New Study of Antares Creates the Best Map Ever of a Distant Star

When stars exhaust their supply of hydrogen fuel, they exit the main sequence phase of their evolution and enter into what is known as the Red Giant Branch (RGB) phase. This is characterized by the stars expanding significantly and becoming tens of thousands of times larger than our Sun. They also become dimmer and cooler, which lends them a reddish-orange appearance (hence the name).

Recently, a team of astronomers used the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) to map one such star, the red supergiant Antares. In so doing, they were able to create the most detailed map of a star other than our Sun. The images they took also revealed some unexpected things about this supergiant star, all of which could help astronomers to better understand the dynamics and evolution of red giant stars.

The study which details their work, titled “Vigorous Atmospheric Motions in the Red Supergiant Supernova Progenitor Antares“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. As indicated in the study, the team – which was led by Keiichi Ohnaka, an associate professor at the UCN Institute of Astronomy in Chile = relied on the VLTI at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile to map Antares’s surface and measure the motions of its surface material.

Artist’s impression of the red supergiant star Antares, located 550 ly away in the constellation of Scorpius. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The purpose of their study was to chart how stars that have entered their RGB phase begin to change. The VLTI is uniquely suited to this task, since it is capable of combining light from four different telescopes – the 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes, or the smaller Auxiliary Telescopes – to create one virtual telescope that has the resolution of a telescope lens measuring 200 meters across.

This allows the VLTI to resolve fine details far beyond what can be seen with a single telescope. As Prof. Ohnaka explained in a recent ESO press statement:

How stars like Antares lose mass so quickly in the final phase of their evolution has been a problem for over half a century. The VLTI is the only facility that can directly measure the gas motions in the extended atmosphere of Antares — a crucial step towards clarifying this problem. The next challenge is to identify what’s driving the turbulent motions.”

For their study, the team relied on three of the VLTI Auxiliary Telescopes and an instrument called the Astronomical Multi-BEam combineR (AMBER). This near-infrared spectro-interferometric instrument combines three telescopic beams coherently, allowing astronomers to measure the visibilities and closure phases of stars. Using these instruments, the team obtained images of Antares’ surface over a small range of infrared wavelengths.

From these, the team was able to calculate the difference between the speed of atmospheric gas at different locations on Antares’ surface, as well as its average speed over the entire surface. This resulted in a two-dimensional velocity map of Antares, which is the first such map created of another star other than the Sun. As noted, it is also the most-detailed map of any star beyond our Solar System to date.

The study also made some interesting discoveries of what takes place on Antares’ surface and in its atmosphere. For example, they found evidence for high-speed upwellings of gas that reached distances of up to 1.7 Solar radii into space – much farther than previously thought. This, they claimed, could not be explained by convection alone, the process whereby cold material moves downwards and hot material upwards in a circular pattern.

This process occurs on Earth in the atmosphere and with ocean currents, but it is also responsible for moving pockets of hotter and colder gas around within stars. The fact that convection cannot explain the behavior of Antares extended atmosphere would therefore suggests that some new and unidentified process common to red giant stars must be responsible.

These results therefor offer new opportunities for research into stellar evolution, which is made possible thanks to next-generation instruments like the VTLI. As Ohnaka concluded:

“In the future, this observing technique can be applied to different types of stars to study their surfaces and atmospheres in unprecedented detail. This has been limited to just the Sun up to now. Our work brings stellar astrophysics to a new dimension and opens an entirely new window to observe stars.”

Not only is this kind of research improving our understanding of stars beyond our Solar System, it lets us know what to expect when our Sun exits it main sequence phase and begins expanding to become a red giant. Though that day is billions of years away and we can’t be certain humanity will even be around by that time, knowing the mechanics of stellar evolution is important to our understanding of the Universe.
It pays to know that even after we are gone, we can predict what will still be here and for how long. Be sure to check out this 3D animation of Antares, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO, Nature

Friendly Giants Have Cozy Habitable Zones Too

It is an well-known fact that all stars have a lifespan. This begins with their formation, then continues through their Main Sequence phase (which constitutes the majority of their life) before ending in death. In most cases, stars will swell up to several hundred times their normal size as they exit the Main Sequence phase of their life, during which time they will likely consume any planets that orbit closely to them.

However, for planets that orbit the star at greater distances (beyond the system’s “Frost Line“, essentially), conditions might actually become warm enough for them to support life. And according to new research which comes from the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University, this situation could last for some star systems into the billions of years, giving rise to entirely new forms of extra-terrestrial life!

