Measuring the Temperatures of Red Giants is Actually Pretty Tricky

Red giant stars are, well, red and giant. But astronomers have always had difficulty estimating their temperatures, due to their complex and turbulent atmospheres. Without an accurate gauge of their temperatures, it’s difficult to tell when they will end their lives in gigantic supernova explosions. Now a team of astronomers have developed a more effective technique for taking the temperature of red giants, based on the amount of iron in the stars.

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A New Study Says That Betelgeuse Won’t Be Exploding Any Time Soon

I have stood under Orion The Hunter on clear evenings willing its star Betelgeuse to explode. “C’mon, blow up!” In late 2019, Betelgeuse experienced an unprecedented dimming event dropping 1.6 magnitude to 1/3 its max brightness. Astronomers wondered – was this dimming precursor to supernova? How cosmically wonderful it would be to witness the moment Betelgeuse explodes. The star ripping apart in a blaze of light scattering the seeds of planets, moons, and possibly life throughout the Universe. Creative cataclysm.

Only about ten supernova have been seen with the naked eye in all recorded history. Now we can revisit ancient astronomical records with telescopes to discover supernova remnants like the brilliant SN 1006 (witnessed in 1006AD) whose explosion created one of the brightest objects ever seen in the sky. Unfortunately, latest research suggests we all might be waiting another 100,000 years for Betelgeuse to pop. However, studying this recent dimming event gleaned new information about Betelgeuse which may help us better understand stars in a pre-supernova state.

This comparison image shows Betelgeuse, before and after its unprecedented dimming
ESO / M. Montargès et al.
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If dark matter is a particle, it should get inside red giant stars and change the way they behave

Dark matter makes up the vast majority of matter in the universe, but we can’t see it. At least, not directly. Whatever the dark matter is, it must interact with everything else in the universe through gravity, and astronomers have found that if too much dark matter collects inside of red giant stars, it can potentially cut their lifetimes in half.

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1 in 10 Red Giants are Covered in Spots, and They Rotate Surprisingly Quickly

Sunspots are common on our Sun. These darker patches are cooler than their surroundings, and they’re caused by spikes in magnetic flux that inhibit convection. Without convection, those areas cool and darken.

Lots of other stars have sunspots, too. But Red Giants (RGs) don’t. Or so astronomers thought.

A new study shows that some RGs do have spots, and that they rotate faster than thought.

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Stars Like Our Sun Become Lithium Factories as They Die

In the beginning, the big bang created three elements: hydrogen, helium, and lithium. But it only produced a trace of lithium. For every lithium atom created, the big bang produced about 10 billion hydrogen atoms, and 3 billion helium atoms. The ratio of primordial elements is one of the triumphs of the big bang model. It predicts the ratio of hydrogen (H) and helium (4He) perfectly, and even works for the ratios of other isotopes, such as deuterium (2H) and helium-3 (3He). But it doesn’t work for lithium, and we aren’t sure why.

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This is the Surface of a Giant Star, 350 Times Larger Than the Sun

When it comes to looking beyond our Solar System, astronomers are often forced to theorize about what they don’t know based on what they do. In short, they have to rely on what we have learned studying the Sun and the planets from our own Solar System in order to make educated guesses about how other star systems and their respective bodies formed and evolved.

For example, astronomers have learned much from our Sun about how convection plays a major role in the life of stars. Until now, they have not been able to conduct detailed studies of the surfaces of other stars because of their distances and obscuring factors. However, in a historic first, an international team of scientists recently created the first detailed images of the surface of a red giant star located roughly 530 light-years away.

The study recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature under the title “Large Granulation cells on the surface of the giant star Π¹ Gruis“. The study was led by Claudia Paladini of the Université libre de Bruxelles and included members from the European Southern Observatory, the Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, Georgia State University, the Université Grenoble Alpes, Uppsala University, the University of Vienna, and the University of Exeter.

The surface of the red giant star Π¹ Gruis from PIONIER on the VLT. Credit: ESO

For the sake of their study, the team used the Precision Integrated-Optics Near-infrared Imaging ExpeRiment (PIONIER) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) to observe the star known as Π¹ Gruis. Located 530 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Grus (The Crane), Π1 Gruis is a cool red giant. While it is the same mass as our Sun, it is 350 times larger and several thousand times as bright.

For decades, astronomers have sought to learn more about the convection properties and evolution of stars by studying red giants. These are what become of main sequence stars once they have exhausted their hydrogen fuel and expand to becomes hundreds of times their normal diameter. Unfortunately, studying the convection properties of most supergiant stars has been challenging because their surfaces are frequently obscured by dust.

After obtaining interferometric data on Π1 Gruis in September of 2014, the team then relied on image reconstruction software and algorithms to compose images of the star’s surface. These allowed the team to determine the convection patterns of the star by picking out its “granules”, the large grainy spots on the surface that indicate the top of a convective cell.

