Will the Universe Run Out Of Energy?

It seems like the good times will go on forever, so feel free to keep on wasting energy. But entropy is patient, and eventually, it’ll make sure there’s no usable energy left in the Universe.

Thanks to the donations of generations of dinosaurs and their plant buddies, we’ve got fossils to burn. If we ever get off our dependence on those kinds of fuels, we’ll take advantage of renewable resources, like solar, wind, tidal, smug and geothermal. And if the physicists really deliver the goods, we’ll harness the power of the Sun and generate a nigh unlimited amount of fusion energy using the abundant hydrogen in all the oceans of the world. Fire up that replicator, the raktajino is on the house. Also, everything is now made of diamonds.

We’ll never run out of H+. Heck that stuff is already cluttering up our daily experience. 75% of the baryonic mass of the Universe is our little one-protoned friend. Closely followed up by helium and lithium, which we’ll gladly burn in our futuristic fusion reactors. Make no mistake, it’s all goin’ in.

It looks like the good times will never end. If we’ve energy to burn, we’ll never be able to contain our urges. Escalating off into more bizarre uses. Kilimajaro-sized ocean cruise liners catering to our most indulgent fantasies, colossal megastructure orbital laser casinos where life is cheap in the arena of sport. We’ll build bigger boards and bigger nails.or something absolutely ridiculous and decadent like artificial ski-hills in Dubai. Sadly, it’s naive to think it’s forever. Someday, quietly, those good times will end. Not soon, but in the distant distant future, all energy in the Universe will have been spent, and there won’t a spare electron to power a single LED.

Astronomers have thought long and hard about the distant future of the Universe. Once the main sequence stars have used up their hydrogen and become cold white dwarfs and even the dimmest red dwarfs have burned off their hydrogen. When the galaxies themselves can no longer make stars. After all the matter in the Universe is absorbed by black holes, or has cooled to the background temperature of the Universe.

Combining observations done with ESO's Very Large Telescope and NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope, astronomers have uncovered the most powerful pair of jets ever seen from a stellar black hole. The black hole blows a huge bubble of hot gas, 1,000 light-years across or twice as large and tens of times more powerful than the other such microquasars. The stellar black hole belongs to a binary system as pictured in this artist's impression. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Artist’s impression of a Star feeding a black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Black holes themselves will evaporate, disappearing slowly over the eons until they all become pure energy. Even the last proton of matter will decay into energy and dissipate. Well, maybe. Actually, physicists aren’t really sure about that yet. Free Nobel prize if you can prove it. Just saying.

And all this time, the Universe has been expanding, spreading matter and energy apart. The mysterious dark energy has been causing the expansion of the Universe to accelerate, pushing material apart until single photons will stretch across light years of distance. This is entropy, the tendency for energy to be evenly distributed. Once everything, and I do mean all things, are the same temperature you’ve hit maximum entropy, where no further work can be done.

This is known as the heat death of the Universe. The temperature of the entire Universe will be an infinitesimal fraction of a degree above Absolute Zero. Right above the place where no further energy can be extracted from an atom and no work can be done. Terrifyingly, our Universe will be out of usable energy.

The white dwarf G29-38 (NASA)
The white dwarf G29-38 (NASA)

Interestingly, there’ll still be the same amount it started with, but it’ll be evenly distributed across all places, everywhere. This won’t happen any time soon. It’ll take trillions of years before the last stars die, and an incomprehensible amount of time before black holes evaporate. We also don’t even know if protons will actually decay at all. But heat death is our inevitable future.

There’s a glimmer of good news. The entire Universe might drop down to a new energy state. If we wait long enough, the Universe might spontaneously generate a new version of itself through quantum fluctuations. So with an infinite amount of time, who knows what might happen?

Burn up those dirty dinosaurs while you can! Enjoy the light from the Sun, and the sweet whirring power from your counter-top Mr. Fusion reactor. Your distant descendants will be jealous of your wasteful use of energy, non-smothering climate and access to coffee and chocolate, as they huddle around the fading heat from the last black holes, hoping for a new universe to appear.

What’s the most extreme use of energy you can imagine? Tell us in the comments below.

