Who Discovered Helium?

Scientists have understood for some time that the most abundant elements in the Universe are simple gases like hydrogen and helium. These make up the vast majority of its observable mass, dwarfing all the heavier elements combined (and by a wide margin). And between the two, helium is the second lightest and second most abundant element, being present in about 24% of observable Universe’s elemental mass.

Whereas we tend to think of Helium as the hilarious gas that does strange things to your voice and allows balloons to float, it is actually a crucial part of our existence. In addition to being a key component of stars, helium is also a major constituent in gas giants. This is due in part to its very high nuclear binding energy, plus the fact that is produced by both nuclear fusion and radioactive decay. And yet, scientists have only been aware of its existence since the late 19th century.

Continue reading “Who Discovered Helium?”

What is the Life Cycle Of The Sun?

The Sun has always been the center of our cosmological systems. But with the advent of modern astronomy, humans have become aware of the fact that the Sun is merely one of countless stars in our Universe. In essence, it is a perfectly normal example of a G-type main-sequence star (G2V, aka. “yellow dwarf”). And like all stars, it has a lifespan, characterized by a formation, main sequence, and eventual death.

This lifespan began roughly 4.6 billion years ago, and will continue for about another 4.5 – 5.5 billion years, when it will deplete its supply of hydrogen, helium, and collapse into a white dwarf. But this is just the abridged version of the Sun’s lifespan. As always, God (or the Devil, depending on who you ask) is in the details!

To break it down, the Sun is about half way through the most stable part of its life. Over the course of the past four billion years, during which time planet Earth and the entire Solar System was born, it has remained relatively unchanged. This will stay the case for another four billion years, at which point, it will have exhausted its supply of hydrogen fuel. When that happens, some pretty drastic things will take place!

The Birth of the Sun:

According to Nebular Theory, the Sun and all the planets of our Solar System began as a giant cloud of molecular gas and dust. Then, about 4.57 billion years ago, something happened that caused the cloud to collapse. This could have been the result of a passing star, or shock waves from a supernova, but the end result was a gravitational collapse at the center of the cloud.

Protoplanet Hypothesis
Artist’s concept of a star surrounded by a molecular cloud to form a swirling disk called a “protoplanetary disk.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

From this collapse, pockets of dust and gas began to collect into denser regions. As the denser regions pulled in more and more matter, conservation of momentum caused it to begin rotating, while increasing pressure caused it to heat up. Most of the material ended up in a ball at the center while the rest of the matter flattened out into disk that circled around it.

The ball at the center would eventually form the Sun, while the disk of material would form the planets. The Sun spent about 100,000 years as a collapsing protostar before temperature and pressures in the interior ignited fusion at its core. The Sun started as a T Tauri star – a wildly active star that blasted out an intense solar wind. And just a few million years later, it settled down into its current form. The life cycle of the Sun had begun.

The Main Sequence:

The Sun, like most stars in the Universe, is on the main sequence stage of its life, during which nuclear fusion reactions in its core fuse hydrogen into helium. Every second, 600 million tons of matter are converted into neutrinos, solar radiation, and roughly 4 x 1027 Watts of energy. For the Sun, this process began 4.57 billion years ago, and it has been generating energy this way every since.

However, this process cannot last forever since there is a finite amount of hydrogen in the core of the Sun. So far, the Sun has converted an estimated 100 times the mass of the Earth into helium and solar energy. As more hydrogen is converted into helium, the core continues to shrink, allowing the outer layers of the Sun to move closer to the center and experience a stronger gravitational force.

The Sun captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory Spacecraft.
The Sun captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory Spacecraft.

This places more pressure on the core, which is resisted by a resulting increase in the rate at which fusion occurs. Basically, this means that as the Sun continues to expend hydrogen in its core, the fusion process speeds up and the output of the Sun increases. At present, this is leading to a 1% increase in luminosity every 100 million years, and a 30% increase over the course of the last 4.5 billion years.

In 1.1 billion years from now, the Sun will be 10% brighter than it is today, and this increase in luminosity will also mean an increase in heat energy, which Earth’s atmosphere will absorb. This will trigger a moist greenhouse effect here on Earth that is similar to the runaway warming that turned Venus into the hellish environment we see there today.

In 3.5 billion years from now, the Sun will be 40% brighter than it is right now. This increase will cause the oceans to boil, the ice caps to permanently melt, and all water vapor in the atmosphere to be lost to space. Under these conditions, life as we know it will be unable to survive anywhere on the surface. In short, planet Earth will come to be another hot, dry Venus.

