depends upon its mass. A star of a few solar masses will ignite carbon fusion to form magnesium, neon, and smaller amounts of other elements, resulting in a white dwarf composed chiefly of oxygen, neon, and magnesium, provided that it can lose enough mass to get below the Chandrasekhar limit (see below), and provided that the ignition of carbon is not so violent as to blow the star apart in a supernova.[30] A star of mass on the order of magnitude of the Sun will be unable to ignite carbon fusion, and will produce a white dwarf composed chiefly of carbon and oxygen, and of mass too low to collapse unless matter is added to it later (see below). A star of less than about half the mass of the Sun will be unable to ignite helium fusion (as noted earlier), and will produce a white dwarf composed chiefly of helium.

In the end, all that remains is a cold dark mass sometimes called a black dwarf. However, the universe is not old enough for any black dwarfs to exist yet.

If the white dwarf's mass increases above the Chandrasekhar limit, which is 1.4 M for a white dwarf composed chiefly of carbon, oxygen, neon, and/or magnesium, then electron degeneracy pressure fails due to electron capture and the star collapses. Depending upon the chemical composition and pre-collapse temperature in the center, this will lead either to collapse into a neutron star or runaway ignition of carbon and oxygen. Heavier elements favor continued core collapse, because they require a higher temperature to ignite, because electron capture onto these elements and their fusion products is easier; higher core temperatures favor runaway nuclear reaction, which halts core collapse and leads to a Type Ia supernova.[31] These supernovae may be many times brighter than the Type II supernova marking the death of a massive star, even though the latter has the greater total energy release. This instability to collapse means that no white dwarf more massive than approximately 1.4 M can exist (with a possible minor exception for very rapidly spinning white dwarfs, whose centrifugal force due to rotation partially counteracts the weight of their matter). Mass transfer in a binary system may cause an initially stable white dwarf to surpass the Chandrasekhar limit.

If a white dwarf forms a close binary system with another star, hydrogen from the larger companion may accrete around and onto a white dwarf until it gets hot enough to fuse in a runaway reaction at its surface, although the white dwarf remains below the Chandrasekhar limit. Such an explosion is termed a nova.

Neutron stars

CygnusLoopSmall
Bubble-like shock wave still expanding from a supernova explosion 15,000 years ago.

Ordinarily, atoms are mostly electron clouds by volume, with very compact nuclei at the center (proportionally, if atoms were the size of a football stadium, their nuclei would be the size of dust mites). When a stellar core collapses, the pressure causes electrons and protons to fuse by electron capture. Without electrons, which keep nuclei apart, the neutrons collapse into a dense ball (in some ways like a giant atomic nucleus), with a thin overlying layer of degenerate matter (chiefly iron unless matter of different composition is added later). The neutrons resist further compression by the Pauli Exclusion Principle, in a way analogous to electron degeneracy pressure, but stronger.

These stars, known as neutron stars, are extremely small—on the order of radius 10 km, no bigger than the size of a large city—and are phenomenally dense. Their period of rotation shortens dramatically as the stars shrink (due to conservation of angular momentum); observed rotational periods of neutron stars range from about 1.5 milliseconds (over 600 revolutions per second) to several seconds.[32] When these rapidly rotating stars' magnetic poles are aligned with the Earth, we detect a pulse of radiation each revolution. Such neutron stars are called pulsars, and were the first neutron stars to be discovered. Though electromagnetic radiation detected from pulsars is most often in the form of radio waves, pulsars have also been detected at visible, X-ray, and gamma ray wavelengths.[33]

Black holes

If the mass of the stellar remnant is high enough, the neutron degeneracy pressure will be insufficient to prevent collapse below the Schwarzschild radius. The stellar remnant thus becomes a black hole. The mass at which this occurs is not known with certainty, but is currently estimated at between 2 and 3 M.

Black holes are predicted by the theory of general relativity. According to classical general relativity, no matter or information can flow from the interior of a black hole to an outside observer, although quantum effects may allow deviations from this strict rule. The existence of black holes in the universe is well supported, both theoretically and by astronomical observation.

Because the core-collapse mechanism of a supernova is, at present, only partially understood, it is still not known whether it is possible for a star to collapse directly to a black hole without producing a visible supernova, or whether some supernovae initially form unstable neutron stars which then collapse into black holes; the exact relation between the initial mass of the star and the final remnant is also not completely certain. Resolution of these uncertainties requires the analysis of more supernovae and supernova remnants.

