When Stars Raise from the Ashes
The end of a life cycle of a star, its fate, depends very much on its initial mass, as hydrogen fusion cannot continue forever and in any star there is a limited hydrogen fuel in its hot interior.
The Sun’s fate is spectacular. When the hydrogen has all reacted to form helium, five or six billion years from now, the zone of hydrogen fusion will migrate outward in continuous thermonuclear reactions, until it reaches the place where the temperatures are less than about ten million degrees.
The hydrogen fusion will shut itself off then. Meanwhile the self -gravity of the Sun will force a renewed contraction of its helium-rich core and a further increase in its interior temperatures and pressures.
The helium nuclei will thus be jammed together still more tightly, so much so that they begin to stick together, the hooks of their short-range nuclear forces becoming engaged despite the mutual electrical repulsion. The ash will become fuel, and the Sun will be triggered into a second round of fusion reactions.
This long process will generate the elements carbon and oxygen and provide additional energy for the Sun to continue shining.
Then, under the combined influence of hydrogen fusion in a thin shell far from the solar interior and the high temperature helium fusion in the core, the Sun will undergo a major change: its exterior will expand and cool. The Sun will become a red giant star, its visible surface so far from its interior that the gravity at its surface grows feeble, its atmosphere expanding into space in a kind of stellar gale. When the Sun, ruddy and bloated, becomes a red giant, it will envelop and devour the planets Mercury and Venus – and probably the Earth as well. The inner solar system will then reside within the Sun.
A star is a phoenix, destined to rise for a time from its own ashes. But stars as Sun may arise once or may be two times before the use all their fuel, their energy.
If, after whatever matter it has lost to space, a star retains two or three times the mass of our Sun, it ends its life cycle in a startlingly different mode than the Sun will. Indeed, stars more massive than the Sun achieve higher central temperatures and pressures to their late evolutionary stages. They are able to rise a dozen times from their ashes, using oxygen and carbon as fuel for synthesizing still heavier elements…
Billions of years from now, there will be a last perfect day on Earth. Thereafter the Sun will slowly become red and distended, presiding over an Earth sweltering even at the poles. The Arctic and Antarctic icecaps will melt, flooding the coasts of the world. The high oceanic temperatures will release more water vapor into the air, increasing cloudiness, shielding the Earth from sunlight and delaying the end a little. But solar evolution is inexorable. Eventually the oceans will boil, the atmosphere will evaporate away to space and a catastrophe of the most immense proportions imaginable will overtake the Earth. And the end will come.
A star is a phoenix destined to rise for a time from its own ashes. But solar evolution is inexorable. Billions of years from now, there will be a last perfect day on Earth. Image: © Megan Jorgensen