Core Hydrogen Exhaustion:

All things must end. That is true for us, that is true for the Earth, and that is true for the Sun. It’s not going to happen anytime soon, but one day in the distant future, the Sun will run out of hydrogen fuel and slowly slouch towards death. This will begin in approximate 5.4 billion years, at which point the Sun will exit the main sequence of its lifespan.

With its hydrogen exhausted in the core, the inert helium ash that has built up there will become unstable and collapse under its own weight. This will cause the core to heat up and get denser, causing the Sun to grow in size and enter the Red Giant phase of its evolution. It is calculated that the expanding Sun will grow large enough to encompass the orbit’s of Mercury, Venus, and maybe even Earth. Even if the Earth survives, the intense heat from the red sun will scorch our planet and make it completely impossible for life to survive.

Final Phase and Death:

Once it reaches the Red-Giant-Branch (RGB) phase,  the Sun will haves approximately 120 million years of active life left. But much will happen in this amount of time. First, the core (full of degenerate helium), will ignite violently in a helium flash – where approximately 6% of the core and 40% of the Sun’s mass will be converted into carbon within a matter of minutes.

The Sun will then shrink to around 10 times its current size and 50 times its luminosity, with a temperature a little lower than today. For the next 100 million years, it will continue to burn helium in its core until it is exhausted. By this point, it will be in its Asymptotic-Giant-Branch (AGB) phase, where it will expand again (much faster this time) and become more luminous.

Over the course of the next 20 million years, the Sun will then become unstable and begin losing mass through a series of thermal pulses. These will occur every 100,000 years or so, becoming larger each time and increasing the Sun’s luminosity to 5,000 times its current brightness and its radius to over 1 AU.

At this point, the Sun’s expansion will either encompass the Earth, or leave it entirely inhospitable to life. Planets in the Outer Solar System are likely to change dramatically, as more energy is absorbed from the Sun, causing their water ices to sublimate – perhaps forming dense atmosphere and surface oceans. After 500,000 years or so, only half of the Sun’s current mass will remain and its outer envelope will begin to form a planetary nebula.

The post-AGB evolution will be even faster, as the ejected mass becomes ionized to form a planetary nebula and the exposed core reaches 30,000 K. The final, naked core temperature will be over 100,000 K, after which the remnant will cool towards a white dwarf. The planetary nebula will disperse in about 10,000 years, but the white dwarf will survive for trillions of years before fading to black.

Ultimate Fate of our Sun:

When people think of stars dying, what typically comes to mind are massive supernovas and the creation of black holes. However, this will not be the case with our Sun, due to the simple fact that it is not nearly massive enough. While it might seem huge to us, but the Sun is a relatively low mass star compared to some of the enormous high mass stars out there in the Universe.

As such, when our Sun runs out of hydrogen fuel, it will expand to become a red giant, puff off its outer layers, and then settle down as a compact white dwarf star, then slowly cooling down for trillions of years. If, however, the Sun had about 10 times its current mass, the final phase of its lifespan would be significantly more (ahem) explosive.

When this super-massive Sun ran out of hydrogen fuel in its core, it would switch over to converting atoms of helium, and then atoms of carbon (just like our own). This process would continue, with the Sun consuming heavier and heavier fuel in concentric layers. Each layer would take less time than the last, all the way up to nickel – which could take just a day to burn through.

Then, iron would starts to build up in the core of the star. Since iron doesn’t give off any energy when it undergoes nuclear fusion, the star would have no more outward pressure in its core to prevent it from collapsing inward. When about 1.38 times the mass of the Sun is iron collected at the core, it would catastrophically implode, releasing an enormous amount of energy.

Within eight minutes, the amount of time it takes for light to travel from the Sun to Earth, an incomprehensible amount of energy would sweep past the Earth and destroy everything in the Solar System. The energy released from this might be enough to briefly outshine the galaxy, and a new nebula (like the Crab Nebula) would be visible from nearby star systems, expanding outward for thousands of years.

All that would remain of the Sun would be a rapidly spinning neutron star, or maybe even a stellar black hole. But of course, this is not to be our Sun’s fate. Given its mass, it will eventually collapse into a white star until it burns itself out. And of course, this won’t be happening for another 6 billion years or so. By that point, humanity will either be long dead or have moved on. In the meantime, we have plenty of days of sunshine to look forward to!

We have written many interesting articles on the Sun here at Universe Today. Here’s What Color Is The Sun?, What Kind of Star is the Sun?, How Does The Sun Produce Energy?, and Could We Terraform the Sun?

Astronomy Cast also has some interesting episodes on the subject. Check them out- Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and AllEpisode 108: The Life of the Sun, Episode 238: Solar Activity.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Guide.

Why Do Red Dwarfs Live So Long?

While our Sun will only survive for about 5 billion more years, smaller, cooler red dwarfs can last for trillions of years. What’s the secret to their longevity?