Could the Death Star Destroy a Planet?

In the movie Star Wars, the Darth Vader’s Death Star destroyed a planet. Could this really happen?

You’ve watched Star Wars right? Is that still a thing? With the Starring and the Warring? Anyway, there’s this classic scene where the “Death Star” sidles up to Alderaan, and it is all like “Hey Planetoid, you lookin’ fine tonight” and then it fires up the superlaser and destroys the entire orb in a single blast. “BOOM”. Shortly followed by some collective group screaming on the interstellar forceway radio.

This is generally described as “science fiction”. And when you’re making up stories, anything you like can happen in them. George Lucas’ hunger for your childhood toy money wasn’t hampered by the pesky constraints of physics in any meaningful way.

Here at the Guide to Space, we get to take our own flights of fancy and pointlessly speculate for your amusement. That’s our job. Well, that and snark. Let’s consider what it would actually take to destroy a planet with a ‘pew pew’ style laser beam, and what kinds of energy would need to be harnessed in a fully armed and operational battle station.

Let’s go back and carefully review our “evidence”. The Death Star drifts in, charges up all its lasers into a superlaser blast focused on Alderaan. The planet then detonates and chunks fly off in every direction just like the pie eating contest in “Stand By Me”.

What we saw was every part of Alderaan given enough of a kick so that it was traveling at escape velocity from every other part of the planet. If the Death Star hadn’t delivered enough explosive energy, the planet might have fluffed up for a moment, but then the collective gravity would suck it all back in together, and then the slightly re-arranged, and likely now uninhabited planet would continue orbiting its star.

You can imagine doing this the slow way. Take each continent on Alderaan, load it up into a rocket and blast that rocket off into space as though it was on escape trajectory from the planet. Sure, you’d would need an incomprehensible number of rocket launches to get that material off the planet. But hey, midichlorians, blue finger lightning and ESP.

Fortunately, as you carted away more and more of the busted up rock, it would have less mutual gravity, and so the rocket launches would require less and less energy to get the job done. Eventually, you’d just be left with one last chunk of rock that you could just force ninja kick into the neighboring star.

Death Star beam. Credit: Lucasfilm
Death Star beam. Credit: Lucasfilm

So how much energy is that going to take? Well, there’s an “easy” calculation you can make. The energy you’d need is equal to 3 times the gravitational constant (6.673 x 10^-11) times the mass of the planet squared divided by 5 times the planet’s radius. Do this math for an Earth-sized/mass world, and let’s see that’s, two and one, carry the 5… and you get 2 x 10^36 joules. That’s a two followed by 36 zeros in joules. Is that a lot? That sounds like a lot.

Well, our own Sun puts out 3 x 10^26 joules per second. So, if you poured all the energy from the Sun into the task of tearing apart the Earth, it wouldn’t have enough energy to do it. In fact, you’d need to focus the light of the Sun for a full week to get that level of planet destruction done.

According to ancient Star Warsian dork scholars, the Death Star (SOLUS MORTIS) is powered by a hyperreactor with the output of multiple main sequence stars. So there you go, problem solved. It’s the size of a small moon, but it’s more powerful than many stars. Of course it can destroy a planet.

Exploding planet. Credit: ESO
Exploding planet. Credit: ESO

The Death Star clearly destroyed Alderaan. We watched it explode. I saw it, you saw it. We heard the screams of millions of souls cry out. It happened. But what if it wasn’t a beam thingy?

Our math is good, but clearly we’re not enlightened enough to comprehend the true wisdom hidden within the Lucasian scriptures. Perhaps the Death Star’s superlaser was just a targeting laser. Directing the placement of gigantic antimatter bomb. According to Ethan Siegel, from “Starts With a Bang,” you’d only need 1.24 trillion tonnes of antimatter.

Imagine you made a bomb out of that much antimatter iron – if that’s even a thing – you’d only need a sphere about 3 km across. If the Death Star is 150 km across or so, they could carry a bunch of these. Very carefully. Like super carefully. Okay, maybe it’d be a good idea if everyone took off their boots, and make sure they only talked with their inside voices.

