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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain what happens in a star’s core when all of the hydrogen has been used up
  • Define “planetary nebulae” and discuss their origin
  • Discuss the creation of new chemical elements during the late stages of stellar evolution

The “life story” we have related so far applies to almost all stars: each starts as a contracting protostar, then lives most of its life as a stable main-sequence star, and eventually moves off the main sequence toward the red-giant region.

As we have seen, the pace at which each star goes through these stages depends on its mass, with more massive stars evolving more quickly. But after this point, the life stories of stars of different masses diverge, with a wider range of possible behavior according to their masses, their compositions, and the presence of any nearby companion stars.

Because we have written this book for students taking their first astronomy course, we will recount a simplified version of what happens to stars as they move toward the final stages in their lives. We will (perhaps to your heartfelt relief) not delve into all the possible ways aging stars can behave and the strange things that happen when a star is orbited by a second star in a binary system. Instead, we will focus only on the key stages in the evolution of single stars and show how the evolution of high-mass stars differs from that of low-mass stars (such as our Sun).

Helium fusion

Let’s begin by considering stars with composition like that of the Sun and whose initial masses are comparatively low—no more than about twice the mass of our Sun. (Such mass may not seem too low, but stars with masses less than this all behave in a fairly similar fashion. We will see what happens to more massive stars in the next section.) Because there are much more low-mass stars than high-mass stars in the Milky Way, the vast majority of stars—including our Sun—follow the scenario we are about to relate. By the way, we carefully used the term initial masses of stars because, as we will see, stars can lose quite a bit of mass in the process of aging and dying.

Remember that red giants start out with a helium core where no energy generation is taking place, surrounded by a shell where hydrogen is undergoing fusion    . The core, having no source of energy to oppose the inward pull of gravity, is shrinking and growing hotter. As time goes on, the temperature in the core can rise to much hotter values than it had in its main-sequence days. Once it reaches a temperature of 100 million K (but not before such point), three helium atoms can begin to fuse to form a single carbon nucleus. This process is called the triple-alpha process    , so named because physicists call the nucleus of the helium atom an alpha particle.

When the triple-alpha process begins in low-mass (about 0.8 to 2.0 solar masses) stars, calculations show that the entire core is ignited in a quick burst of fusion called a helium flash    . (More massive stars also ignite helium but more gradually and not with a flash.) As soon as the temperature at the center of the star becomes high enough to start the triple-alpha process, the extra energy released is transmitted quickly through the entire helium core, producing very rapid heating. The heating speeds up the nuclear reactions, which provide more heating, and which accelerates the nuclear reactions even more. We have runaway generation of energy, which reignites the entire helium core in a flash.