You might say our Sun will last a long time. And sure, another 5 billion years or so of main sequence existence does sound pretty long lived. But that’s nothing compared to the least massive stars out there, the red dwarfs.

These tiny stars can have just 1/12th the mass of the Sun, but instead of living for a paltry duration, they can last for trillions of years. What’s the secret to their longevity? Is it Botox?

To understand why red dwarfs have such long lifespans, we’ll need to take a look at main sequence stars first, and see how they’re different. If you could peel back the Sun like a grapefruit, you’d see juicy layers inside.

In the core, immense pressure and temperature from the mass of all that starstuff bears down and fuses atoms of hydrogen into helium, releasing gamma radiation.

Outside the core is the radiative zone, not hot enough for fusion. Instead, photons of energy generated in the core are emitted and absorbed countless times, taking a random journey to the outermost layer of the star.

And outside the radiative zone is the convective zone, where superheated globs of hot plasma float up to the surface, where they release their heat into space.

Then they cool down enough to sink back through the Sun and pick up more heat. Over time, helium builds up in the core. Eventually, this core runs out of hydrogen and it dies. Even though the core is only a fraction of the total mass of hydrogen in the Sun, there’s no mechanism to mix it in.

A red dwarf is fundamentally different than a main sequence star like the Sun. Because it has less mass, it has a core, and a convective zone, but no radiative zone. This makes all the difference.

Red dwarf convection. Credit: NASA
Red dwarf convection. Credit: NASA

The convective zone connects directly to the core of the red dwarf, the helium byproduct created by fusion is spread throughout the star. This convection brings fresh hydrogen into the core of the star where it can continue the fusion process.

By perfectly using all its hydrogen, the lowest mass red dwarf could sip away at its hydrogen fuel for 10 trillion years.

One of the biggest surprises in modern astronomy is just how many of these low mass red dwarf worlds have planets. And some of the most Earthlike worlds ever seen have been found around red dwarf stars. Planets with roughly the mass of Earth, orbiting within their star’s habitable zone, where liquid water could be present.

One of the biggest problems with red dwarfs is that they can be extremely variable. For example, 40% of a red dwarf’s surface could be covered with sunspots, decreasing the amount of radiation it produces, changing the size of its habitable zone.

Red Dwarf. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Red Dwarf. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Other red dwarfs produce powerful stellar flares that could scour a newly forming world of life. DG Canes Venaticorum recently generated a flare 10,000 times more powerful than anything ever seen from the Sun. Any life caught in the blast would have a very bad day.

Fortunately, red dwarfs only put out these powerful flares in the first billion years or so of their lives. After that, they settle down and provide a nice cozy environment for trillions of years. Long enough for life to prosper we hope.

In the distant future, some superintelligent species may figure out how to properly mix the hydrogen back into the Sun, removing the helium, if they do, they’ll add billions of years to the Sun’s life.

It seems like such a shame for the Sun to die with all that usable hydrogen sitting just a radiative zone away from fusion.

Have you got any ideas on how we could mix up the hydrogen in the Sun and remove the helium? Post your wild ideas in the comments!

Sweet Sights for November Nights

Clear night ahead? Let’s see what’s up. We’ll start close to home with the Moon, zoom out to lonely Fomalhaut 25 light years away and then return to our own Solar System to track down the 7th planet. Even before the sky is dark, you can’t miss the 4-day-old crescent Moon reclining in the southwestern sky. Watch for it to wax to a half-moon by Thursday as it circles Earth at an average speed of 2,200 mph (3,600 km/hr). That fact that it orbits Earth means that the angle the Moon makes with the sun and our planet constantly varies, the reason for its ever-changing phase.

You'll see two and possibly three lunar "seas" tonight (Nov. 15). Only a portion of Mare Tranquilliitatis (Seas of Tranquility) is exposed. The large crater Janssen, 118 miles wide and 1.8 miles deep, is visible in binoculars. Credit: Virtual Moon Atlas / Legrande and Chevalley
You’ll see two and possibly three lunar “seas” tonight (Nov. 15). Only a portion of Mare Tranquilliitatis (Seas of Tranquility) is exposed. The large crater Janssen, 118 miles wide and 1.8 miles deep, is visible in binoculars. Credit: Virtual Moon Atlas / Legrande and Chevalley

With the naked eye you’ll be able to make two prominent dark patches within the crescent — Mare Crisium (Sea of Crises) and Mare Fecunditatis (Sea of Fecundity). Each is a vast, lava-flooded plain peppered with thousands of craters , most of which require a telescope to see. Not so Janssen. This large, 118-mile-wide (190-km) ring will be easy to pick out in a pair of seven to 10 power binoculars. Janssen is named for 19th century French astronomer Pierre Janssen, who was the first to see the bright yellow line of helium in the sun’s spectrum while observing August 1868 total solar eclipse.

Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, has but one bright star, 1st magnitude Fomalhaut. It shines all by its lonesome in the south around 7 p.m. local time at mid-month. The star is located only 25 light years from Earth. Source: Stellarium
Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, has but one bright star, 1st magnitude Fomalhaut. It shines all by its lonesome in the south around 7 p.m. local time at mid-month. The star is located only 25 light years from Earth. Source: Stellarium

English scientist Norman Lockyer also observed the line later in 1868 and concluded it represented a new solar element which he named “helium” after “helios”, the Greek word for sun. Helium on Earth wouldn’t be discovered for another 10 years, making this party-balloon gas the only element first discovered off-planet!

See the fish now? Greek mythology tells us that Piscis Austrinus is the "Great Fish", the parent of the two fish in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces the Fish. Source: Stellarium
See the fish now? Greek mythology tells us that Piscis Austrinus is the “Great Fish”, the parent of the two fish in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces the Fish. Source: Stellarium

Directing your gaze south around 7 o’clock, you’ll see a single bright star low in the southern sky. This is Fomalhaut in the dim constellation of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. The Arabic name means “mouth of the fish”. If live under a dark, light-pollution-free sky, you’ll be able to make out a loop of faint stars vaguely fish-like in form. Aside from being the only first magnitude star among the seasonal fall constellations, Fomalhaut stands out in another way — the star is ringed by a planet-forming disk of dust and rock much as our own Solar System was more than 4 billion years ago.

The planet Fomalhaut b orbits Fomalhaut inside a circumstellar disk of dust and rock, taking about 1,700 years to orbit. Brilliant Fomalhaut, represented by the small, white dot, has been masked from view, so astronomers could photograph the much fainter disk. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Space Telescope
The planet Fomalhaut b orbits Fomalhaut inside a circumstellar disk of dust and rock, taking about 1,700 years to orbit. Brilliant Fomalhaut, represented by the small, white dot, has been masked from view, so astronomers could photograph the much fainter disk. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Space Telescope

Within that disk is a new planet, Fomalhaut b, with less than twice Jupiter’s mass and enshrouded either by a cloud of dusty debris or a ring system like Saturn. Fomalhaut b has the distinction of being the first extrasolar planet ever photographed in visible light. The plodding planet takes an estimated 1,700 years to make one loop around Fomalhaut, with its distance from its parent star varying from about 50 times Earth’s distance from the sun at closest to 300 times that distance at farthest.

Shoot a diagonal across the Square of Pegasus to 4th magnitude Delta Piscium. Point your binoculars here and slide east to 4th magnitude Epsilon and 2° south to the planet Uranus shines at magnitude +5.7 and can be glimpsed with the naked eye from a dark sky site. Time shown is around 7 p.m. local time. See detailed map below. Source: Stellarium
Shoot a diagonal across the Square of Pegasus to 4th magnitude Delta Piscium. Point your binoculars here and slide east to 4th magnitude Epsilon and 2° south to the planet Uranus shines at magnitude +5.7 and can be glimpsed with the naked eye from a dark sky site. Time shown is around 7 p.m. local time. See detailed map below. Source: Stellarium

Next, we move on to one of the more remote planets in our own solar system, Uranus. The 7th planet from the sun, Uranus reached opposition — its closest to Earth and brightest appearance for the year — only a month ago. It’s well-placed for viewing in Pisces the Fish after nightfall high in the southeastern sky below the prominent sky asterism, the Great Square of Pegasus.

Wide-field binocular view of Uranus' travels now through next April. I've labeled two stars near the planet with their magnitudes - 5.5 and 6.0 - which are similar to Uranus in brightness, so you don't confuse them with the planet. The others are naked eye stars in Pisces. Source: Chris Mariott's SkyMap
Wide-field binocular view of Uranus’ travels now through next April. I’ve labeled several stars near the planet with their magnitudes, which are similar in brightness to Uranus, so you’ll know to tell them apart from the planet. The others are naked eye stars in Pisces. Source: Chris Mariott’s SkyMap

A telescope will tease out its tiny, greenish disk,  but almost any pair of binoculars will easily show the planet as a star-like point of light slowly marching westward against the starry backdrop in the coming weeks. Check in every few weeks to watch it move first west, in retrograde motion, and then turn back east around Christmas. For those with 8-inch and larger telescopes who love a challenge, use this Uranian Moon Finder to track the planet’s two brightest moons, Titania and Oberon, which glimmer weakly around 14th magnitude.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the vacuum with these offerings; they’re just a few of the many highlights of mid-November nights that also include the annual Leonid meteor shower, which peaks Tuesday and Wednesday mornings (Nov. 17-18). So much to see!