This was the first time that such images have been created, and represent a major breakthrough when it comes to our understanding of how stars age and evolve. As Dr. Fabien Baron, an assistant professor at Georgia State University and a co-author on the study, explained:

“This is the first time that we have such a giant star that is unambiguously imaged with that level of details. The reason is there’s a limit to the details we can see based on the size of the telescope used for the observations. For this paper, we used an interferometer. The light from several telescopes is combined to overcome the limit of each telescope, thus achieving a resolution equivalent to that of a much larger telescope.”

Earth scorched by red giant Sun
Artist’s impression of the Earth scorched by our Sun as it enters its Red Giant Branch phase. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Fsgregs

This study is especially significant because Π1 Gruis in the last major phase of life and resembles what our Sun will look like when it is at the end of its lifespan. In other words, when our Sun exhausts its hydrogen fuel in roughly five billion years, it will expand significantly to become a red giant star. At this point, it will be large enough to encompass Mercury, Venus, and maybe even Earth.

As a result, studying this star will give scientists insight into the future activity, characteristics and appearance of our Sun. For instance, our Sun has about two million convective cells that typically measure 2,000 km (1243 mi) in diameter. Based on their study, the team estimates that the surface of Π1 Gruis has a complex convective pattern, with granules measuring about 1.2 x 10^8 km (62,137,119 mi) horizontally or 27 percent of the diameter of the star.

This is consistent with what astronomers have predicted, which was that giant and supergiant stars should only have a few large convective cells because of their low surface gravity. As Baron indicated:

“These images are important because the size and number of granules on the surface actually fit very well with models that predict what we should be seeing. That tells us that our models of stars are not far from reality. We’re probably on the right track to understand these kinds of stars.”

An illustration of the structure of the Sun and a red giant star, showing their convective zones. These are the granular zones in the outer layers of the stars. Credit: ESO

The detailed map also indicated differences in surface temperature, which were apparent from the different colors on the star’s surface. This are also consistent with what we know about stars, where temperature variations are indicative of processes that are taking place inside. As temperatures rise and fall, the hotter, more fluid areas become brighter (appearing white) while the cooler, denser areas become darker (red).

Looking ahead, Paladini and her team want to create even more detailed images of the surface of giant stars. The main aim of this is to be able to follow the evolution of these granules continuously, rather than merely getting snapshots of different points in time.

From these and similar studies, we are not only likely to learn more about the formation and evolution of different types of stars in our Universe; we’re also sure to get a better understanding of what our Solar System is in for.


Further Reading: Georgia State University, ESO, Nature

Astronomers Think They Know Why Hot Jupiters Get So Enormous

The study of extra-solar planets has revealed some fantastic and fascinating things. For instance, of the thousands of planets discovered so far, many have been much larger than their Solar counterparts. For instance, most of the gas giants that have been observed orbiting closely to their stars (aka. “Hot Jupiters”) have been similar in mass to Jupiter or Saturn, but have also been significantly larger in size.

Ever since astronomers first placed constraints on the size of a extra-solar gas giant seven years ago, the mystery of why these planets are so massive has endured. Thanks to the recent discovery of twin planets in the K2-132 and K2-97 system – made by a team from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy using data from the Kepler mission – scientists believe we are getting closer to the answer.

The study which details the discovery – “Seeing Double with K2: Testing Re-inflation with Two Remarkably Similar Planets around Red Giant Branch Stars” – recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. The team was led by Samuel K. Grunblatt, a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, and included members from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIfA), Caltech, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the SETI Institute, and multiple universities and research institutes.

Artist’s concept of Jupiter-sized exoplanet that orbits relatively close to its star (aka. a “hot Jupiter”). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Because of the “hot” nature of these planets, their unusual sizes are believed to be related to heat flowing in and out of their atmospheres. Several theories have been developed to explain this process, but no means of testing them have been available. As Grunblatt explained, “since we don’t have millions of years to see how a particular planetary system evolves, planet inflation theories have been difficult to prove or disprove.”

To address this, Grunblatt and his colleagues searched through the data collected by NASA’s Kepler mission (specifically from its K2 mission) to look for “Hot Jupiters” orbiting red giant stars. These are stars that have exited the main sequence of their lifespans and entered the Red Giant Branch (RGB) phase, which is characterized by massive expansion and a decrease in surface temperature.

As a result, red giants may overtake planets that orbit closely to them while planets that were once distant will begin to orbit closely. In accordance with a theory put forth by Eric Lopez – a member of NASA Goddard’s Science and Exploration Directorate – hot Jupiter’s that orbit red giants should become inflated if direct energy output from their host star is the dominant process inflating planets.