Models

A stellar evolutionary model is a mathematical model that can be used to compute the evolutionary phases of a star from its formation until it becomes a remnant. The mass and chemical composition of the star are used as the inputs, and the luminosity and surface temperature are the only constraints. The model formulae are based upon the physical understanding of the star, usually under the assumption of hydrostatic equilibrium. Extensive computer calculations are then run to determine the changing state of the star over time, yielding a table of data that can be used to determine the evolutionary track of the star across the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, along with other evolving properties.[34] Accurate models can be used to estimate the current age of a star by comparing its physical properties with those of stars along a matching evolutionary track.[35]

See also

References

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Further reading

External links

Asymptotic giant branch

The asymptotic giant branch (AGB) is a region of the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram populated by evolved cool luminous stars. This is a period of stellar evolution undertaken by all low- to intermediate-mass stars (0.6–10 solar masses) late in their lives.

Observationally, an asymptotic-giant-branch star will appear as a bright red giant with a luminosity ranging up to thousands of times greater than the Sun. Its interior structure is characterized by a central and largely inert core of carbon and oxygen, a shell where helium is undergoing fusion to form carbon (known as helium burning), another shell where hydrogen is undergoing fusion forming helium (known as hydrogen burning), and a very large envelope of material of composition similar to main-sequence stars.

Black dwarf

A black dwarf is a theoretical stellar remnant, specifically a white dwarf that has cooled sufficiently that it no longer emits significant heat or light. Because the time required for a white dwarf to reach this state is calculated to be longer than the current age of the universe (13.8 billion years), no black dwarfs are expected to exist in the universe now, and the temperature of the coolest white dwarfs is one observational limit on the age of the universe.The name "black dwarf" has also been applied to substellar objects that do not have sufficient mass, less than approximately 0.08 M☉, to maintain hydrogen-burning nuclear fusion. These objects are now generally called brown dwarfs, a term coined in the 1970s. Black dwarfs should not be confused with black holes or black stars.

Blue loop

In the field of stellar evolution, a blue loop is a stage in the life of an evolved star where it changes from a cool star to a hotter one before cooling again. The name derives from the shape of the evolutionary track on a Hertzsprung–Russell diagram which forms a loop towards the blue (i.e. hotter) side of the diagram.

Blue loops can occur for red supergiants red giant branch stars, or asymptotic giant branch stars. Some stars may undergo more than one blue loop. Many pulsating variable stars such as Cepheids are blue loop stars. Stars on the horizontal branch are not generally referred to as on a blue loop even though they are temporarily hotter than on the red giant or asymptotic giant branches. Loops occur far too slowly to be observed for individual stars, but are inferred from theory and from the properties and distribution of stars in the H-R diagram.

Carbon-burning process

The carbon-burning process or carbon fusion is a set of nuclear fusion reactions that take place in the cores of massive stars (at least 8 M ⊙ {\displaystyle {\begin{smallmatrix}M_{\odot }\end{smallmatrix}}} at birth) that combines carbon into other elements. It requires high temperatures (> 5×108 K or 50 keV) and densities (> 3×109 kg/m3).

These figures for temperature and density are only a guide. More massive stars burn their nuclear fuel more quickly, since they have to offset greater gravitational forces to stay in (approximate) hydrostatic equilibrium. That generally means higher temperatures, although lower densities, than for less massive stars. To get the right figures for a particular mass, and a particular stage of evolution, it is necessary to use a numerical stellar model computed with computer algorithms. Such models are continually being refined based on nuclear physics experiments (which measure nuclear reaction rates) and astronomical observations (which include direct observation of mass loss, detection of nuclear products from spectrum observations after convection zones develop from the surface to fusion-burning regions – known as 'dredge-up' events – and so bring nuclear products to the surface, and many other observations relevant to models).

Circumstellar envelope

A circumstellar envelope (CSE) is a part of a star that has a roughly spherical shape and is not gravitationally bound to the star core. Usually circumstellar envelopes are formed from the dense stellar wind, or they are present before the formation of the star. Circumstellar envelopes of the old stars (Mira variables and OH/IR stars) eventually evolve into protoplanetary nebulae, and circumstellar envelopes of the young stellar objects evolve into circumstellar discs.

Dredge-up

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.

FU Orionis star

In stellar evolution, an FU Orionis star (also FU Orionis object, or FUor) is a pre–main-sequence star which displays an extreme change in magnitude and spectral type. One example is the star V1057 Cyg, which became 6 magnitudes brighter and went from spectral type dKe to F-type supergiant. These stars are named after their type-star, FU Orionis.