Why Do Red Giants Expand?

We know that the Sun will last another 5 billion years and then expand us a red giant. What will actually make this process happen?


One of the handy things about the Universe, apart from the fact that it exists, is that it lets us see crazy different configurations of everything, including planets, stars and galaxies.

We see stars like our Sun and dramatically unlike our Sun. Tiny, cool red dwarf stars with a fraction of the mass of our own, sipping away at their hydrogen juice boxes for billions and even trillions of years. Stars with way more mass than our own, blasting out enormous amounts of radiation, only lasting a few million years before they detonate as supernovae.

There are ones younger than the Sun; just now clearing out the gas and dust in their solar nebula with intense ultraviolet radiation. Stars much older than ours, bloated up into enormous sizes, nearing the end of their lives before they fade into their golden years as white dwarfs.

The Sun is a main sequence star, converting hydrogen into helium at its core, like it’s been doing for more than 4.5 billion years, and will continue to do so for another 5 or so. At the end of its life, it’s going to bloat up as a red giant, so large that it consumes Mercury and Venus, and maybe even Earth.

What’s the process going on inside the Sun that makes this happen? Let’s peel away the Sun and take a look at the core. After we’re done screaming about the burning burning hands, we’ll see that the Sun is this enormous sphere of hydrogen and helium, 1.4 million kilometers across, the actual business of fusion is happening down in the core, a region that’s a delicious bubblegum center a tiny 280,000 kilometers across.

The core is less than one percent of the entire volume, but because the density of hydrogen in the chewy center is 150 times more than liquid water, it accounts for a freakishly huge 35% of its mass.

It’s thanks to the mass of the entire star, 2 x 10^30 kg, bearing down on the core thanks to gravity. Down here in the core, temperatures are more than 15 million degrees Celsius. It’s the perfect spot for nuclear fusion picnic.

There are a few paths fusion can take, but the main one is where hydrogen atoms are mushed into helium. This process releases enough gamma radiation to make you a planet full of Hulks.

Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb
Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb

While the Sun has been performing hydrogen fusion, all this helium has been piling up at its core, like nuclear waste. Terrifyingly, it’s still fuel, but our little Sun just doesn’t have the temperature or pressure at its core to be able to use it.

Eventually, the fusion at the core of the Sun shuts down, choked off by all this helium and in a last gasp of high pitched mickey mouse voice terror the helium core begins to contract and heat up. At this point, an amazing thing happens. It’s now hot enough for a layer of hydrogen just around the core to heat up and begin fusion again. The Sun now gets a second chance at life.

As this outer layer contains a bigger volume than the original core of the Sun, it heats up significantly, releasing far more energy. This increase in light pressure from the core pushes much harder against gravity, and expands the volume of the Sun.

Even this isn’t the end of the star’s life. Dammit, Harkness, just stay down. Helium continues to build up, and even this extra shell around the core isn’t hot and dense enough to support fusion. So the core dies again. The star begins to contract, the gravitational energy heats up again, allowing another shell of hydrogen to have the pressure and temperature for fusion, and then we’re back in business!

Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer
Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer

Our Sun will likely go through this process multiple times, each phase taking a few years to complete as it expands and contracts, heats and cools. Our Sun becomes a variable star.

Eventually, we run out of usable hydrogen, but fortunately, it’s able to switch over to using helium as fuel, generating carbon and oxygen as byproducts. This doesn’t last long, and when it’s gone, the Sun gets swollen to hundreds of times its size, releasing thousands of times more energy.

This is when the Sun becomes that familiar red giant, gobbling up the tasty planets, including, quite possibly the Earth.The remaining atmosphere puffs out from the Sun, and drifts off into space creating a beautiful planetary nebula that future alien astronomers will enjoy for thousands of years. What’s left is a carbon oxygen core, a white dwarf.

The Sun is completely out of tricks to make fusion happen any more, and it’ll now cool down to the background temperature of the Universe. Our Sun will die in a dramatic way, billions of years from now when it bloats up 500 times its original volume.

What do you think future alien astronomers will call the planetary nebula left behind by the Sun? Give it a name in the comments below.

Can You Kill a Star With Iron?

Since the energy required to fuse iron is more than the energy that you get from doing it, could you use iron to kill a star like our sun?

A fan favorite was How Much Water Would it Take to Extinguish the Sun? Go ahead and watch it now if you like. Or… if you don’t have time to watch me set up the science, deliver a bunch of hilarious zingers and obscure sci-fi references, here’s the short version:

The Sun is not on fire, it’s a fusion reaction. Hydrogen mashes up to produce helium and energy. Lots and lots of energy. Water is mostly hydrogen, adding water would give more fuel and make it burn hotter. But some of you clever viewers proposed another way to kill the Sun. Kill it with iron!