So far, their search has turned up two planets – K2-132b and K2-97 b – which were almost identical in terms of their orbital periods (9 days), radii and masses. Based on their observations, the team was able to precisely calculate the radii of both planets and determine that they were 30% larger than Jupiter. Follow-up observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory at Maunakea, Hawaii, also showed that the planets were only half as massive as Jupiter.

The life-cycle of a Sun-like star from protostar (left side) to red giant (near the right side) to white dwarf (far right). Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The team then used models to track the evolution of the planets and their stars over time, which allowed them to calculate how much heat the planets absorbed from their stars. As this heat was transferring from their outer layers to their deep interiors, the planets increased in size and decreased in density. Their results indicated that while the planets likely needed the increased radiation to inflate, the amount they got was lower than expected.

While the study is limited in scope, Grunblatt and his team’s study is consistent with the theory that huge gas giants are inflated by the heat of their host stars. It is bolstered by other lines of evidence that hint that stellar radiation is all a gas giant needs to dramatically alter its size and density. This is certainly significant, given that our own Sun will exit its main sequence someday, which will have a drastic effect on our system of planets.

As such, studying distant red giant stars and what their planets are going through will help astronomers to predict what our Solar System will experience, albeit in a few billion years. As Grunblatt explained in a IfA press statement:

“Studying how stellar evolution affects planets is a new frontier, both in other solar systems as well as our own. With a better idea of how planets respond to these changes, we can start to determine how the Sun’s evolution will affect the atmosphere, oceans, and life here on Earth.”

It is hoped that future surveys which are dedicated to the study of gas giants around red giant stars will help settle the debate between competing planet inflation theories. For their efforts, Grunblatt and his team were recently awarded time with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which they plan to use to conduct further observations of K2-132 and K2-97, and their respective gas giants.

The search for planets around red giant stars is also expected to intensify in the coming years with he deployment of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the  James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). These missions will be launching in 2018 and 2019, respectively, while the K2 mission is expected to last for at least another year.

Further Reading: IfA, The Astronomical Journal

A First: Star Caught in the Act of Devouring a Planet

How’s this for a depressing look into Earth’s potential future: astronomers have witnessed the first evidence of a planet’s destruction by its aging star as it expands into a red giant.

“A similar fate may await the inner planets in our solar system, when the Sun becomes a red giant and expands all the way out to Earth’s orbit some five-billion years from now,” said Alex Wolszczan, from Penn State, University, who led a team which found evidence of a missing planet having been devoured by its parent star. Wolszczan also is the discoverer of the first planet ever found outside our solar system.

The planet-eating culprit, a red-giant star named BD+48 740 is older than the Sun and now has a radius about eleven times bigger than our Sun.

The evidence the astronomers found was a massive planet in a surprising highly elliptical orbit around the star – indicating a missing planet — plus the star’s wacky chemical composition.

“Our detailed spectroscopic analysis reveals that this red-giant star, BD+48 740, contains an abnormally high amount of lithium, a rare element created primarily during the Big Bang 14 billion years ago,” said team member Monika Adamow from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland. “Lithium is easily destroyed in stars, which is why its abnormally high abundance in this older star is so unusual.

“Theorists have identified only a few, very specific circumstances, other than the Big Bang, under which lithium can be created in stars,” Wolszczan added. “In the case of BD+48 740, it is probable that the lithium production was triggered by a mass the size of a planet that spiraled into the star and heated it up while the star was digesting it.”

The other piece of evidence discovered by the astronomers is the highly elliptical orbit of the star’s newly discovered massive planet, which is at least 1.6 times as massive as Jupiter.

“We discovered that this planet revolves around the star in an orbit that is only slightly wider than that of Mars at its narrowest point, but is much more extended at its farthest point,” said Andrzej Niedzielski, also from Nicolaus Copernicus University. “Such orbits are uncommon in planetary systems around evolved stars and, in fact, the BD+48 740 planet’s orbit is the most elliptical one detected so far.”

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Because gravitational interactions between planets are responsible for such peculiar orbits, the astronomers suspect that the dive of the missing planet toward the star could have given the surviving massive planet a burst of energy, throwing it into an eccentric orbit like a boomerang.

“Catching a planet in the act of being devoured by a star is an almost improbable feat to accomplish because of the comparative swiftness of the process, but the occurrence of such a collision can be deduced from the way it affects the stellar chemistry,” said Eva Villaver of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain Villaver. “The highly elongated orbit of the massive planet we discovered around this lithium-polluted red-giant star is exactly the kind of evidence that would point to the star’s recent destruction of its now-missing planet.”

The team used the Hobby-Eberly Telescope – searching for planets – when they detected evidence of the missing planet’s destruction.
The paper describing this discovery is posted in an early online edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters (Adamow et al. 2012, ApJ, 754, L15), or another version is available on arXiv.

Lead image caption: Artist’s impression of a red giant star. Image credit: ESO