Why Do Red Dwarfs Live So Long?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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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Will the Universe Run Out Of Energy?

Will the Universe Run Out Of Energy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is A Wolf-Rayet Star?

M1-67 is the youngest wind-nebula around a Wolf-Rayet star, called WR124, in our Galaxy. Credit: ESO

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?

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?

How Many Stars Did It Take To Make Us?

How Many Stars Did It Take To Make Us?

You know the quote, we’re made of stardust. Generation after generation of stars created the materials that make us up. How? And how many stars did it take?

Carl Sagan once said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” To an average person, this might sound completely bananas. I feel it could easily be adopted into the same dirty realm as “My grandpappy wasn’t no gorilla”.

After all, if my teeth are made of stars, and my toothpaste supplier can be believed, why aren’t they brighter and whiter? If my bones are made of stars, shouldn’t I have this creepy inner glow like the aliens from Cocoon? Does this mean everything I eat is made of stars? And conversely, the waste products of my body then are also made of stars? Shouldn’t all this star business include some cool interstellar powers, like Nova? Also, shouldn’t my face be burning?

When the Big Bang happened, 13.8 billion years ago, the entire Universe was briefly the temperature and pressure of a star. And in this stellar furnace, atoms of hydrogen were fused together to make helium and heavier elements like lithium and a little bit of beryllium.

This all happened between 100 and 300 seconds after the Big Bang, and then the Universe wasn’t star-like enough for fusion to happen any more. It’s like someone set a microwave timer and cooked the heck of the whole business for 5 minutes. DING! Your Universe is done! All the other elements in the Universe, including the carbon in our bodies to the gold in our jewelry were manufactured inside of stars.

But how many stars did it take to make “us”? Main sequence stars, like our own Sun, create elements slowly, but surely within their cores. As we speak, the Sun is relentlessly churning hydrogen into helium. Once when it runs out of hydrogen, it’ll switch to crushing helium into carbon and oxygen. More massive stars keep going up the periodic table, making neon and magnesium, oxygen and silicon. But those elements aren’t in you. Once a regular star gets going, it’ll hang onto its elements forever with its intense gravity. Even after it dies and becomes a white dwarf.

White Dwarf Star
White Dwarf Star

No, something needs to happen to get those elements out. That star needs to explode. The most massive stars, ones with dozens of times the mass of our Sun don’t know when to stop. They just keep on churning more and more massive elements, right on up the periodic table. They keep fusing and fusing until they reach iron in their cores. And as iron is the stellar equivalent of ash, fusion reactions no longer generate energy, and instead require energy. Without the fusion energy pushing against the force of gravity pulling everything inward, the massive star collapses in on itself, creating a neutron star or black hole, or detonating as a supernova.

It’s in this moment, a fraction of a second, when all the heavier elements are created. The gold, platinum, uranium and other rare elements that we find on Earth. All of them were created in supernovae in the past. The materials of everything around you was either created during the Big Bang or during a supernova detonation. Only supernovae “explode” and spread their material into the surrounding nebula. Our Solar System formed within a nebula of hydrogen that was enriched by multiple supernovae. Everything around you was pretty much made in a supernova.

These images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope show the dust and gas concentrations around a supernova. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
These images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope show the dust and gas concentrations around a supernova. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So how many? How many times has this cycle been repeated? We don’t know. Lots. There were the original stars that formed shortly after the Big Bang, and then successive generations of massive stars that formed in various nebulae. Astronomers are pretty sure it was a least 3 generations of supernovae, but there’s no way to know exactly.

Carl Sagan said you’re made of star-stuff. But actually you’re made up mostly of Big Bang stuff and generations of supernova stuff. Tasty tasty supernova stuff.

What’s your favorite supernova remnant? Tell us in the comments below.