How Do You Jumpstart A Dead Star?

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?

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 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

The Age of the Sun and Darwinism


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?

Why is the Sun Hot?

Plasma on the surface of the Sun. Image credit: Hinode

The Sun is the hottest place in the Solar System. The surface of the Sun is a mere 5,800 Kelvin, but down at the core of the Sun, the temperatures reach 15 million Kelvin. What’s going on, why is the Sun hot?

The Sun is just a big plasma ball of hydrogen, held together by the mutual gravity of all its mass. This enormous mass pulls inward, trying to compress the Sun down. It’s the same reason why the Earth and the rest of the planets are spheres. As the pull of gravity compresses the gas inside the Sun together, it increases the temperature and pressure in the core.

If you could travel down into the Sun, you’d reach a point where the pressure and temperature are enough that nuclear fusion is able to take place. This is the process where protons are merged together into atoms of helium. It can only happen in hot temperatures, and under incredible pressures. But the process of fusion gives off more energy than it uses. So once it gets going, each fusion reaction gives off gamma radiation. It’s the radiation pressure of this light created in the core of the Sun that actually stops it from compressing any more.

The Sun is actually in perfect balance. Gravity is trying to squeeze it together into a little ball, but this creates the right conditions for fusion. The fusion releases radiation, and it’s this radiation that pushes back against the gravity, keeping the Sun as a sphere.

We have written many articles about the Sun for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how hot the surface of the Sun is, and here’s an article about the parts of the Sun.

If you’d like more information on the Sun, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the Sun, and here’s a link to the SOHO mission homepage, which has the latest images from the Sun.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about the Sun. Check it out, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.