In approximately 5.4 billion years from now, our Sun will exit its Main Sequence phase. Having exhausted the hydrogen fuel in its 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, which in turn will cause the Sun to grow in size and enter what is known as the Red Giant-Branch (RGB) phase of its evolution.

The life cycle of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant on the right after billions of years. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
The life cycle of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant on the right after billions of years. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

This period will begin with our Sun becoming a subgiant, in which it will slowly double in size over the course of about half a billion years. It will then spend the next half a billion years expanding more rapidly, until it is 200 times its current size and several thousands times more luminous. It will then officially be a red giant star, eventually expanding to the point where it reaches beyond Mars’ orbit.

As we explored in a previous article, planet Earth will not survive our Sun becoming a Red Giant – nor will Mercury, Venus or Mars. But beyond the “Frost Line”, where it is cold enough that volatile compounds – such as water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide – remain in a frozen state, the remain gas giants, ice giants, and dwarf planets will survive. Not only that, but a massive thaw will set in.

In short, when the star expands, its “habitable zone” will likely do the same, encompassing the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. When this happens, formerly uninhabitable places – like the Jovian and Cronian moons – could suddenly become inhabitable. The same holds true for many other stars in the Universe, all of which are fated to become Red Giants as they near the end of their lifespans.

However, when our Sun reaches its Red Giant Branch phase, it is only expected to have 120 million years of active life left. This is not quite enough time for new lifeforms to emerge, evolve and become truly complex (i.e. like humans and other species of mammals). But according to a recent research study that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal – titled “Habitable Zone of Post-Main Sequence Stars” – some planets may be able to remain habitable around other red giant stars in our Universe for much longer – up to 9 billion years or more in some cases!

Ramses Ramirez, left, and Lisa Kaltenegger hold a replica of our own habitable world, as they hunt for other places in the universe where life can thrive. Credit: Chris Kitchen/University Photo
Ramses Ramirez (left) and Lisa Kaltenegger are on the hunt for other places in the universe where life can thrive. Credit: Chris Kitchen/University Photo

To put that in perspective, nine billion years is close to twice the current age of Earth. So assuming that the worlds in question also have the right mix of elements, they will have ample time to give rise to new and complex forms of life. The study’s co-author, Professor Lisa Kaltennegeris, is also the director of the Carl Sagan Institute. As such, she is no stranger to searching for life in other parts of the Universe. As she explained to Universe Today via email:

“We found that planets – depending on how big their Sun is (the smaller the star, the longer the planet can stay habitable) – can stay nice and warm for up to 9 Billion years. That makes an old star an interesting place to look for life. It could have started sub-surface (e.g. in a frozen ocean) and then when the ice melts, the gases that life breaths in and out can escape into the atmosphere – what allows astronomers to pick them up as signatures of life. Or for the smallest stars, the time a formerly frozen planet can be nice and warm is up to 9 billion years. Thus life could potentially even get started in that time.”

Using existing models of stars and their evolution – i.e. one-dimensional radiative-convective climate and stellar evolutionary models – for their study, Kaltenegger and Ramirez were able to calculate the distances of the habitable zones (HZ) around a series of post-Main Sequence (post-MS) stars. Ramses M. Ramirez – a research associate at the Carl Sagan Institute and the lead author of the paper – explained the research process to Universe Today via email:

“We used stellar evolutionary models that tell us how stellar quantities, mainly the brightness, radius, and temperature all change with time as the star ages through the red giant phase. We also used a  climate model to then compute how much energy each star is outputting at the boundaries of the habitable zone. Knowing this and the stellar brightness mentioned above, we can compute the distances to these habitable zone boundaries.”

After several billions years, yellow suns (like ours) become Red Giants, expanding to several hundred times their normal size. Credit: Wendy Kenigsburg
After several billions years, yellow suns (like ours) become Red Giants, expanding to several hundred times their normal size. Credit: Wendy Kenigsburg

At the same time, they considered how this kind of stellar evolution could effect the atmosphere of the star’s planets. As a star expands, it loses mass and ejects it outward in the form of solar wind. For planets that orbit close to a star, or those that have low surface gravity, they may find some or all of their atmospheres blasted away. On the other hand, planets with sufficient mass (or positioned at a safe distance) could maintain most of their atmospheres.

“The stellar winds from this mass loss erodes planetary atmospheres, which we also compute as a function of time,” said Ramirez. “As the star loses mass, the solar system conserves angular momentum by moving outwards. So, we also take into account how the orbits move out with time.” By using models that incorporated the rate of stellar and atmospheric loss during the Red Giant Branch (RGB) and Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) phases of star, they were able to determine how this would play out for planets that ranged in size from super-Moons to super-Earths.

