Spectrum of Antimatter Observed for First Time

Ever since the existence of antimatter was proposed in the early 20th century, scientists have sought to understand how relates to normal matter, and why there is an apparent imbalance between the two in the Universe. To do this, particle physics research in the past few decades has focused on the anti-particle of the most elementary and abundant atom in the Universe – the antihydrogen particle.

Until recently, this has been very difficult, as scientists have been able to produce antihydrogen, but unable to study it for long before it annihilated. But according to recent a study that was published in Nature, a team using the ALPHA experiment was able to obtain the first spectral information on antihydrogen. This achievement, which was 20 years in the making, could open up an entirely new era of research into antimatter.

Measuring how elements absorb or emit light – i.e. spectroscopy – is a major aspect of physics, chemistry and astronomy. Not only does it allow scientists to characterize atoms and molecules, it allows astrophysicists to determine the composition of distant stars by analyzing the spectrum of the light they emit.

Measuring the antihydrogen spectrum with high-precision offers an extraordinary new tool to test whether matter behaves differently from antimatter and thus to further test the robustness of the Standard Model (mage: Maximilien Brice/CERN)
The ALPHA experiment probes whether matter behaves differently from antimatter by measuring the antihydrogen spectrum with high-precision, further testing the robustness of the Standard Model. Credit: Maximilien Brice/CERN

In the past, many studies have been conducted into the spectrum of hydrogen, which constitutes roughly 75% of all baryonic mass in the Universe. These have played a vital role in our understanding of matter, energy, and the evolution of multiple scientific disciplines. But until recently, studying the spectrum of its anti-particle has been incredibly difficult.

For starters, it requires that the particles that constitute antihydrogen – antiprotons and positrons (anti-electrons) – be captured and cooled so that they may come together. In addition, it is then necessary to maintain these particles long enough to observe their behavior, before they inevitable make contact with normal matter and annihilate.

Luckily, technology has progressed in the past few decades to the point where research into antimatter is now possible, thus affording scientists the opportunity to deduce whether the physics behind antimatter are consistent with the Standard Model or go beyond it. As the CERN research team – which was led by Dr. Ahmadi of the Department of Physics at the University of Liverpool – indicated in their study:

“The Standard Model predicts that there should have been equal amounts of matter and antimatter in the primordial Universe after the Big Bang, but todays Universe is observed to consist almost entirely of ordinary matter. This motivates physicists to carefully study antimatter, to see if there is a small asymmetry in the laws of physics that govern the two types of matter.”
ALPHA uses a magnetic trap to hold neutral atoms of anthydrogen and then conduct spectrographic analyis. Credit: CERN
ALPHA uses a magnetic trap to hold neutral atoms of antihydrogen and then subjecting them to spectrographic analysis. Credit: CERN

Beginning in 1996, this research was conducted using the AnTiHydrogEN Apparatus (ATHENA) experiment, a part of the CERN Antiproton Decelerator facility. This experiment was responsible for capturing antiprotons and positrons, then cooling them to the point where they can combine to form anithydrogen. Since 2005, this task has become the responsibility of ATHENA’s successor, the ALPHA experiment.

Using updated instruments, ALPHA captures atoms of neutral antihydrogen and holds them for a longer period before they inevitably annihilate  During this time, research teams conduct spectrographic analysis using ALPHA’s ultraviolet laser to see if the atoms obey the same laws as hydrogen atoms. As Jeffrey Hangst, the spokesperson of the ALPHA collaboration, explained in a CERN update:

“Using a laser to observe a transition in antihydrogen and comparing it to hydrogen to see if they obey the same laws of physics has always been a key goal of antimatter research… Moving and trapping antiprotons or positrons is easy because they are charged particles. But when you combine the two you get neutral antihydrogen, which is far more difficult to trap, so we have designed a very special magnetic trap that relies on the fact that antihydrogen is a little bit magnetic.”

In so doing, the research team was able to measure the frequency of light needed to cause a positron to transition from its lowest energy level to the next. What they found was that (within experimental limits) there was no difference between the antihydrogen spectral data and that of hydrogen. These results are an experimental first, as they are the first spectral observations ever made of an antihydrogen atom.

Besides allowing for comparisons between matter and antimatter for the first time, these results show that antimatter’s behavior – vis a vis its spectrographic characteristics – are consistent with the Standard Model. Specifically, they are consistent with what is known as Charge-Parity-Time (CPT) symmetry.

