Sirius B

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Sirius B is the name of the fainter, smaller, less massive star in the Sirius binary system (the brighter, larger, more massive one is Sirius A, or just Sirius). It was hypothesized to exist almost eighteen years before it was actually observed!

Details: Bessel – yep, the guy who Bessel functions are named after – analyzed data on the position of Sirius (Bessel was the one who first observed stellar parallax), in particular its proper motion, and concluded – in 1844 – that there was an unseen companion star (the same principle used to infer the existence of Neptune, around the same time). In 1862 Alvan Clark saw this companion, using the 18.5″ refracting telescope he’d just built (quite a feat; Sirius B is ~10 magnitudes fainter than Sirius A, and separated by only a few arcseconds).

Sirius B is a white dwarf, one of the three “classics”, discovered to be white dwarf stars in the early years of the 20th century (Sirius B was the second to be discovered – 40 Eridani B had been found much earlier, and Procyon B was also hypothesized by Bessel (in 1844) though not observed until much later (in 1896)). It is one of the most massive white dwarfs so far discovered; its mass is the same as that of the Sun (approximately). Like all white dwarfs, it is small (it has a radius of only 0.008, compared with the Sun’s, which makes it smaller than the Earth!); like most seen so far, it is hot (approx 25,000 K).

Sirius B was likely a five sol B star as recently as 60 million years ago (when it was, coincidentally, approximately 60 million years old!), when it entered first a hydrogen shell burning, then a helium shell burning, stage, shed most of its mass (and enriching its companion with lots of ‘metals’ in the process), and shrank to become a white dwarf. There is no fusion taking place in Sirius B’s degenerate carbon/oxygen core (which makes up almost all of the star; there is a thin, non-degenerate, hydrogen atmosphere … this is what we see), so it is slowly cooling (it cools so slowly because it has such a small surface area).

Packing such a large mass into such a small volume means that Sirius B’s surface gravity is huge … so great in fact that it serves as an excellent test of one of the predictions of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity: gravitational redshift (this was first observed in the lab in 1959, by Pound and Rebka). The most recent observation of this gravitational redshift was by the Hubble, in 2005, as described in the Universe Today article Sirius’ White Dwarf Companion Weighed by Hubble.

Other Universe Today stories about Sirius B include White Dwarf Theories Get More Proof, and this 2005 What’s Up This Week one.

Astronomy Cast has two episodes related to Sirius B, Dwarf Stars, and Binary Stars.

References:
http://www.solstation.com/stars/sirius2.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sirius

Black Dwarf

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A black dwarf is a white dwarf that has cooled down to the temperature of the cosmic microwave background, and so is invisible. Unlike red dwarfs, brown dwarfs, and white dwarfs, black dwarfs are entirely hypothetical.

Once a star has evolved to become a white dwarf, it no longer has an internal source of heat, and is shining only because it is still hot. Like something taken from the oven, left alone a white dwarf will cool down until it is the same temperature as its surroundings. Unlike tonight’s dinner, which cools by convection, conduction, and radiation, a white dwarf cools only by radiation.

Because it’s electron degeneracy pressure that stops it from collapsing to become a black hole, a white dwarf is a fantastic conductor of heat (in fact, the physics of Fermi gasses explains the conductivity of both white dwarfs and metals!). How fast a white dwarf cools is thus easy to work out … it depends on only its initial temperature, mass, and composition (most are carbon plus oxygen; some maybe predominantly oxygen, neon and magnesium; others helium). Oh, and as at least part of the core of a white dwarf may crystallize, the cooling curve will have a bit of a bump around then.

The universe is only 13.7 billion years old, so even a white dwarf formed 13 billion years ago (unlikely; the stars which become white dwarfs take a billion years, or so, to do so) it would still have a temperature of a few thousand degrees. The coolest white dwarf observed to date has a temperature of a little less than 3,000 K. A long way to go before it becomes a black dwarf.

Working out how long it would take for a white dwarf to cool to the temperature of the CMB is actually quite tricky. Why? Because there are lots of interesting effects that may be important, effects we cannot model yet. For example, a white dwarf will contain some dark matter, and at least some of that may decay, over timespans of quadrillions of years, generating heat. Perhaps diamonds are not forever (protons too may decay); more heat. And the CMB is getting cooler all the time too, as the universe continues to expand.

Anyway, if we say, arbitrarily, that at 5 K a white dwarf becomes a black dwarf, then it’ll take at least 10^15 years for one to form.

One more thing: no white dwarf is totally alone; some have binary companions, others may wander through a dust cloud … the infalling mass generates heat too, and if enough hydrogen builds up on the surface, it may go off like a hydrogen bomb (that’s what novae are!), warming the white dwarf quite a bit.

More from Universe Today: How Does a Star Die?, Why Do Stars Die?, and Hubble Discovers a Strange Collection of White Dwarf… Dwarfs.