Obviously, Star Wars is a story, so anything, ANYTHING can happen. The future is unknown, and we might discover all kinds of weirdo physics and harness them into all kinds of powerful weapons. I’m only suggesting, that a space station capable of deploying a week’s worth of solar energy in a single second might be a stretch. And maybe, George, if you just done a little back of the napkin math, we wouldn’t be talking about this right now. Also, maybe no Ewoks. I’m just saying.

Where do you stand on the feasibility of imaginary space station weaponry? How big a planet can your imagination destroy?

How Much Water Would Extinguish the Sun?

Have you ever wondered how much water it would take to put out the Sun? It turns out, the Sun isn’t on fire. So what would happen if you did try to hit the Sun with a tremendous amount of water?

How much water would it take to extinguish the Sun? I recently saw this great question on Reddit, and I couldn’t resist taking a crack at it: We know that the question doesn’t make a lot of sense.

A fire is a chemical reaction, where material releases heat as it oxidizes. If you take away oxygen from a fire, it goes out. But.. there’s no oxygen in space, it’s a vacuum. So, there’s not a whole lot of room for regular flavor water-extinguishable fire in space. You know this. How many times have we had to seal off the living quarters and open the bay doors to vent all the oxygen in the space because there was a fire in the cargo bay? We have to do that, like, all the time.

Our wonderful Sun is something quite different. It’s a nuclear fusion reaction, converting hydrogen atoms into helium under the immense temperatures and pressures at its core. It doesn’t need oxygen to keep producing energy. It’s already got its fuel baked in. All the Sun needs is our adoration, quiet, and yet ever present fear. Only if we constantly pray will it be happy and perhaps we’ll go another day where it doesn’t hurl a giant chunk of itself at our smug little faces because it’s tired of our shenanigans.

So, I’m still going to take a swing at this question… so let’s talk about what would happen if you did pour a tremendous amount of water on the Sun? Let’s say another Sun’s worth of H20. Conveniently, Hydrogen is what the Sun uses for fuel, so if you give the Sun more hydrogen, it should just get larger and hotter.

Oxygen is one of the byproducts of fusion. Right now, our Sun is turning hydrogen into helium using the proton-proton fusion reaction. But there’s another type of reaction that happens in there called the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen reaction. As of right now, only 0.8% of the Sun’s fusion reactions proceed along this path.

So if you fed the Sun more oxygen as part of the water, it would allow it to perform more of these fusion reactions too. For stars which are 1.3 times the mass of the Sun, this CNO reaction is the main way fusion is taking place. So, if we did dump a giant pile of water onto the Sun, we’d just be making Sun bigger and hotter.

Cutaway to the Interior of the Sun. Credit: NASA
Cutaway to the Interior of the Sun. Credit: NASA

Conveniently, larger hotter stars burn for a shorter amount of time before they die. The largest, most massive stars only last a few million years and then they explode as supernovae. So, if you’re out to destroy the Sun, and you’re playing a really, really long game, this might actually be a viable route.

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intent though. Let’s say we just want to snuff out the Sun. Vsauce provides a strategy for this. If you could somehow blast your water at the Sun at high enough velocity, you might be able to tear it apart. If you can reduce the Sun’s mass, you can decrease the temperature and pressure in its core so that it can no longer support fusion reactions.

I’m going to sum up. The Sun isn’t on fire. There’s no amount of water you could add that would quench it, you’d just make it explode, but if you used firehoses that could spray water at nearly the speed of light, you could probably shut the thing off and eventually freeze us all, which is what I think you were hoping for in the first place.

What do you think? What else could we do to snuff out the Sun?

Mr. Fusion? Compact Fusion Reactor Will be Available in 5 Years Says Lockheed-Martin

The Farnsworth Fusor; Pons and Fleishmann. It seems the trail to fusion energy has long gone cold — stone cold, that is, and not cold as in cold fusion. Despite the promise of fusion providing a sustainable and safe energy source, fusion reactors are not a dime a dozen and they won’t be replacing coal fired power plants any time soon. Or will they? Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works announced a prototype compact fusion reactor that could be ready within five years. This revelation has raised eyebrows and sparked moments of enthusiasm.

But, let’s considers this story and where it all fits in both the history and future.