This symmetry theory, which is fundamental to established physics, predicts that energy levels in matter and antimatter would be the same. As the team explained in their study:

“We have performed the first laser-spectroscopic measurement on an atom of antimatter. This has long been a sought-after achievement in low-energy antimatter physics. It marks a turning point from proof-of-principle experiments to serious metrology and precision CPT comparisons using the optical spectrum of an anti-atom. The current result… demonstrate that tests of fundamental symmetries with antimatter at the AD are maturing rapidly.”

In other words, the confirmation that matter and antimatter have similar spectral characteristics is yet another indication that the Standard Model holds up – just as the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 did. It also demonstrated the effectiveness of the ALPHA experiment at trapping antimatter particles, which will have benefits other antihydrogen experiments.

Naturally, the CERN researchers were very excited by this find, and it is expected to have drastic implications. Beyond offering a new means of testing the Standard Model, it is also expected to go a long way towards helping scientists to understand why there is a matter-antimatter imbalance in the Universe. Yet another crucial step in discovering exactly how the Universe as we know it came to be.

Further Reading: CERN

Weekly Space Hangout – November 4, 2016: Mars and Where to Land on it with Dr. Matt Golombek

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
Dr. Matt Golombek, Senior Research Scientist at the JPL; Mars Exploration Rover Project Scientist; Mars Exploration Program Landing Site Scientist.

Guests:

Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)

Their stories this week:

The entire sky mapped via hydrogen

First light on VLT’s adaptive optics mirror

JWST’s sunshield completed

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you would like to sign up for the AstronomyCast Solar Eclipse Escape, where you can meet Fraser and Pamela, plus WSH Crew and other fans, visit our site linked above and sign up!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

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!

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.

Could We Terraform Jupiter?

So just what would it take to terraform Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system?

Just a few videos ago, I blew minds with a “How to” on terraforming the Moon. Once we’ve developed a Solar System spanning civilization and have claimed mastery over the laws of physics, and have common-place technology which staggers and dwarf our current comprehension of what’s possible it should be easy enough.

In fact, it might even be easier than terraforming Mars or Venus, as long as you keep a steady flow of gas to the Moon replenishing the constantly escaping atmosphere.

And in the comments on that video, ABitOfTheUniverse threw down, he wants to know what it would take to terraform Jupiter. All right “ABitOfTheUniverse”, if that is your real name… I’m up for it.

On the surface, this is madness. We already explained how Jupiter is completely and totally inhospitable to life. An alien started a “Build a star kit” and stopped a ? of the way through, because he got bored and wandered away. Just like his Mom said he would.

Jupiter is a ball of hydrogen and helium, which compresses these gasses to almost starlike temperatures and pressures. Fine, Jupiter is the absolute worst. It makes traveling to Venus look like a spa visit.

Jupiter does have something we can work with. Astronomers think below the septillions tons of hydrogen and gas, there’s actually a rocky core. The mass of the core is still a mystery, but recent computer simulations put it at somewhere between 7 and 45 times the mass of the Earth, complete with plenty of water ices and other chemicals you might require on an Earthlike planet.

Furthermore, this core may contain similar constituents as the internal structure of Earth. This means a central core of iron and nickel, surrounded by liquid metal, surrounded by rock.

The problem is you need to strip away 95% of the planet’s mass. It’s all that hydrogen and helium, and that’s pretty much impossible. And almost completely impossible, is still very slightly completely possible.

Cutaway of Jupiter. Credit: Kevinsong
Cutaway of Jupiter. Credit: Kevinsong

Jupiter is made of fuel. It’s like looking at a pool of gasoline and wondering if there was some way to get rid of it all. What good Solar System-spanning civilization hasn’t worked out hydrogen fusion? It’s a technology that’s probably only 30 years away from us now.

You could fly a spacecraft down into Jupiter’s gravity well and scoop up hydrogen fuel from the clouds. Or you could create fusion-powered dirigibles filled with hot hydrogen, which float around the cloud tops of Jupiter, using their fusion reactors to spew hydrogen off into space.

Over untold lengths of time, you could get at that rocky juicy center, once you stripped it of its hydrogen. Then you’ll need to do all that other stuff I mentioned in previous videos, to turn it into a habitable world.

Sure, it’s a world with much higher gravity than Earth, but that’s not my problem. You said “Earthlike”. That’ll teach you to make wishes with a monkey’s paw!

What if you need to move Jupiter first, perhaps a little closer to the Sun. There’s an awesome idea cooked up by Larry Niven in his book, “A World Out of Time”. It’s a fusion candle, and it lets you shift gas giants around.