The End of the Universe Part 1 and Part 2 are Astronomy Cast episodes worth listening to, as are The Life of the Sun and The Life of Other Stars.

References:
NASA
NASA: Age of the Universe
Wikipedia

Chandrasekhar Limit

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When a human puts on too much weight, there is an increased risk of heart attack; when a white dwarf star puts on too much weight (i.e. adds mass), there is the mother of all fatal heart attacks, a supernova explosion. The greatest mass a white dwarf star can have before it goes supernova is called the Chandrasekhar limit, after astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who worked it out in the 1930s. Its value is approx 1.4 sols, or 1.4 times the mass of our Sun (the exact value depends somewhat on the white dwarf’s composition how fast it’s spinning, etc).

White dwarfs are the end of the road for most stars; once they have used up all their available hydrogen ‘fuel’, low mass stars shed their outermost shells to form planetary nebulae, leaving a high density core of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen (that’s a summary, it’s actually a bit more complicated). The star can’t collapse further because of electron degeneracy pressure, a quantum effect that comes from the fact that electrons are fermions (technically, only two fermions can occupy a given energy state, one spin up and one spin down).

So what happens in the core of a massive star, one whose core weighs in at more than 1.4 sols? As long as the star is still ‘burning’ nuclear fuel – helium, then carbon etc, then neon, then … – the core will not collapse because it is very hot (electron degeneracy pressure won’t hold it up ’cause it’s too massive). But once the core gets to iron, no more burning is possible, and the core will collapse, spectacularly, producing a core collapse supernova.

There is a way a white dwarf can go out with a bang rather than a whimper; by getting a little help from a friend. If the white dwarf has a close binary companion, and if that companion is a giant star, some of the hydrogen in its outer shell may end up on the white dwarf’s surface (there are several ways this can happen). The white dwarf thus adds mass, and every so often the thin hydrogen envelope blows up, and we see a nova. One day, though, the extra mass may put it over the limit, the Chandrasekhar limit … the temperature in its center gets high enough that the carbon ‘ignites’, the ‘flame’ spreads throughout the star, and it becomes a special kind of supernova, a Ia supernova.

For more technical details of the Chandrasekhar limit, Richard Fitzpatrick of the University of Texas at Austin has an online Thermodynamics & Statistical Mechanics course, which includes a page on the Chandrasekhar limit.

Supernovae are very important to astronomy, so you won’t be surprised to learn that there are lots of Universe Today stories on the Chandrasekhar limit! Some examples: White Dwarf Theories Get More Proof, White Dwarf “Close” to Exploding as Supernova, and Colliding White Dwarfs Caused a Powerful Supernova.

Astronomy Cast Episode 90 (The Scientific Method) includes a look at how Chandrasekhar worked out the limit that now bears his name, and Where Do Stars Go When They Die? also covers this topic.

References:
Wikipedia
http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd/NSC_111/stars.html

What is the Life Cycle of Stars?

Much like any living being, stars go through a natural cycle. This begins with birth, extends through a lifespan characterized by change and growth, and ends in death. Of course, we’re talking about stars here, and the way they’re born, live and die is completely different from any life form we are familiar with.

For one, the timescales are entirely different, lasting on the order of billions of years. Also, the changes they go through during their lifespan are entirely different too. And when they die, the consequences are, shall we say, much more visible? Let’s take a look at the life cycle of stars.

Molecular Clouds:

Stars start out as vast clouds of cold molecular gas. The gas cloud could be floating in a galaxy for millions of years, but then some event causes it to begin collapsing down under its own gravity. For example when galaxies collide, regions of cold gas are given the kick they need to start collapsing. It can also happen when the shockwave of a nearby supernova passes through a region.

As it collapses, the interstellar cloud breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, and each one of these collapses inward on itself. Each of these pieces will become a star. As the cloud collapses, the gravitational energy causes it to heat up, and the conservation of momentum from all the individual particles causes it to spin.

Protostar:

As the stellar material pulls tighter and tighter together, it heats up pushing against further gravitational collapse. At this point, the object is known as a protostar. Surrounding the protostar is a circumstellar disk of additional material. Some of this continues to spiral inward, layering additional mass onto the star. The rest will remain in place and eventually form a planetary system.

Depending on the stars mass, the protostar phase of stellar evolution will be short compared to its overall life span. For those that have one Solar Mass (i.e the same mass as our Sun), it lasts about 1000,000 years.

T Tauri Star:

A T Tauri star begins when material stops falling onto the protostar, and it’s releasing a tremendous amount of energy. They are so-named because of the prototype star used to research this phase of solar evolution – T Tauri, a variable star located in the direction of the Hyades cluster, about 600 light years from Earth.

A T Tauri star may be bright, but this all comes its gravitational energy from the collapsing material. The central temperature of a T Tauri star isn’t enough to support fusion at its core. Even so, T Tauri stars can appear as bright as main sequence stars. The T Tauri phase lasts for about 100 million years, after which the star will enter the longest phase of its development – the Main Sequence phase.

