The Stars

False-color imagery of the Sun, a G-type main-sequence star, the closest to Earth.
False-color imagery of the Sun, a G-type main-sequence star, the closest to Earth. Image courtesy of NASA

What are Stars?

A star is a massive, luminous sphere of plasma held together by gravity. The nearest star to Earth is the Sun, which is the source of most of the energy on the planet. Some other stars are visible from Earth during the night when they are not obscured by clouds or other atmospheric phenomena, appearing as a multitude of fixed luminous points because of their immense distance. Historically, the most prominent stars on the celestial sphere were grouped together into constellations and asterisms, and the brightest stars gained proper names. Extensive catalogues of stars have been assembled by astronomers, which provide standardized star designations.

Billions of Stars in the Universe!

The observable universe consists of the billions of galaxies (and hence billions of stars) and other matter that can, in principle, be observed from Earth in the present day—because light (or other signals) from those objects has had time to reach the Earth since the beginning of the cosmological expansion. Assuming the universe is isotropic, the distance to the edge of the observable universe is roughly the same in every direction. That is, the observable universe is a spherical volume (a ball) centered on the observer, regardless of the shape of the universe as a whole. Every location in the universe has its own observable universe, which may or may not overlap with the one centered on Earth.

Based on current estimates, there are between 200 – 400 billion stars in our galaxy (The Milky Way). There are possibly 100 billion galaxies in the Universe. So taking the average of our galaxy, gives approximately 3 x 1024 stars. So about 3 septillion. This has been equated to the same number of grains of sand that are on Earth!

The newest estimates gained by the Hubble space telescope places the estimate of 500 billion Galaxies each with about 300 billion stars for each galaxy.

A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud. NASA/ESA image
A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud. NASA/ESA image

Basic Facts about Stars

For at least a portion of its life, a star shines due to thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium in its core, releasing energy that traverses the star’s interior and then radiates into outer space. Once a star’s hydrogen is nearly exhausted, almost all naturally occurring elements heavier than helium are created, either via stellar nucleosynthesis during their lifetimes or by supernova nucleosynthesis when very massive stars explode. Near the end of its life, a star can also contain a proportion of degenerate matter. Astronomers can determine the mass, age, metallicity (chemical composition), and many other properties of a star by observing its motion through space, luminosity, and spectrum respectively. The total mass of a star is the principal determinant of its evolution and eventual fate. Other characteristics of a star are determined by its evolutionary history, including diameter, rotation, movement and temperature. A plot of the temperature of many stars against their luminosities, known as a Hertzsprung–Russell diagram (H–R diagram), allows the age and evolutionary state of a star to be determined.

Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star approaching the end of its life cycle.
Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star approaching the end of its life cycle. Image courtesy of NASA

How Stars are Born

A star begins as a collapsing cloud of material composed primarily of hydrogen, along with helium and trace amounts of heavier elements. Once the stellar core is sufficiently dense, hydrogen becomes steadily converted into helium through nuclear fusion, releasing energy in the process. The remainder of the star’s interior carries energy away from the core through a combination of radiative and convective processes. The star’s internal pressure prevents it from collapsing further under its own gravity.

Star Birth: Carina Nebula, a sprawling and complex Escher-like region of gas and dust about 7500 light years away. It's the scene of chaotic star birth and death, slammed and reslammed by winds from stars being born and others busy blowing up.
Star Birth: Carina Nebula, a sprawling and complex Escher-like region of gas and dust about 7500 light years away. It’s the scene of chaotic star birth and death, slammed and reslammed by winds from stars being born and others busy blowing up. Image courtesy of NASA

Death of Stars

Once the hydrogen fuel at the core is exhausted, a star with at least 0.4 times the mass of the Sun expands to become a red giant, in some cases fusing heavier elements at the core or in shells around the core. The star then evolves into a degenerate form, recycling a portion of its matter into the interstellar environment, where it will form a new generation of stars with a higher proportion of heavy elements. Meanwhile, the core becomes a stellar remnant: a white dwarf, a neutron star, or (if it is sufficiently massive) a black hole.

The Star Explodes!

A supernova is a stellar explosion. Supernova are extremely luminous and cause a burst of radiation that often briefly outshines an entire galaxy, before fading from view over several weeks or months. During this short interval a supernova can radiate as much energy as the Sun is expected to emit over its entire life span. The explosion expels much or all of a star’s material at a velocity of up to 30,000 km/s (10% of the speed of light), driving a shock wave into the surrounding interstellar medium. This shock wave sweeps up an expanding shell of gas and dust called a supernova remnant.