What they found was that a planet can stay in a post-HS HZ for eons or more, depending on how hot the star is, and figuring for metallicities that are similar to our Sun’s. As Ramirez explained:

“The main result is that the maximum time that a planet can remain in this red giant habitable zone of hot stars is 200 million years. For our coolest star (M1), the maximum time a planet can stay within this red giant habitable zone is 9 billion years. Those results assume metallicity levels similar to those of our Sun. A star with a higher percentage of metals takes longer to fuse the non-metals (H, He..etc) and so these maximum times can increase some more, up to about a factor of two.”

Europa's cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.
Could Europa’s cracked, icy surface thaw and give rise to a new habitable world when our Sun becomes a Red Giant in a few billion years? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Within the context of our Solar System, this could mean that in a few billion years, worlds like Europa and Enceladus (which are already suspected of having life beneath their icy surfaces) might get a shot at becoming full-fledged habitable worlds. As Ramirez summarized beautifully:

“This means that the post-main-sequence is another potentially interesting phase of stellar evolution from a habitability standpoint. Long after the inner system of planets have been turned into sizzling wastelands by the expanding, growing red giant star, there could be potentially habitable abodes farther away from the chaos. If they are frozen worlds, like Europa, the ice would melt, potentially unveiling any preexisting life. Such pre-existing life may be detectable by future missions/telescopes looking for atmospheric biosignatures.”

But perhaps the most exciting take-away from their research study was their conclusion that planets orbiting within their star’s post-MS habitable zones would be doing so at distances that would make them detectable using direct imaging techniques. So not only are the odds of finding life around older stars better than previously thought, we should have no trouble in spotting them using current exoplanet-hunting techniques!

It is also worth noting that Kaltenegger and Dr. Ramirez have submitted a second paper for publication, in which they provide a list of 23 red giant stars within 100 light-years of Earth. Knowing that these stars, all of which are in our stellar neighborhood, could have life-sustaining worlds within their habitable zones should provide additional opportunities for planet hunters in the coming years.

And be sure to check out this video from Cornellcast, where Prof. Kaltenegger shares what inspires her scientific curiosity and how Cornell’s scientists are working to find proof of extra-terrestrial life.

Further Reading: The Astrophysical Journal

Will Earth Survive When the Sun Becomes a Red Giant?

Earth scorched by red giant Sun

Since the beginning of human history, people have understood that the Sun is a central part of life as we know it. It’s importance to countless mythological and cosmological systems across the globe is a testament to this. But as our understand of it matured, we came to learn that the Sun was here long before us, and will be here long after we’re gone. Having formed roughly 4.6 bullion years ago, our Sun began its life roughly 40 million years before our Earth had formed.

Since then, the Sun has been in what is known as its Main Sequence, where nuclear fusion in its core causes it to emit energy and light, keeping us here on Earth nourished. This will last for another 4.5 – 5.5 billion years, at which point it will deplete its supply of hydrogen and helium and go through some serious changes. Assuming humanity is still alive and calls Earth home at this time, we may want to consider getting out the way!

The Birth of Our Sun:

The predominant theory on how our Sun and Solar System formed is known as Nebular Theory, which states that the Sun and all the planets began billions of years ago as a giant cloud of molecular gas and dust. Then, approximately 4.57 billion years ago, this cloud experienced gravitational collapse at its center, where anything from a passing star to a shock wave caused by a supernova triggered the process that led to our Sun’s birth.

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

Young stars have a disk of gas and dust around them called a protoplanetary disk. Out of this disk planets are formed, and the presence of water ice in the disc affects where different types of planets form. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Young stars have a disk of gas and dust around them called a protoplanetary disk. Out of this disk planets are formed, and the presence of water ice in the disc affects where different types of planets form. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The ball at the center would eventually form the Sun, while the disk of material would form the planets. The Sun then spent the next 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.

Main Sequence:

For the past 4.57 billion years (give or take a day or two), the Sun has been in the Main Sequence of its life. This is characterized by the process where hydrogen fuel, under tremendous pressure and temperatures in its core, is converted into helium. In addition to changing the properties of its constituent matter, this process also produces a tremendous amount of energy. All told, every second, 600 million tons of matter are converted into neutrinos, solar radiation, and roughly 4 x 1027 Watts of energy.

Naturally, this process cannot last forever since it is dependent on the presence of matter which is being regularly consumed. As time goes on and more hydrogen is converted into helium, the core will continue to shrink, allowing the outer layers of the Sun to move closer to the center and experience a stronger gravitational force.

This will place 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.