For every Skunk Works project that has made the runway such as the Stealth Fighter or SR-71 Blackbird, there are untold others that never see the light of day. This adds to the surprise and mystery of Lockheed-Martin’s willingness to release images and a detailed narrative describing a compact fusion reactor project. The impact that such a device would have on humanity can be imagined … and at the same time one imagines how much is unimaginable.

Lockheed-Martin engineers in the Skunkworks prepare a vessel, one component of an apparatus that they announced will lead to nuclear fusion in a truck-sized reactor within 5 years. An international effort is underway in Europe to create the worlds first practical tokamak fusion reactor, a much larger and costlier design that has never achieved the long sought "breakeven" point. (Photo Credit: Lockheed-Martin)
Lockheed-Martin engineers in the Skunkworks prepare a vessel, one component of an apparatus that they announced will lead to nuclear fusion in a truck-sized reactor within 5 years. An international effort is underway in Europe to create the world’s first practical tokamak fusion reactor, a much larger and costlier design that has never achieved the long sought “breakeven” point. (Photo Credit: Lockheed-Martin)

The program manager of the Skunk Works’ compact fusion reactor experiment is Tom Maguire. Maguire and his team places emphasis on the turn-around time for modifying and testing the compact fusion device. With the confidence they are expressing in their design and the ability to quickly build, test and modify, they are claiming only five years will be needed to reach a prototype.

What exactly the prototype represents was left unexplained, however. Maguire continues by saying that in 10 years, the device will be seen in military applications and in 20 years it will be delivered to the world as a replacement for the dirty energy sources that are in use today. Military apps at 10 years means that the device will be too expensive initially for civilian operations but such military use would improve performance and lower costs which could lead to the 20 year milestone moment if all goes as planned.

Their system uses magnetic confinement, the same basic principle behind the tokamak toroidal plasma confinement system that has received the greatest attention and government funding for over 50 years.

The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor is expected to begin operational testing in 2020 and begin producing deuterium-tritium fusion reactions in 2027. (Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes)
The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor is expected to begin operational testing in 2020 and begin producing deuterium-tritium fusion reactions in 2027. (Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes)

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is currently under construction in Europe under the assumption that it will be the first net energy producing fusion generator ever. It is funded by the European Union, India, Japan, People’s Republic of China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. But there are cost over-runs and its price has gone from $5 billion to $50 billion.

ITER is scheduled to begin initial testing in 2019 about the time Lockheed-Martin’s compact fusion reactor prototype is expected. If Lockheed-Martin succeeds in their quest, they will effectively have skunked ITER and laid to waste a $50 billion international effort at likely 1/1000th the cost.

There are a few reasons Lockheed-Martin has gone out on a limb. Consider the potential. One ton of Uranium used in Fission reactors has as much energy as 1,500 tons of coal. But fission reactors produce radioactive waste and are a finite resource without breeder reactors, themselves a nuclear proliferation risk. Fusion produces 3 to 4 times more energy per reaction than fission. Additionally, the fuel — isotopes of hydrogen — is available from sea water — which is nearly limitless — and the byproducts are far less radioactive than with fission. Fusion generators once developed could provide our energy needs for millions of years.

More pragmatically, corporations promote their R&D. They are in a constant state of competition. They present a profile that ranges from the practical to the cutting edge to instill confidence in their Washington coffers. Furthermore, their competitors have high profile individuals and projects. A fusion project demonstrates that Lockheed-Martin is doing more than creating better mouse-traps.

To date, no nuclear fusion reactor has achieved breakeven. This is when the fusion device outputs as much energy as is input to operate it. Magnetic confinement such as the various tokamak designs, Lawrence Livermore’s laser-based inertial confinement method, and even the simple Philo Farnsworth Fusor can all claim to be generating energy from fusion reactions. They are just all spending more energy than their devices output.