Iron? That seems pretty specific. Why iron and not something else, like butter, donuts, or sitting on the couch playing video games – all the things working to kill me? Is iron poison to stars? An iron bar? Possibly iron bullets? Iron punches? Possibly from fashioning a suit and attacking it as some kind of Iron Man?

Time for some stellar physics. Stars are massive balls of plasma. Mostly hydrogen and helium, and leftover salad from the Big Bang. Mass holds them together in a sphere, creating temperatures and pressures at their cores, where atoms of hydrogen are crushed together into helium, releasing energy. This energy, in the form of photons pushes outward. As they escape the star, this counteracts the force of gravity trying to pull it inward.

Over the course of billions of years, the star uses up the reserves of hydrogen, building up helium. If it’s massive enough, it will switch to helium when the hydrogen is gone. Then it can switch to oxygen, and then silicon, and all the way up the periodic table of elements.

The most massive stars in the Universe, the ones with at least 8 times the mass of the Sun, have enough temperature and pressure that they can fuse elements all the way up to iron, the 26th element on the Periodic Table. At that point, the energy required to fuse iron is more than the energy that you get from fusing iron, no matter how massive a star you are.

Massive Young Stellar Object HD200775 within the reflection nebula NGC7023.
Massive Young Stellar Object HD200775 within the reflection nebula NGC7023.

In a fraction of a second, the core of the Sun shuts off. It’s no longer pushing outward with its light pressure, and so the outer layers collapse inward, creating a black hole and a supernova. It sure looks like the build up of iron in the core killed it.

Is it true then? Is iron the Achilles heel of stars? Not really. Iron is the byproduct of fusion within the most massive stars. Just like ash is the byproduct of combustion, or poop is the byproduct of human digestion.

It’s not poison, which stops or destroys processes within the human body. A better analogy might be fiber. Your body can’t get any nutritional value out of fiber, like grass. If all you had to eat was grass, you’d starve, but it’s not like the grass is poisoning you. As long as you got adequate nutrition, you could eat an immense amount of grass and not die. It’s about the food, not the grass.

The Sun already has plenty of iron; it’s 0.1% iron. That little nugget would work out to be 330 times the mass of the Earth. If you gave it much more iron, it would just give the Sun more mass, which would give it more gravity to raise the temperature and pressure at the core, which would help it do even more fusion.

This image shows iron debris in Tycho's supernova remnant. Credit: NASA/CXC/Chinese Academy of Sciences/F. Lu et al.
This image shows iron debris in Tycho’s supernova remnant. Credit: NASA/CXC/Chinese Academy of Sciences/F. Lu et al.

If you just poured iron into a star, it wouldn’t kill it. It would just make it more massive and then hotter and capable of supporting the fusion of heavier elements. As long as there’s still viable fuel at the core of the star, and adequate temperatures and pressures, it’ll continue fusing and releasing energy.

If you could swap out the hydrogen in the Sun with a core of iron, you would indeed kill it dead, or any star for that matter. It wouldn’t explode, though. Only if it was at least 8 times the mass of the Sun to begin with. Then would you have enough mass bearing down on the inert core to create a core collapse supernova.

In fact, since you’ve got the power to magically replace stellar cores, you would only need to replace the Sun’s core with carbon or oxygen to kill it. It actually doesn’t have enough mass to fuse even carbon. As soon as you replaced the Sun’s core, it would shut off fusion. It would immediately become a white dwarf, and begin slowly cooling down to the background temperature of the Universe.

Iron in bullet, bar, man or any other form isn’t poison to a star. It just happens to be an element that no star can use to generate energy from fusion. As long as there’s still viable fuel at the core of a star, and the pressure and temperature to bring them together, the star will continue to pump out energy.

What other exotic ways would you use to try and kill the Sun? Give us your suggestions in the comments below.

How Quickly Does a Supernova Happen?

When a massive star reaches the end of its life, it can explode as a supernova. How quickly does this process happen?

Our Sun will die a slow sad death, billions of years from now when it runs out of magic sunjuice. Sure, it’ll be a dramatic red giant for a bit, but then it’ll settle down as a white dwarf. Build a picket fence, relax on the porch with some refreshing sunjuice lemonade. Gently drifting into its twilight years, and slowly cooling down until it becomes the background temperature of the Universe.

If our Sun had less mass, it would suffer an even slower fate. So then, unsurprisingly, if it had more mass it would die more quickly. In fact, stars with several times the mass of our Sun will die as a supernova, exploding in an instant. Often we talk about things that take billions of years to happen on the Guide to Space. So what about a supernova? Any guesses on how fast that happens?

