Based on results from the first year of the Kepler mission, researchers have learned a way to distinguish two different groups of red giant stars: the giants, and the truly giant giants. The findings appear this week in Nature.
Red giants, having exhausted the supply of hydrogen in their cores, burn hydrogen in a surrounding shell. Once a red giant is sufficiently evolved, the helium in the core also undergoes fusion. Until now, the very different stages looked roughly the same.
Lead author Timothy Bedding, from the University of Sydney in Australia, and his colleagues used high-precision photometry obtained by the Kepler spacecraft over
more than a year to measure oscillations in several hundred red giants.
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Using a technique called asteroseismology, the researchers were able to place the stars into two clear groups, “allowing us to distinguish unambiguously between hydrogen-shell-burning stars (period spacing mostly 50 seconds) and those that are also burning helium (period spacing 100 to 300 seconds),” they write. The latter population lend to the star an oscillation pattern dominated by gravity-mode period spacings.
In a related News and Views article, Travis Metcalfe of the Boulder, Colo.-based National Center for Atmospheric Research explains that like the sun, “the surface of a red giant seems to boil as convection brings heat up from the interior and radiates it into the coldness of outer space. These turbulent motions act like continuous starquakes, creating sound waves that travel down through the interior and back to the surface.” Some of the sounds, he writes, have just the right tone — a million times lower than what people can hear — to set up standing waves known as oscillations that cause the entire star to change its brightness regularly over hours and days, depending on its size. Asteroseismology is a method to measure those oscillations.
Metcalfe goes on to explain that a red giant’s life story depends not only on its age but also on its mass, with stars smaller than about twice the mass of the sun undergoing a sudden ignition called a helium flash.
“In more massive stars, the transition to helium core burning is gradual, so the stars exhibit a wider range of core sizes and never experience a helium flash. Bedding and colleagues show how these two populations can be distinguished observationally using their oscillation modes, providing new data to validate a previously untested prediction of stellar evolution theory,” he writes.
The study authors conclude that their new measurement of gravity-mode period spacings “is an extremely reliable parameter for distinguishing between stars in these two evolutionary stages, which are known to have very different core densities but are otherwise very similar in their fundamental properties (mass, luminosity and radius). We note that other asteroseismic observables, such as the small p-mode separations, are not able to do this.”