An example of a homemade Fusor. Originally invented in the 1960s by the inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth. (Credit: Wikipedia, W.Jack)
An example of a homemade Fusor. Originally invented in the 1960s by the inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth. (Credit: Wikipedia, W.Jack)

The fusor, invented in the 1960s by Farnsworth and Hirsh, is a electrostatic plasma confinement system. It uses electric fields to confine and accelerate ions through a central point at which some ions will collide with sufficient energy to fuse. Although the voltage needed is readily achieved by amateurs – about 4000 volts – not uncommon in household devices, no fusor has reached breakeven and theoretically never will. The challenge to reaching breakeven involves not just energy/temperature but also plasma densities. Replicating conditions that exist in the core of stars in a controllable way is not easy. Nevertheless, there is a robust community of “fusioneers” around the world and linked by the internet.

Mr Fusion, the compact fusion reactor that drove the 21st Century version of the DeLorian in Back to the Future. The movie trilogy grossed $1 billion at the box office. Mr Fusion could apparently function off of any water bearing material. (Credit: Universal Pictures)
Mr Fusion, the compact fusion reactor that drove the 21st Century version of the DeLorean in Back to the Future. The movie trilogy grossed $1 billion at the box office. Mr Fusion could apparently function off of any water bearing material. (Credit: Universal Pictures)

It remains to be seen who, what and when a viable fusion reactor will be demonstrated. With Lockheed-Martin’s latest announcement, once again, fusion energy is “just around the corner.” But many skeptics remain who will quickly state that commercial fusion energy remains 50 years in the future. So long as Maguire’s team meets milestones with expected performance improvements, their work will go on. The potential of fusion energy remains too great to dismiss categorically.

Source: Lockheed-Martin Products Page, Compact Fusion

Are All the Stars Really Dead?

Have you ever heard that meme, “When looking at stars, you’re actually looking into the past. Many of the stars we see at night have already died.” Is this true?

While you’re flipping through your Pinterest collection of cat-based inspirational posters, you might come across the saying, “When looking at stars, you’re actually looking into the past. Many of the stars we see at night have already died. Like your dreams.”

Aww, that’s mean and sad. But is it true, Squidward? Are all these beautiful stars in our night sky long gone? Like our dreams?

Light travels at about 300,000 km/s, which is incredibly fast. Stars are so far away, even light from the closest stars will take years to get to us travelling at that speed. Most of the stars we see with the naked eye are actually pretty close. The brightest in the night sky is Sirius in the constellation Canis Major. It’s only about 8.6 light years away.

Which means if you crashed a whole bunch of spaceships into it tomorrow, we here on Earth wouldn’t see it happen for almost a decade. Long after people had stopped wondering where you’d picked up all those spaceships, and why had you decided to crash them into a star instead of trading for gold pressed latinum, the spice Melange, or magical space cheese.

One of the most distant naked eye stars is Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, which is almost 3,000 light years away. The light we’re seeing from Deneb started its journey towards us when ancient Rome was just a few hamlets and not even on the map for real estate speculators.

Cygnus. Credit: Stellarium
Cygnus. Credit: Stellarium

This might seem like a really long time for those of us without immortal robot bodies, but a few thousand years is negligible to the age of a typical star, which is on the order of billions of years. So, Deneb, barring removal for an interstellar bypass, is probably still there.

There are a few stars that could possibly explode in the near future, such as the red giant star Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion.

It’s about 650 light years away, if it had exploded a couple centuries ago, we still wouldn’t know. There are a few galaxies that can be seen with the naked eye, such as Andromeda, which is about 2.5 million light years away. Given that Andromeda has somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars, it is almost certain that some of them have exploded in the last 2 and a half million years. But the vast majority of them have are still there, twinkling away.

So it is possible that you could look up in the night sky and see a “dead” star, but almost all of the stars you see are perfectly active main-sequence stars, and will be for quite some time. Telescopes allow us to see much further out into space, billions of light years away. Given that a star like our Sun has a lifetime of about 10 billion years, many stars in most of the distant galaxies we observe died long ago.

This cluster is 27,000 light-years away and lies farther than the center of our galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius. Credit: NASA/ESA/I. King, Univ. of Calif., Berkeley/Wikisky.org
This cluster is 27,000 light-years away and lies farther than the center of our galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius. Credit: NASA/ESA/I. King, Univ. of Calif., Berkeley/Wikisky.org

But don’t be sad, we’re not running out of stars. Because of this huge passage of time, it means many new stars have been born, and we just aren’t able to see them yet. There are some stars even in the most distant galaxies that are still around.