The Star Explodes! The Crab Nebula, remnants of a supernova that was first observed around 1050 AD.
The Star Explodes! The Crab Nebula, remnants of a supernova that was first observed around 1050 AD. Image courtesy of NASA

The Star becomes a White Dwarf!

A white dwarf, also called a degenerate dwarf, is a stellar remnant composed mostly of electron-degenerate matter. They are very dense; a white dwarf’s mass is comparable to that of the Sun, and its volume is comparable to that of the Earth. Its faint luminosity comes from the emission of stored thermal energy.

A white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (artist's impression). NASA image
A white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (artist’s impression). Image courtesy of NASA

The Star becomes a Neutron Star

A neutron star is a type of stellar remnant that can result from the gravitational collapse of a massive star during a Type II, Type Ib or Type Ic supernova event. Such stars are composed almost entirely of neutrons, which are subatomic particles without net electrical charge and with slightly larger mass than protons. Neutron stars are very hot and are supported against further collapse by quantum degeneracy pressure due to the phenomenon described by the Pauli exclusion principle. This principle states that no two neutrons (or any other fermionic particles) can occupy the same place and quantum state simultaneously.

A very small dense star that is composed mostly of tightly-packed neutrons (neutronium).
A very small dense star that is composed mostly of tightly-packed neutrons (neutronium). Image courtesy of NASA

The Star becomes a Black Hole

A black hole is a region of spacetime from which gravity prevents anything, including light, from escaping. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass will deform spacetime to form a black hole. Around a black hole, there is a mathematically defined surface called an event horizon that marks the point of no return. The hole is called “black” because it absorbs all the light that hits the horizon, reflecting nothing, just like a perfect black body in thermodynamics. Quantum field theory in curved spacetime predicts that event horizons emit radiation like a black body with a finite temperature. This temperature is inversely proportional to the mass of the black hole, making it difficult to observe this radiation for black holes of stellar mass or greater.

Gravitational collapse occurs when an star’s internal pressure is insufficient to resist the object’s own gravity. For stars this usually occurs either because a star has too little “fuel” left to maintain its temperature through stellar nucleosynthesis, or because a star that would have been stable receives extra matter in a way that does not raise its core temperature. In either case the star’s temperature is no longer high enough to prevent it from collapsing under its own weight. The collapse may be stopped by the degeneracy pressure of the star’s constituents, condensing the matter in an exotic denser state. The result is one of the various types of compact star. The type of compact star formed depends on the mass of the remnant—the matter left over after the outer layers have been blown away, such from a supernova explosion or by pulsations leading to a planetary nebula. Note that this mass can be substantially less than the original star—remnants exceeding 5 solar masses are produced by stars that were over 20 solar masses before the collapse.

If the mass of the remnant exceeds about 3–4 solar masses — either because the original star was very heavy or because the remnant collected additional mass through accretion of matter—even the degeneracy pressure of neutrons is insufficient to stop the collapse. No known mechanism (except possibly quark degeneracy pressure, see quark star) is powerful enough to stop the implosion and the object will inevitably collapse to form a black hole.

The gravitational collapse of heavy stars is assumed to be responsible for the formation of stellar mass black holes. Star formation in the early universe may have resulted in very massive stars, which upon their collapse would have produced black holes of up to 103 solar masses. These black holes could be the seeds of the supermassive black holes found in the centers of most galaxies.

While most of the energy released during gravitational collapse is emitted very quickly, an outside observer does not actually see the end of this process. Even though the collapse takes a finite amount of time from the reference frame of infalling matter, a distant observer sees the infalling material slow and halt just above the event horizon, due to gravitational time dilation. Light from the collapsing material takes longer and longer to reach the observer, with the light emitted just before the event horizon forms delayed an infinite amount of time. Thus the external observer never sees the formation of the event horizon; instead, the collapsing material seems to become dimmer and increasingly red-shifted, eventually fading away.

Simulated view of a black hole (center) in front of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Note the gravitational lensing effect, which produces two enlarged but highly distorted views of the Cloud. Across the top, the Milky Way disk appears distorted into an arc.
Simulated view of a black hole (center) in front of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Note the gravitational lensing effect, which produces two enlarged but highly distorted views of the Cloud. Across the top, the Milky Way disk appears distorted into an arc. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Stars of all Sizes!

A size comparison between known planets, our sun, and other stars.
A size comparison between known planets, our sun, and other stars. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Stellar Evolution: The Life Cycle of Stars

The cycle of a star - from birth to death to rebirth. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The cycle of a star – from birth to death to rebirth. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.