The life cycle of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant on the right after billions of years. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
The life cycle of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant on the right after billions of years. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Approximately 1.1 billion years from now, the Sun will be 10% brighter than it is today. This increase in luminosity will also mean an increase in heat energy, one which the Earth’s atmosphere will absorb. This will trigger a runaway greenhouse effect that is similar to what turned Venus into the terrible hothouse it is today.

In 3.5 billion years, the Sun will be 40% brighter than it is right now, which 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, and planet Earth will be fully transformed into another hot, dry world, just like Venus.

Red Giant Phase:

In 5.4 billion years from now, the Sun will enter what is known as the Red Giant phase of its evolution. This will begin once all hydrogen is exhausted in the core and the inert helium ash that has built up there becomes unstable and collapses under its own weight. This will cause the core to heat up and get denser, causing the Sun to grow in size.

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 were to survive being consumed, its new proximity to the the intense heat of this red sun would scorch our planet and make it completely impossible for life to survive. However, astronomers have noted that as the Sun expands, the orbit of the planet’s is likely to change as well.

When the Sun reaches this late stage in its stellar evolution, it will lose a tremendous amount of mass through powerful stellar winds. Basically, as it grows, it loses mass, causing the planets to spiral outwards. So the question is, will the expanding Sun overtake the planets spiraling outwards, or will Earth (and maybe even Venus) escape its grasp?

K.-P Schroder and Robert Cannon Smith are two researchers who have addressed this very question. In a research paper entitled “Distant Future of the Sun and Earth Revisted” which appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, they ran the calculations with the most current models of stellar evolution.

According to Schroder and Smith, when the Sun becomes a red giant star in 7.59 billion years, it will start to lose mass quickly. By the time it reaches its largest radius, 256 times its current size, it will be down to only 67% of its current mass. When the Sun does begin to expand, it will do so quickly, sweeping through the inner Solar System in just 5 million years.

It will then enter its relatively brief (130 million year) helium-burning phase, at which point, it will expand past the orbit of Mercury, and then Venus. By the time it approaches the Earth, it will be losing 4.9 x 1020 tonnes of mass every year (8% the mass of the Earth).

But Will Earth Survive?:

Now this is where things become a bit of a “good news/bad news” situation. The bad news, according to Schroder and Smith, is that the Earth will NOT survive the Sun’s expansion. Even though the Earth could expand to an orbit 50% more distant than where it is today (1.5 AUs), it won’t get the chance. The expanding Sun will engulf the Earth just before it reaches the tip of the red giant phase, and the Sun would still have another 0.25 AU and 500,000 years to grow.

Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer
Artist’s impression of a Red giant star. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer

Once inside the Sun’s atmosphere, the Earth will collide with particles of gas. Its orbit will decay, and it will spiral inward. If the Earth were just a little further from the Sun right now, at 1.15 AU, it would be able to survive the expansion phase. If we could push our planet out to this distance, we’d also be in business. However, such talk is entirely speculative and in the realm of science fiction at the moment.

And now for the good news. Long before our Sun enters it’s Red Giant phase, its habitable zone (as we know it) will be gone. Astronomers estimate that this zone will expand past the Earth’s orbit in about a billion years. The heating Sun will evaporate the Earth’s oceans away, and then solar radiation will blast away the hydrogen from the water. The Earth will never have oceans again, and it will eventually become molten.

Yeah, that’s the good news… sort of. But the upside to this is that we can say with confidence that humanity will be compelled to leave the nest long before it is engulfed by the Sun. And given the fact that we are dealing with timelines that are far beyond anything we can truly deal with, we can’t even be sure that some other cataclysmic event won’t claim us sooner, or that we wont have moved far past our current evolutionary phase.

An interesting side benefit will be how the changing boundaries of our Sun’s habitable zone will change the Solar System as well. While Earth, at a mere 1.5 AUs, will no longer be within the Sun’s habitable zone, much of the outer Solar System will be. This new habitable zone will stretch from 49.4 AU to 71.4 AU – well into the Kuiper Belt – which means the formerly icy worlds will melt, and liquid water will be present beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Perhaps Eris will be our new homeworld, the dwarf planet of Pluto will be the new Venus, and Haumeau, Makemake, and the rest will be the outer “Solar System”. But what is perhaps most fascinating about all of this is how humans are even tempted to ask “will it still be here in the future” in the first place, especially when that future is billions of years from now.

Somehow, the subjects of what came before us, and what will be here when we’re gone, continue to fascinate us. And when dealing with things like our Sun, the Earth, and the known Universe, it becomes downright necessary. Our existence thus far has been a flash in the pan compared to the cosmos, and how long we will endure remains an open question.

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.

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.