Smaller stars live longer than larger stars, and red dwarf stars can live for trillions of years. So when you look at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, the most distant galaxies are around 13 billion years old, and the smaller stars in those galaxies are still shining. So don’t worry. Those stars are still there, and so are your dreams.

What do you think? If you go get a closeup look and see which stars were still around, where would you go look first? Tell us in the comments below.

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

How Do You Jumpstart A Dead Star?

It’s a staple of science fiction, restarting our dying star with some kind of atomic superbomb. Why is our Sun running out of fuel, and what can we actually do to get it restarted?

Stars die. Occasionally threatening the Earth and its civilization in a variety plot devices in science fiction. Fortunately there’s often a Bruce Willis coming in to save the day, delivering a contraption, possibly riding a giant bomb shaped like a spaceship, to the outer proximity of our dying Sun that magically fixes the broken star and all humanity is saved.

Is there any truth in this idea? If our Sun dies, can we just crack out a giant solar defibrillator and shock it back into life? Not exactly.

First, let’s review at how stars die. Our Sun is halfway through its life. It’s been going for about 4.5 billion years, and in 5 billion years it’ll use up all the hydrogen in its core, bloat up as a red giant, puff off its outer layers and collapse down into a white dwarf.

Is there a point in there, anywhere, that we could get it back to acting like a sun? Technically? Yes. Did you know it will only use up a fraction of its fuel during its lifetime? Only in the core of the Sun are the temperatures and pressures high enough for fusion reactions to take place. This region extends out to roughly 25% of the radius, which only makes up about 2% of the volume.

Outside the core is the radiative zone, where fusion doesn’t take place. Here, the only way gamma radiation can escape is to be absorbed and radiated countless times, until it reaches the next layer of the Sun: the convective zone. Here temperatures have dropped to the point that the whole region acts like a giant lava lamp. Huge blobs of superheated stellar plasma rise up within the star and release their energy into space. This radiative zone acts like a wall, keeping the potential fuel in the convective zone away from the fusion furnace.

Cutaway to the Interior of the Sun. Credit: NASA
Cutaway to the Interior of the Sun. Credit: NASA

So, if you could connect the convective zone to the solar core, you’d be able to keep mixing up the material in the Sun. The core of the Sun would be able to efficiently fuse all the hydrogen in the star.

Sound crazy? Interestingly, this already happens in our Universe. For red dwarf stars with less than 35% the mass of the Sun, their convective zones connect directly to the core of the star. This is why these stars can last for hundreds of billions and even trillions of years. They will efficiently use up all the hydrogen in the entire star thanks to the mixing of the convective zone. If we could create a method to break through the radiative zone and get that fresh hydrogen into the core of the Sun, we could keep basking in its golden tanning rays for well past its current expiration date.

I never said it would be easy. It would take stellar engineering at a colossal scale to overcome the equilibrium of the star. A future civilization with an incomprehensible amount of energy and stellar engineering ability might be able to convert our one star into a collection of fully convective red dwarf stars. And these could sip away their hydrogen for trillions of years.

Tell us in the comments on how you think we should go about it. My money is on giant ‘magic bullet’ blender” or a perhaps a Dyson solar juicer.

Astronomy Cast Ep. 325: Cold Fusion

The Universe is filled with hot fusion, in the cores of stars. And scientists have even been able to replicate this stellar process in expensive experiments. But wouldn’t it be amazing if you could produce energy from fusion without all that equipment, and high temperatures and pressures? Pons and Fleischmann announced exactly that back in 1989, but things didn’t quite turn out as planned…

Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 325: Cold Fusion”

How Does a Star Form?

We owe our entire existence to the Sun. Well, it and the other stars that came before. As they died, they donated the heavier elements we need for life. But how did they form?

Stars begin as vast clouds of cold molecular hydrogen and helium left over from the Big Bang. These vast clouds can be hundreds of light years across and contain the raw material for thousands or even millions of times the mass of our Sun. In addition to the hydrogen, these clouds are seeded with heavier elements from the stars that lived and died long ago. They’re held in balance between their inward force of gravity and the outward pressure of the molecules. Eventually some kick overcomes this balance and causes the cloud to begin collapsing.