Main Sequence:

Eventually, the core temperature of a star will reach the point that fusion its core can begin. This is the process that all stars go through as they convert protons of hydrogen, through several stages, into atoms of helium. This reaction is exothermic; it gives off more heat than it requires, and so the core of a main sequence star releases a tremendous amount of energy.

This energy starts out as gamma rays in the core of the star, but as it takes a long slow journey out of the star, it drops down in wavelength. All of this light pushes outward on the star, and counteracts the gravitational force pulling it inward. A star at this stage of life is held in balance – as long as its supplies of hydrogen fuel lasts.

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

And how long does it last? It depends on the mass of the star. The least massive stars, like red dwarfs with half the mass of the Sun, can sip away at their fuel for hundreds of billions and even trillions of years. Larger stars, like our Sun will typically sit in the main sequence phase for 10-15 billion years. The largest stars have the shortest lives, and can last a few billion, and even just a few million years.

Red Giant:

Over the course of its life, a star is converting hydrogen into helium at its core. This helium builds up and the hydrogen fuel runs out. When a star exhausts its fuel of hydrogen at its core, its internal nuclear reactions stop. Without this light pressure, the star begins to contract inward through gravity.

This process heats up a shell of hydrogen around the core which then ignites in fusion and causes the star to brighten up again, by a factor of 1,000-10,000. This causes the outer layers of the star to expand outward, increasing the size of the star many times. Our own Sun is expected to bloat out to a sphere that reaches all the way out to the orbit of the Earth.

The temperature and pressure at the core of the star will eventually reach the point that helium can be fused into carbon. Once a star reaches this point, it contracts down and is no longer a red giant. Stars much more massive than our Sun can continue on in this process, moving up the table of elements creating heavier and heavier atoms.

White Dwarf:

A star with the mass of our Sun doesn’t have the gravitational pressure to fuse carbon, so once it runs out of helium at its core, it’s effectively dead. The star will eject its outer layers into space, and then contract down, eventually becoming a white dwarf. This stellar remnant might start out hot, but it has no fusion reactions taking place inside it any more. It will cool down over hundreds of billions of years, eventually becoming the background temperature of the Universe.

We have written many articles about the live cycle of stars on Universe Today. Here’s What is the Life Cycle Of The Sun?, What is a Red Giant?, Will Earth Survive When the Sun Becomes a Red Giant?, What Is The Future Of Our Sun?

Want more information on stars? Here’s Hubblesite’s News Releases about Stars, and more information from NASA’s imagine the Universe.

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?, Episode 13: Where Do Stars Go When they Die?, and Episode 108: The Life of the Sun.

Sources:

White Dwarf or Pulsar?

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A group of astronomers have discovered something they never expected to find. The scientists were studying white dwarf stars, hoping to learn if white dwarfs could be responsible for the cosmic rays that zip through our galaxy and occasionally strike earth. But instead, what they found was that a certain white dwarf star known as AE Aquarii acts like a Pulsar, challenging our understanding of white dwarfs.

Astronomers had believed white dwarfs were inert stellar corpses that slowly cool and fade away, but this recently observed white dwarf star emits pulses of high-energy X-rays as it whirls around on its axis.

A group of astronomers from the US and Japan used the Suzaku X-Ray Observatory, a JAXA and NASA telescope in Earth orbit to make the new observations.

“AE Aquarii seems to be a white dwarf equivalent of a pulsar,” says Yukikatsu Terada, from the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Wako, Japan. “Since pulsars are known to be sources of cosmic rays, this means that white dwarfs should be quiet but numerous particle accelerators, contributing many of the low-energy cosmic rays in our galaxy.”

Some white dwarfs, including AE Aquarii, spin very rapidly and have magnetic fields millions of times stronger than Earth’s. These characteristics give them the energy to generate cosmic rays. But the Suzaku observatory also detected sharp pulses of hard X-rays. After analyzing the data, the astronomy team realized that the hard X-ray pulses match the white dwarf’s spin period of once every 33 seconds.

The hard X-ray pulsations are very similar to those of the pulsar in the center of the Crab Nebula. In both objects, the pulses appear like a lighthouse beam, and a rotating magnetic field is thought to be controlling the beam. Astronomers think that the extremely powerful magnetic fields are trapping charged particles and then flinging them outward at near-light speed. When the particles interact with the magnetic field, they radiate X-rays.

“We’re seeing behavior like the pulsar in the Crab Nebula, but we’re seeing it in a white dwarf,” says Koji Mukai of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The Crab Nebula is the shattered remnant of a massive star that ended its life in a supernova explosion. “This is the first time such pulsar-like behavior has ever been observed in a white dwarf.”

Original News Source: NASA/Goddard Spaceflight Center Press Release