There are actually several different kinds of supernovae out there, and they have different mechanisms and different durations. But I’m going to focus on a core collapse supernova, the “regular unleaded” of supernovae. Stars between 8 and about 50 times the mass of the Sun exhaust the hydrogen fuel in their cores quickly, in few short million years.

Just like our Sun, they convert hydrogen into helium through fusion, releasing a tremendous amounts of energy which pushes against the star’s gravity trying to collapse in on itself. Once the massive star runs out of hydrogen in its core, it switches to helium, then carbon, then neon, all the way up the periodic table of elements until it reaches iron. The problem is that iron doesn’t produce energy through the fusion process, so there’s nothing holding back the mass of the star from collapsing inward.
… and boom, supernova.

The outer edges of the core collapse inward at 70,000 meters per second, about 23% the speed of light. In just a quarter of a second, infalling material bounces off the iron core of the star, creating a shockwave of matter propagating outward. This shockwave can take a couple of hours to reach the surface.

Type II Supernovae
SN 1987A, an example of a Type II-P Supernova

As the wave passes through, it creates exotic new elements the original star could never form in its core. And this is where we get all get rich. All gold, silver, platinum, uranium and anything higher than iron on the periodic table of elements are created here. A supernova will then take a few months to reach its brightest point, potentially putting out as much energy as the rest of its galaxy combined.

Supernova 1987A, named to commemorate the induction of the first woman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the amazing Aretha Franklin. Well, actually, that’s not true, it was the first supernova we saw in 1987. But we should really name supernovae after things like that. Still, 1987A went off relatively nearby, and took 85 days to reach its peak brightness. Slowly declining over the next 2 years. Powerful telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope can still see the shockwave expanding in space, decades later.

Evolution of a Type Ia supernova. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
Evolution of a Type Ia supernova. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Our “regular flavor” core collapse supernova is just one type of exploding star. The type 1a supernovae are created when a white dwarf star sucks material off a binary partner like a gigantic parasitic twin, until it reaches 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, and then it explodes. In just a few days, these supernovae peak and fade much more rapidly than our core collapse friends.

So, how long does a supernova take to explode? A few million years for the star to die, less than a quarter of a second for its core to collapse, a few hours for the shockwave to reach the surface of the star, a few months to brighten, and then just few years to fade away.

Which star would you like to explode? Tell us in the comments below.

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What Is A Wolf-Rayet Star?

Wolf-Rayet stars represent a final burst of activity before a huge star begins to die. These stars, which are at least 20 times more massive than the Sun, “live fast and die hard”, according to NASA.

Their endstate is more famous; it’s when they explode as supernova and seed the universe with cosmic elements that they get the most attention. But looking at how the star gets to that explosive stage is also important.

When you look at a star like the Sun, what you are seeing is a delicate equilibrium of the star’s gravity pulling stuff in, and nuclear fusion inside pushing pressure out. When the forces are about equal, you get a stable mass of fusing elements. For planets like ours lucky enough to live near a stable star, this period can go on for billions upon billions of years.

Being near a massive star is like playing with fire, however. They grow up quickly and thus die earlier in their lives than the Sun. And in the case of a Wolf-Rayet star, it’s run out of lighter elements to fuse inside its core. The Sun is happily churning hydrogen into helium, but Wolf-Rayets are ploughing through elements such as oxygen to try to keep equilibrium.

The core of a red or blue supergiant moments before exploding as a supernova looks like an onion with multiple elements "burning" through the fusion process to create the heat to stay the force of gravity. Fusion stops at iron. With no energy pouring from the central core to keep the other elements cooking, the star collapses and the rebounding shock wave tears it apart. Credit: Wikimedia
The core of a red or blue supergiant moments before exploding as a supernova looks like an onion with multiple elements “burning” through the fusion process to create the heat to stay the force of gravity. Fusion stops at iron. With no energy pouring from the central core to keep the other elements cooking, the star collapses and the rebounding shock wave tears it apart. Credit: Wikimedia

Because these elements have more atoms per unit, this creates more energy — specifically, heat and radiation, NASA says. The star begins to blow out winds reaching 2.2 million to 5.4 million miles per hour (3.6 million to 9 million kilometers per hour). Over time, the winds strip away the outer layers of the Wolf-Rayet. This eliminates much of its mass, while at the same time freeing its elements to be used elsewhere in the Universe.

Eventually, the star runs out of elements to fuse (the process can go no further than iron). When the fusion stops, the pressure inside the star ceases and there’s nothing to stop gravity from pushing in. Big stars explode as supernova. Bigger ones see their gravity warped so much that not even light can escape, creating a black hole.