Questions & Answers

hi, I am yamini, I am in class 8 but very much interested in astronomy and go to NASA, what are the subjects in which I can master and lead to NASA.
yamini Reply
Hello Yamini, Im Ken and I'm avery intrested in joining the NASA too. Is nice to meet you.
Ken
very*
Ken
nice to meet u ken
yamini
What I know about the subjects is that you have to be a master on science and math, also if you know about aviation is better too
Ken
I read that the Russian language is very important, is not a requirement but it's like an extra point!
Ken
yeah like physics, chemistry and maths, they are my most favorite.
yamini
than you can go free of cost
Arush
Yes, That's right!
Ken
how
yamini
Oh! Free of cost?
Ken
hello yamini nice to meet you
Burak
what is time
Abdul Reply
Time is relative
mrunal
pls elaborate
sakshi
the clear defination.I know that.
Abdul
In planet mars there the life exits or not and is there water there
Eshwarsa Reply
see till now nothing can be found as u know that the curiosity rover has struck in mars
Maya
It has been proven that there are water molecules on Mars but not enough that most lifeforms could thrive upon.
Ariana
There are huge amounts of water in the ice caps and under the surface. The surface and chemistry indicate that Mars had cosiderable amounts of water on its surface in the past.
Julius
what is your opinion about the theory of Vedas about modern physics..
Manish Reply
i think in some ways vedas are also correct but not everytime
Maya
I agree
sakshi
hmm even I agree
Samuel
Is there any patened theory about time relativitg in growth and development?
donot Reply
some astronomer's says that there is no alien exist but why search for extra terrestrial intelligence center is established
Eshwarsa Reply
No One Knows That For Absolute Fact, The Universe Is Too Huge To Have Any Type Of Idea About What Exist In The Far Reaches Of Our Universe.....
Adam
Check Out The Drake Equation.....
Adam
their should be aliens as like ours there would be another planet
Maya
which could have existed life on it
Maya
adam i want to ask a question
Maya
can kepler 1st law be applied on all the planets of the universe
Maya
hello, anyone home?
Denise
sjskskfhjkkktewqqw and try?
Lanika Reply
what is this ?
Samuel
hi I am Samuel from India mumbai
Samuel
nice to meet you
Samuel
thats my question, what is this?
penzias and wilson's a discovery of the cosmic microwave background is a nice example of scientific serendipity-something that is found by chance but turns out to have a positive outcome
Jacqueline Reply
how should I make my carrier in astronomy
Ayush Reply
I think that Newton's third law is not appropriate if any also thinks like this please reply me
Ayush
Can you explain your reasoning
Huh
why u think so
joseph
yes Ayush u are right
Yoganshu
I think when we apply force to a object it start moving but , a/c to Newton's third law every action has equal and opposite reaction,so object should also exert equal force on us and it should not move due to balanced force
Ayush
if I am not right then reply me
Ayush
no
Zack
because of friction that opposes that force and help us to move ahead
Manish
but this is not satisfied as third law say another thing
Ayush
you are telling why object moves
Ayush
you have to think a/c to third law
Ayush
its because of its mass
Maya
because it is applying equal and opposite force but also our mass is also less in comparison to the object
Maya
which is why we cant move the object but it can make move us
Maya
manish is too correct in his place because we need to apply force which would overcome the frictional force
Maya
My dear friends, can u plz tell me that among u guys who are in the field of cosmology
Madhav Reply
😢I am not there in cosmology
Samuel
Just A Science Fan.....
Adam
Adam even I am 😥😅😅😂😂
Samuel
I am also not in cosmology but I am just a fan or we can say science and part of NASA is my dream
Yoganshu
yoganshu Arya same here
Samuel
you are from which country
Yoganshu
hi yoganshu
Samuel
India
Samuel
which state
Samuel
I am also from India
Yoganshu
from delhi
Yoganshu
and u...?
Yoganshu
I am from Maharashtra
Samuel
from which state?
Yoganshu
You are a ASTRONOMER ...
Yoganshu
or a scientist..
Yoganshu
or just a member
Yoganshu
What is time...? not about Newton= time is constant..... that all scientists openions n point of view I m knowing. . what can be the Perfect Definition of Time
Madhav Reply
time is what clock reads
Ayush
Who is the best astronomer of India at present time
Gian Reply
Jayant Narlikar, Proponent Of Steady State Cosmology.....
Adam
What is the real colour of sun rays
Gian Reply
white.. so white it becomes violet.. so violet it become ultraviolet
Tom
white and red and yellow
Bianca
Vibgyor
Samuel
the real colour of sunlight is White
Madhav
the Sun's has a variety of waves all throughout the elextromagnetic spectrum.
Jacie
we only see it as a few bc of how some of them get redshifted (? can that term be applied for something so local?) by some particles in our upper atmosphere
Jacie
Vibgyor will be when, the white light will pass through the clouds ( prism ) then Refraction phenomenon leads us to 7 colours splitting from a single colour "White " light
Madhav
so the sun rays r of White colour
Madhav
Taurus in astronomy and horoscope?
Yasser Reply
how to put E=MC2
Gospel Reply
What Do You Mean By How To Put?
Adam
What Do You Mean By How To Put?
Adam
What Do You Mean By "How To Put E=MC2?
Adam
yep
Gospel
Hi guys
Samuel
i mean how NASA came to know the mass and diameters of Stars.how?
Gospel
how did they do using E=MC2
Gospel
thats my questioning
Gospel
that's easy formula's derivation
Madhav
Practice Key Terms 3

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Source:  OpenStax, Astronomy. OpenStax CNX. Apr 12, 2017 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11992/1.13
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