The biggest stars in our universe are some of the most fascinatingly complex objects to inhabit the cosmos. Indeed,giant stars have defied full explanation for decades. Especially when they’re near the end of their lives.
Stars power themselves through nuclear fusion, from the smashing together of lighter elements into heavier ones. This process leaves behind a little bit of extra energy. It’s not much, but when those fusion reactions occur at millions or billions of times every single second, it’s enough to keep a star powered for…millions or billions of years.
Faster than a speeding bullet, this supergiant star looks like it might be wearing a red cape. Alpha Camelopardalis, the bright star in the middle of this image, is a runaway star, moving at incredible speeds – astronomers believe could be zooming along at somewhere between 680 and 4,200 kilometers per second (between 1.5 and 9.4 million miles per hour). The speed of this star is so fast, a huge bow shock is being created as the star moves through space. Alpha Cam’s bow shock can’t be seen in visible light, but WISE’s infrared detectors allow us to see this arc of heated gas and dust around the star.
Runaway stars are kicked into motion either through the supernova explosion of a companion star or through gravitational interactions with other stars in a cluster. The WISE team explains the bow shock:
“Because Alpha Cam is a supergiant star, it gives off a very strong wind. The speed of the wind is boosted in the forward direction the star is moving in space. When this fast-moving wind slams into the slower-moving interstellar material, a bow shock is created, similar to the wake in front of the bow of a ship in water. The stellar wind compresses the interstellar gas and dust, causing it to heat up and glow in infrared.”
Just as astronomers aren’t quite sure about the speed Alpha Cam is traveling, its distance is also somewhat uncertain, but it is probably somewhere between 1,600 and 6,900 light-years away. It is located in the constellation Camelopardis, near Ursa Major. (Right ascension: 4h 54m 03.0113s, declination: +66° 20′ 33.641”)
The colors used in this image represent specific wavelengths of infrared light. Stars are seen primarily in blue and cyan (blue-green), because they are emitting light brightly at 3.4 and 4.6 microns. Green represents 12-micron light, primarily emitted by dust. The red of the blow shock represents light emitted at 22 microns.
A star is a star, right? Sure there are some difference in terms of color when you look up at the night sky. But they are all basically the same, big balls of gas burning up to billions of light years away, right? Well, not exactly. In truth, stars are about as diverse as anything else in our Universe, falling into one of many different classifications based on its defining characteristics.
All in all, there are many different types of stars, ranging from tiny brown dwarfs to red and blue supergiants. There are even more bizarre kinds of stars, like neutron stars and Wolf-Rayet stars. And as our exploration of the Universe continues, we continue to learn things about stars that force us to expand on the way we think of them. Let’s take a look at all the different types of stars there are.
A protostar is what you have before a star forms. A protostar is a collection of gas that has collapsed down from a giant molecular cloud. The protostar phase of stellar evolution lasts about 100,000 years. Over time, gravity and pressure increase, forcing the protostar to collapse down. All of the energy release by the protostar comes only from the heating caused by the gravitational energy – nuclear fusion reactions haven’t started yet.
T Tauri Star:
A T Tauri star is stage in a star’s formation and evolution right before it becomes a main sequence star. This phase occurs at the end of the protostar phase, when the gravitational pressure holding the star together is the source of all its energy. T Tauri stars don’t have enough pressure and temperature at their cores to generate nuclear fusion, but they do resemble main sequence stars; they’re about the same temperature but brighter because they’re a larger. T Tauri stars can have large areas of sunspot coverage, and have intense X-ray flares and extremely powerful stellar winds. Stars will remain in the T Tauri stage for about 100 million years.
Main Sequence Star:
The majority of all stars in our galaxy, and even the Universe, are main sequence stars. Our Sun is a main sequence star, and so are our nearest neighbors, Sirius and Alpha Centauri A. Main sequence stars can vary in size, mass and brightness, but they’re all doing the same thing: converting hydrogen into helium in their cores, releasing a tremendous amount of energy.
A star in the main sequence is in a state of hydrostatic equilibrium. Gravity is pulling the star inward, and the light pressure from all the fusion reactions in the star are pushing outward. The inward and outward forces balance one another out, and the star maintains a spherical shape. Stars in the main sequence will have a size that depends on their mass, which defines the amount of gravity pulling them inward.
The lower mass limit for a main sequence star is about 0.08 times the mass of the Sun, or 80 times the mass of Jupiter. This is the minimum amount of gravitational pressure you need to ignite fusion in the core. Stars can theoretically grow to more than 100 times the mass of the Sun.
Red Giant Star:
When a star has consumed its stock of hydrogen in its core, fusion stops and the star no longer generates an outward pressure to counteract the inward pressure pulling it together. A shell of hydrogen around the core ignites continuing the life of the star, but causes it to increase in size dramatically. The aging star has become a red giant star, and can be 100 times larger than it was in its main sequence phase. When this hydrogen fuel is used up, further shells of helium and even heavier elements can be consumed in fusion reactions. The red giant phase of a star’s life will only last a few hundred million years before it runs out of fuel completely and becomes a white dwarf.
White Dwarf Star:
When a star has completely run out of hydrogen fuel in its core and it lacks the mass to force higher elements into fusion reaction, it becomes a white dwarf star. The outward light pressure from the fusion reaction stops and the star collapses inward under its own gravity. A white dwarf shines because it was a hot star once, but there’s no fusion reactions happening any more. A white dwarf will just cool down until it becomes the background temperature of the Universe. This process will take hundreds of billions of years, so no white dwarfs have actually cooled down that far yet.
Red Dwarf Star:
Red dwarf stars are the most common kind of stars in the Universe. These are main sequence stars but they have such low mass that they’re much cooler than stars like our Sun. They have another advantage. Red dwarf stars are able to keep the hydrogen fuel mixing into their core, and so they can conserve their fuel for much longer than other stars. Astronomers estimate that some red dwarf stars will burn for up to 10 trillion years. The smallest red dwarfs are 0.075 times the mass of the Sun, and they can have a mass of up to half of the Sun.
If a star has between 1.35 and 2.1 times the mass of the Sun, it doesn’t form a white dwarf when it dies. Instead, the star dies in a catastrophic supernova explosion, and the remaining core becomes a neutron star. As its name implies, a neutron star is an exotic type of star that is composed entirely of neutrons. This is because the intense gravity of the neutron star crushes protons and electrons together to form neutrons. If stars are even more massive, they will become black holes instead of neutron stars after the supernova goes off.
The largest stars in the Universe are supergiant stars. These are monsters with dozens of times the mass of the Sun. Unlike a relatively stable star like the Sun, supergiants are consuming hydrogen fuel at an enormous rate and will consume all the fuel in their cores within just a few million years. Supergiant stars live fast and die young, detonating as supernovae; completely disintegrating themselves in the process.
As you can see, stars come in many sizes, colors and varieties. Knowing what accounts for this, and what their various life stages look like, are all important when it comes to understanding our Universe. It also helps when it comes to our ongoing efforts to explore our local stellar neighborhood, not to mention in the hunt for extra-terrestrial life!