A Star Trek-inspired space station.
A Star Trek-inspired space station.

You take a long space station, and light up fusion thrusters on both ends. You dip one end down into the upper clouds, where it siphons hydrogen fuel. Both ends of the space station start blasting. One end keeps it from dropping down into the planet, and the other end pushes on the entire planet, pushing it around the Solar System.

Instead of trying to terraform Jupiter, we could just push the planet closer to the Sun, where its icy moons warm up and become habitable themselves.

Well, ABitOfTheUniverse, that sounds a little easier. What do you think? I’ll admit, trying to figure out how to terraform Jupiter was a good exercise in tomfoolery. Fortunately, my imagination is a limitless and renewable source of energy. We’ve done Mars, Venus, the Moon and now Jupiter. What should we terraform next? Tell us in the comments below.

Could We Live on Jupiter?

When humans finally travel into space, where will we live? Will we ever be able to colonize gas giants like Jupiter?

NASA and Elon Musk have plans to get your ass to Mars.

It’s not impossible to imagine humans living and working on the Red Planet. Maybe they’ll be crusty asteroid miners making their fortune digging precious minerals out of the inexhaustible supply of space rocks. Pray they don’t dig too deeply. We should go ask Kuato, that creepy little guy knows everything! Except he’s always trying to get you to touch his funny little hands. Pass.

Venus looks like it’s a pretty great place to live, if we stick to the clouds in floating sky cities, plying the jet streams in our steampunk dirigibles. It’ll be fun, but first, does anyone know how to attach a cog to a top hat? Venus, here we come!

We should stay away from the surface, though, that place’ll kill you dead. We’re guessing a crispy shell holding in a gooey center, at least for the first few moments. Once we sort the living in space deal, is there anywhere we won’t be able to go?

We could create underwater cities on Europa or Ganymede, in the vast oceans with the exotic hopefully unarmed, peaceful, vegetarian Jovian whales.Like Jupiter? Could we live there?

Jupiter is the most massive planet in the Solar System. It has a diameter of almost 140,000 kilometers and it’s made mostly of hydrogen and helium; the same materials of the Sun. It has more than 317 times the mass of the Earth, providing its enormous gravity.

If you could stand on the cloud tops of Jupiter, you would experience 2.5 times the gravity that you experience on Earth. Then you’d fall to your death, because it’s a gas planet, made of hydrogen, the lightest element in the Universe. You can’t stand on gas, rookie.

If you tried to bring your Venusian Vernian exploratorium ballooncraft for a jaunt across the skies of Jupiter, it would sink like a copper bowler with lead goggles.

The only thing that’s lighter than hydrogen is hot hydrogen. Let’s say you could make a balloon, and fill it with superheated hydrogen and float around the cloud tops of Jupiter suffering the crushing gravity. Is there anything else that might kill you?

Did you leave Earth? Then of course there is. Everything is going to kill you, always. You might want to write that on the brass plaque next to your ship’s wheel with the carving of Shiva in the center there, Captain Baron Cogsworth Copperglass.

Jupiter's Great Red Spot and Ganymede's Shadow. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and Ganymede’s Shadow. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

Jupiter is surrounded by an enormous magnetic field, ten times more powerful than Earth’s. It traps particles and then whips them around like an accelerator. This radiation is a million times more powerful than the Earth’s Van Allen belts. Our big human meat roasting concern during the Apollo days.

If you tried to get near the radiation belts without insufficient shielding. It’d be bad. Just picture jamming your copper and brass steamwork fantasy into a giant microwave.

Is it possible there’s a solid core, deep down within Jupiter? Somewhere we could live, and not have to worry about those pesky buoyancy problems? Probably. Astronomers think there are a few times the mass of the Earth in rocky material deep down inside.

Of course, the pressure and temperature are incomprehensible. The temperature at the core of Jupiter is thought to be 24,000 degrees Celsius. Hydrogen is crushed so tightly it becomes superheated liquid or strange new flavors of ice. It becomes a metal.

The moral, we’re not equipped to go there. Let alone set up shop. So, let’s just stick with fantasizing your adventures as Emperor Esquire Beardweirdy Brassnozzle Steamypantaloons.

In his classic book 2001, Arthur C. Clarke said that “all these worlds are yours except Europa, attempt no landing there”. Well that’s crazy.

Europa’s awesome, we’re totally landing there, especially if we discover alien whales. So, Europa first. Besides, it’s just a book. So, Jupiter is the worst. Do not navigate your airship into that harbour.

What’s the worst possible environment you can imagine to try and live on? Tell us 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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