That kick could come from a nearby supernova explosion, collision with another gas cloud, or the pressure wave of a galaxy’s spiral arms passing through the region. As this cloud collapses, it breaks into smaller and smaller clumps, until there are knots with roughly the mass of a star. As these regions heat up, they prevent further material from falling inward.

At the center of these clumps, the material begins to increase in heat and density. When the outward pressure balances against the force of gravity pulling it in, a protostar is formed. What happens next depends on the amount of material.

Some objects don’t accumulate enough mass for stellar ignition and become brown dwarfs – substellar objects not unlike a really big Jupiter, which slowly cool down over billions of years.

If a star has enough material, it can generate enough pressure and temperature at its core to begin deuterium fusion – a heavier isotope of hydrogen. This slows the collapse and prepares the star to enter the true main sequence phase. This is the stage that our own Sun is in, and begins when hydrogen fusion begins.

If a protostar contains the mass of our Sun, or less, it undergoes a proton-proton chain reaction to convert hydrogen to helium. But if the star has about 1.3 times the mass of the Sun, it undergoes a carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle to convert hydrogen to helium. How long this newly formed star will last depends on its mass and how quickly it consumes hydrogen. Small red dwarf stars can last hundreds of billions of years, while large supergiants can consume their hydrogen within a few million years and detonate as supernovae. But how do stars explode and seed their elements around the Universe? That’s another episode.

We have written many articles about star formation on Universe Today. Here’s an article about star formation in the Large Magellanic Cloud, and here’s another about star formation in NGC 3576.

Want more information on stars? Here’s Hubblesite’s News Releases about Stars, and more information from NASA’s imagine the Universe.

We have recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars. Here are two that you might find helpful: Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From, and Episode 13: Where Do Stars Go When they Die?

Source: NASA

New “Flying Tea Kettle” Could Get Us To Mars in Weeks, Not Months

At 54.6 million km away at its closest, the fastest travel to Mars from Earth using current technology (and no small bit of math) takes around 214 days — that’s about 30 weeks, or 7 months. A robotic explorer like Curiosity may not have any issues with that, but it’d be a tough journey for a human crew. Developing a quicker, more efficient method of propulsion for interplanetary voyages is essential for future human exploration missions… and right now a research team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville is doing just that.

This summer, UAHuntsville researchers, partnered with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Boeing, are laying the groundwork for a propulsion system that uses powerful pulses of nuclear fusion created within hollow 2-inch-wide “pucks” of lithium deuteride. And like hockey pucks, the plan is to “slapshot” them with plasma energy, fusing the lithium and hydrogen atoms inside and releasing enough force to ultimately propel a spacecraft — an effect known as “Z-pinch”.

“If this works,” said Dr. Jason Cassibry, an associate professor of engineering at UAH, “we could reach Mars in six to eight weeks instead of six to eight months.”

Read: How Long Does It Take To Get To Mars?

The key component to the UAH research is the Decade Module 2 — a massive device used by the Department of Defense for weapons testing in the 90s. Delivered last month to UAH (some assembly required) the DM2 will allow the team to test Z-pinch creation and confinement methods, and then utilize the data to hopefully get to the next step: fusion of lithium-deuterium pellets to create propulsion controlled via an electromagnetic field “nozzle”.

Although a rocket powered by Z-pinch fusion wouldn’t be used to actually leave Earth’s surface — it would run out of fuel within minutes — once in space it could be fired up to efficiently spiral out of orbit, coast at high speed and then slow down at the desired location, just like conventional rockets except… better.

“It’s equivalent to 20 percent of the world’s power output in a tiny bolt of lightning no bigger than your finger. It’s a tremendous amount of energy in a tiny period of time, just a hundred billionths of a second.”

– Dr. Jason Cassibry on the Z-pinch effect

In fact, according to a UAHuntsville news release, a pulsed fusion engine is pretty much the same thing as a regular rocket engine: a “flying tea kettle.” Cold material goes in, gets energized and hot gas pushes out. The difference is how much and what kind of cold material is used, and how forceful the push out is.

