While science education often focuses on teaching the scientific method (or at least tries to), the real process of science is often far less linear. Theories tie together so many points of data, that making singular predictions that confirm or refute a proposition is often challenging. Such is the case for stellar evolution. The understanding is woven together from so many independent pieces, that the process is more of a roaring sea than a directed river.
Realizing this, I’ve been keen on instances in which necessary predictions are observationally confirmed later. A new study, led by Mariela Vieytes from the University of Buenos Aires and accepted in an upcoming publication of Astronomy & Astrophysics, does just that by demonstrating one of the necessary conditions for predictions of post main sequence evolution. Specifically, astronomers need to establish that stars undergo significant amounts of mass loss (~0.1-0.3 M☉) during their red giant branch evolution. This requirement was set forth as part of the expected behavior necessary to explain: “i) the very existence of the horizontal branch (HB) and its morphology, ii) the pulsational properties of RR Lyrae stars, iii) the absence of asymptotic giant branch (AGB) stars brighter than the red giant branch (RGB) tip, and the chemistry and characteristics in the AGB, post-AGB and planetary nebula evolutionary phases, iv) the mass of white dwarf (WD) stars.”
Astronomers expected to find confirmation of this mass loss by detecting gas congregating in the cores of globular clusters after being shed by stars evolving along the RGB. Yet searches for this gas came up mostly empty. Eventually astronomers realized that gas would be stripped relatively quickly as globular clusters plunged through the galactic plane. But this left them with the need to confirm the prediction in some other manner.
One way to do this is to look at the stars themselves. If they show velocities in their photospheres greater than the escape velocity, they will lose mass. Just how much higher will determine the amount of mass lost. By analyzing the Doppler shift of specific absorption lines of several stars in the cluster ω Centauri, the team was able to match the amount of mass being lost to predictions from evolutionary models. From this, the team concluded that their target stars were losing between the rates of mass loss are estimated as a few 10-9 and 10-10 M☉ yr-1. This is in general agreement with the predictions set forth by evolutionary models.