We still have a lot to learn about stellar evolution, but a few studies over the years have provided insights. In 2004, for example, NASA issued reassuring news saying these stars don’t “die alone.” Most of them have a stellar companion, according to Hubble Space Telescope observations.

A composite image with Chandra data (purple) showing a "point-like source" beside the remains of a supernova, suggesting a companion star may have survived the explosion. Hydrogen is shown in optical light (yellow and cyan) from the Magellanic Cloud Emission Line Survey and there is also optical data available from the Digitized Sky Survey (white). Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Seward et al; Optical: NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS
A composite image with Chandra data (purple) showing a “point-like source” beside the remains of a supernova, suggesting a companion star may have survived the explosion. Hydrogen is shown in optical light (yellow and cyan) from the Magellanic Cloud Emission Line Survey and there is also optical data available from the Digitized Sky Survey (white). Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Seward et al; Optical: NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS

While at first glance this appears as just a simple observation, cosmologists said that it could help us figure out how these stars get so big and bright. For example: Maybe the bigger star (the one that turns into a Wolf-Rayet) feeds off its companion over time, gathering mass until it becomes stupendously big. With more fuel, the big stars burn out faster. Other things the smaller star could influence could be the bigger star’s rotation or orbit.

Here’s a few other facts about Wolf-Rayets, courtesy of astronomer David Darling:

  • Their names come from two French astronomers, Charles Wolf and Georges Rayet, who discovered the first known star of this kind in 1867.
  • Wolf-Rayets come in two flavours: WN (emission lines of helium and nitrogen) and WC (carbon, oxygen and hydrogen).
  • Stars like our Sun evolve into more massive red giants as they run out of hydrogen to burn in the core. When these stars begin to shed their outer layers, they behave somewhat similarly to Wolf-Rayets. So they’re called “Wolf-Rayet type stars”, although they’re not exactly the same thing.

We have written many articles about stars here on Universe Today. Here’s an article about a binary pair of Wolf-Rayet stars, and the good news that WR 104 won’t kill us all. 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?

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?

What’s Inside Jupiter?

Jupiter is like a jawbreaker. Dig down beneath the swirling clouds and you’ll pass through layer after layer of exotic forms of hydrogen. What’s down there, deep within Jupiter?

What’s inside Jupiter? Is it chameleons? Candy? Cake? Cheddar? Chemtrails? No one knows. No one can ever know.

Well, that’s not entirely true… or even remotely true. Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System and two and a half times the mass of the other planets combined. It’s a gas giant, like Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It’s almost 90% hydrogen and 10% helium, and then other trace materials, like methane, ammonia, water and some other stuff. What would be a gas on Earth behaves in very strange ways under Jupiter’s massive pressure and temperatures.

So what’s deep down inside Jupiter? What are the various layers and levels, and can I keep thinking of it like a jawbreaker? At the very center of Jupiter is its dense core. Astronomers aren’t sure if there’s a rocky region deep down inside. It’s actually possible that there’s twelve to forty five Earth masses of rocky material within the planet’s core. Now this could be rock, or hydrogen and helium under such enormous forces that it just acts that way. But you couldn’t stand on it. The temperatures are 35,000 degrees C. The pressures are incomprehensible.

Surrounding the core is a vast region made up of hydrogen. But it’s not a gas. The pressure and temperature transforms the hydrogen into an exotic form of liquid metallic hydrogen, similar to the liquid mercury you’d see in a thermometer. This metallic hydrogen region turns inside the planet, and acts like an electric dynamo. Similar to our planet’s own iron core, this gives the planet a powerful magnetic field.

The next level up is still liquid hydrogen, but the pressure’s lower, so it’s not metallic any more. And then above this is the planet’s atmosphere. The upper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere is the only part we can see. Those bands on the planet are clouds of ammonia that rotate around the planet in alternating directions. The lighter color zones are colder ammonia ice upwelling from below. Here’s the exciting part. Astronomers aren’t sure what the darker regions are.

This animated gif shows Voyager 1's approach to Jupiter during a period of over 60 Jupiter days in 1979.  Credit: NASA.
This animated gif shows Voyager 1’s approach to Jupiter during a period of over 60 Jupiter days in 1979. Credit: NASA.

Still think you want to descend into Jupiter, to try and walk on its rocky interior? NASA tried that. In order to protect Jupiter’s moons from contamination, NASA decided to crash the Galileo spacecraft into the planet at the end of its mission. It only got point two percent of the way down through Jupiter’s radius before it was completely destroyed.

Jupiter is a remarkably different world from our own. With all that gravity, normally lightweight hydrogen behaves in completely exotic ways. Hopefully in the future we’ll learn more about this amazing planet we share our Solar System with.

What do you think? Is there a rocky core deep down inside Jupiter?

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