Everything else is just rocket science.

Read more on the University of Huntsville news site here and on al.com. Also, Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams has a nice write-up about the research as well as a little history of Z-pinch fusion technology… check it out. Top image: Mars imaged with Hubble’s Wide-Field Planetary Camera 2 in March 1995.

Darwin vs. the Sun

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Today, we take it for granted that the Sun produces energy via nuclear fusion. However, this realization only came about in the early 1900’s and wasn’t confirmed until several decades later (see the Solar Neutrino Problem). Prior to that, several other methods of energy production had been proposed. These ranged from burning coal to a constant bombardment of comets and meteors to slow contraction. Each of these methods seemed initially plausible, but when astronomers of the time worked out how long each one could sustain such a brightness, they came up against an unlikely opponent: Charles Darwin.

In a “Catholic Magazine and Review” from 1889, known as The Month, there is a good record of the development of the problem faced in an article titled “The Age of the Sun and Darwinism”. It begins with a review of the recently discovered Law of Conservation of Energy in which they establish that a method of generation must be established and that this question is necessarily entangled with the age of the Sun and also, life on Earth. Without a constant generation of energy, the Sun would quickly cool and this was known to be unlikely due to archaeological evidences which hinted that the Sun’s output had been constant for at least 4,000 years.

While burning coal seemed a good candidate since coal power was just coming into fashion at the time, scientists had calculated that even burning in pure oxygen, the Sun could only last ~6,000 years. The article feared that this may signal “the end of supplies of heat and light to our globe would be very near indeed” since religious scholars held the age of the Earth to be some “4000 years of chronological time before the Christian era, and 1800 since”.

The bombardment hypothesis was also examined explaining that the transference of kinetic energy can increase temperatures citing examples of bullets striking metal surfaces or hammers heating anvils. But again, calculations hinted that this too was wrong. The rate with which the Sun would have to accumulate mass was extremely high. So much so that it would lead to the “derangement of the whole mechanism of the heavens.” The result would be that the period of the year over the past ~6,000 years would have shortened by six weeks and that the Earth too would be constantly bombarded by meteors (although some especially strong meteor showers at that time lent some credence to this).

The only strong candidate left was that of gravitational contraction proposed by Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and Hermann von Helmholtz in a series of papers they began publishing in 1854. But in 1859, Darwin published the Origin of Species in which he required an age of at least two billion years. Thomson’s and Helmholtz’s hypothesis could only support an age of some tens of millions of years. Thus astronomy and biology were brought head to head. Darwin was fully aware of this problem. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that, “Thomson’s views of the recent age of the world have been for some time one of my sorest troubles”.

To back the astronomers was the developing field of spectroscopy in which they determined that the sun and other stars bared a strong similarity to that of nebulae. These nebulae could contract under their own gravity and as such, provided a natural establishment for the formation of stars, leading gracefully into the contraction hypothesis. Although not mentioned in the article, Darwin did have some support from geologists like Charles Lyell who studied the formation of mountain ranges and also posited an older Earth.

Some astronomers attempted to add other methods in addition to gravitational contraction (such as tidal friction) to extend the age of the solar system, but none could reach the age required by Darwin. Similarly, some biologists worked to speed up evolutionary processes by positing separate events of abiogenesis to shave off some of the required time for diversification of various kingdoms. But these too could not rectify the problem.

Ultimately, the article throws its weight in the camp of the doomed astronomers. Interestingly, much of the same rhetoric in use by anti-evolutionists today can be found in the article. They state, “it is not surprising to find men of science, who not only have not the slightest doubt about the truth of their own pet theories, but are ready to lay down the law in the realms of philosophy and theology, in science which with, to judge from their immoderate assertions, their acquaintance is of the most remote? Such language is to be expected from the camp-followers in the army of science, who assurance is generally inversely proportional to their knowledge, for many of those in a word who affect to popularize the doctrine of Natural Selection.”

In time, Darwin would win the battle as astronomers would realize that gravitational contraction was just the match that lit the fuse of fusion. However, we must ask whether scientists would have been as quickly able to accept the proposition of stellar fusion had Darwin not pointed out the fundamental contradiction in ages?