The current model developed primarily by Lee Hartmann and Scott Jay Kenyon associates the FU Orionis flare with abrupt mass transfer from an accretion disc onto a young, low mass T Tauri star. Mass accretion rates for these objects are estimated to be around 10−4 solar masses per year. The rise time of these eruptions is typically on the order of 1 year, but can be much longer. The lifetime of this high-accretion, high-luminosity phase is on the order of decades. However, even with such a relatively short timespan, as of 2015 no FU Orionis object had been observed shutting off. By comparing the number of FUor outbursts to the rate of star formation in the solar neighborhood, it is estimated that the average young star undergoes approximately 10–20 FUor eruptions over its lifetime.

The prototypes of this class are: FU Orionis, V1057 Cygni, V1515 Cygni, and the embedded protostar V1647 Orionis, which erupted in January 2004.

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.

Henyey track

The Henyey track is a path taken by pre-main-sequence stars with masses >0.5 Solar mass in the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram after the end of Hayashi track. The astronomer Louis G. Henyey and his colleagues in the 1950s, showed that the pre-main-sequence star can remain in radiative equilibrium throughout some period of its contraction to the main sequence.

The Henyey track is characterized by a slow collapse in near hydrostatic equilibrium. They are approaching the main sequence almost horizontally in the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram (i.e. the luminosity remains almost constant).

Hertzsprung–Russell diagram

The Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, abbreviated as H–R diagram, HR diagram or HRD, is a scatter plot of stars showing the relationship between the stars' absolute magnitudes or luminosities versus their stellar classifications or effective temperatures. More simply, it plots each star on a graph plotting the star's brightness against its temperature (color).

The diagram was created circa 1910 by Ejnar Hertzsprung and Henry Norris Russell and represents a major step towards an understanding of stellar evolution.

The related color–magnitude diagram (CMD) plots the apparent magnitudes of stars against their color, usually for a cluster so that the stars are all at the same distance.

Instability strip

The unqualified term instability strip usually refers to a region of the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram largely occupied by several related classes of pulsating variable stars: Delta Scuti variables, SX Phoenicis variables, and rapidly oscillating Ap stars (roAps) near the main sequence; RR Lyrae variables where it intersects the horizontal branch; and the Cepheid variables where it crosses the supergiants.

RV Tauri variables are also often considered to lie on the instability strip, occupying the area to the right of the brighter Cepheids (at lower temperatures), since their pulsations are attributed to the same mechanism.

Kelvin–Helmholtz mechanism

The Kelvin–Helmholtz mechanism is an astronomical process that occurs when the surface of a star or a planet cools. The cooling causes the pressure to drop, and the star or planet shrinks as a result. This compression, in turn, heats the core of the star/planet. This mechanism is evident on Jupiter and Saturn and on brown dwarfs whose central temperatures are not high enough to undergo nuclear fusion. It is estimated that Jupiter radiates more energy through this mechanism than it receives from the Sun, but Saturn might not. The latter process causes Jupiter to shrink at a rate of two centimetres each year.The mechanism was originally proposed by Kelvin and Helmholtz in the late nineteenth century to explain the source of energy of the Sun. By the mid-nineteenth century, conservation of energy had been accepted, and one consequence of this law of physics is that the Sun must have some energy source to continue to shine. Because nuclear reactions were unknown, the main candidate for the source of solar energy was gravitational contraction.

However, it soon was recognized by Sir Arthur Eddington and others that the total amount of energy available through this mechanism only allowed the Sun to shine for millions of years rather than the billions of years that the geological and biological evidence suggested for the age of the Earth. (Kelvin himself had argued that the Earth was millions, not billions, of years old.) The true source of the Sun's energy remained uncertain until the 1930s, when it was shown by Hans Bethe to be nuclear fusion.

Neutron star spin-up

Neutron star spin up is the name given to the increase in rotational speed over time first noted in Cen X-3 and Her X-1 but now observed in other X-ray pulsars. In the case of Cen X-3, the pulse period is decreasing over a timescale of 3.4·103 years (defined as , where is the rotation period and is the rate of change in the rotation period).

Ever since the detection of the first millisecond pulsar (MSP), it has been theorized that MSPs are neutron stars that have been spun up by accretion in a close binary system. The change in rotational period of the neutron star comes from the transition region between the magnetosphere and the plasma flow from the companion star. In this context the magnetosphere is defined as the region of space surrounding the neutron star, in which the magnetic field determines the motion of the plasma. Inside the magnetic field, the plasma will eventually co-rotate with the neutron star while in the transition region, angular momentum from the accretion disk will be transferred via the magnetic field to the neutron star, leading to the spin-up.

Planetary nebula

A planetary nebula, abbreviated as PN or plural PNe, is a type of emission nebula consisting of an expanding, glowing shell of ionized gas ejected from red giant stars late in their lives.The term "planetary nebula" is arguably a misnomer because they are unrelated to planets or exoplanets. The true origin of the term was likely derived from the planet-like round shape of these nebulae as observed by astronomers through early telescopes, and although the terminology is inaccurate, it is still used by astronomers today. The first usage may have occurred during the 1780s with the English astronomer William Herschel who described these nebulae as resembling planets; however, as early as January 1779, the French astronomer Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix described in his observations of the Ring Nebula, "...a very dim but perfectly outlined; it is as large as Jupiter and resembles a fading planet."All planetary nebulae form at the end of intermediate massed star's lifetimes. They are a relatively short-lived phenomenon, lasting perhaps a few tens of thousands of years, compared to a considerably longer phases of stellar evolution. Once all of the red giant's atmosphere has been dissipated, energetic ultraviolet radiation from the exposed hot luminous core, called a planetary nebula nucleus (PNN), ionizes the ejected material. Absorbed ultraviolet light then energises the shell of nebulous gas around the central star, causing it to appear as a brightly coloured planetary nebula.

Planetary nebulae likely play a crucial role in the chemical evolution of the Milky Way by expelling elements into the interstellar medium from stars where those elements were created. Planetary nebulae are observed in more distant galaxies, yielding useful information about their chemical abundances.

Starting from the 1990s, Hubble Space Telescope images revealed that many planetary nebulae have extremely complex and varied morphologies. About one-fifth are roughly spherical, but the majority are not spherically symmetric. The mechanisms that produce such a wide variety of shapes and features are not yet well understood, but binary central stars, stellar winds and magnetic fields may play a role.

Protoplanetary nebula

A protoplanetary nebula or preplanetary nebula (Sahai, Sánchez Contreras & Morris 2005) (PPN) is an astronomical object which is at the short-lived episode during a star's rapid evolution between the late asymptotic giant branch (LAGB) phase and the subsequent planetary nebula (PN) phase. A PPN emits strongly in infrared radiation, and is a kind of reflection nebula. It is the second-from-the-last high-luminosity evolution phase in the life cycle of intermediate-mass stars (1–8 M☉). (Kastner 2005)

Red clump

The red clump is a clustering of red giants in the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram at around 5,000 K and absolute magnitude (MV) +0.5, slightly hotter than most red-giant-branch stars of the same luminosity. It is visible as a more dense region of the red giant branch or a bulge towards hotter temperatures. It is most distinct in many, but not all, galactic open clusters, but it is also noticeable in many intermediate-age globular clusters and in nearby field stars (e.g. the Hipparcos stars).

The red clump giants are cool horizontal branch stars, stars originally similar to the Sun which have undergone a helium flash and are now fusing helium in their cores.

Standard solar model

The standard solar model (SSM) is a mathematical treatment of the Sun as a spherical ball of gas (in varying states of ionisation, with the hydrogen in the deep interior being a completely ionised plasma). This model, technically the spherically symmetric quasi-static model of a star, has stellar structure described by several differential equations derived from basic physical principles. The model is constrained by boundary conditions, namely the luminosity, radius, age and composition of the Sun, which are well determined. The age of the Sun cannot be measured directly; one way to estimate it is from the age of the oldest meteorites, and models of the evolution of the Solar System. The composition in the photosphere of the modern-day Sun, by mass, is 74.9% hydrogen and 23.8% helium. All heavier elements, called metals in astronomy, account for less than 2 percent of the mass. The SSM is used to test the validity of stellar evolution theory. In fact, the only way to determine the two free parameters of the stellar evolution model, the helium abundance and the mixing length parameter (used to model convection in the Sun), are to adjust the SSM to "fit" the observed Sun.

Subgiant

A subgiant is a star that is brighter than a normal main-sequence star of the same spectral class, but not as bright as true giant stars. The term subgiant is applied both to a particular spectral luminosity class and to a stage in the evolution of a star.

Turnoff point

The turnoff point for a star refers to the point on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram where it leaves the main sequence after the exhaustion of its main fuel. It is often referred to as the main sequence turnoff.

By plotting the turnoff point of the stars in star clusters, one can estimate the cluster's age.

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