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23: The Death of Stars

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    Do stars die with a bang or a whimper? In the preceding two chapters, we followed the life story of stars, from the process of birth to the brink of death. Now we are ready to explore the ways that stars end their lives. Sooner or later, each star exhausts its store of nuclear energy. Without a source of internal pressure to balance the weight of the overlying layers, every star eventually gives way to the inexorable pull of gravity and collapses under its own weight. Following the rough distinction made in the last chapter, we will discuss the end-of-life evolution of stars of lower and higher mass separately. What determines the outcome—bang or whimper—is the mass of the star when it is ready to die, not the mass it was born with. As we noted in the last chapter, stars can lose a significant amount of mass in their middle and old age.

    • 23.1: The Death of Low-Mass Stars
      During the course of their evolution, stars shed their outer layers and lose a significant fraction of their initial mass. Stars with masses of 8 MSun or less can lose enough mass to become white dwarfs, which have masses less than the Chandrasekhar limit (about 1.4 MSun). The pressure exerted by degenerate electrons keeps white dwarfs from contracting to still-smaller diameters. Eventually, white dwarfs cool off to become black dwarfs, stellar remnants made mainly of carbon, oxygen, and neon.
    • 23.2: Evolution of Massive Stars- An Explosive Finish
      In a massive star, hydrogen fusion in the core is followed by several other fusion reactions involving heavier elements. Just before it exhausts all sources of energy, a massive star has an iron core surrounded by shells of silicon, sulfur, oxygen, neon, carbon, helium, and hydrogen. The fusion of iron requires energy (rather than releasing it). If the mass of a star’s iron core exceeds the Chandrasekhar limit (but is less than 3 MSun), the core collapses until its density exceeds that of an ato
    • 23.3: Supernova Observations
      A supernova occurs on average once every 25 to 100 years in the Milky Way Galaxy. Despite the odds, no supernova in our Galaxy has been observed from Earth since the invention of the telescope. However, one nearby supernova (SN 1987A) has been observed in a neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. The star that evolved to become SN 1987A began its life as a blue supergiant, evolved to become a red supergiant, and returned to being a blue supergiant at the time it exploded. Studies of SN 1
    • 23.4: Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
      At least some supernovae leave behind a highly magnetic, rapidly rotating neutron star, which can be observed as a pulsar if its beam of escaping particles and focused radiation is pointing toward us. Pulsars emit rapid pulses of radiation at regular intervals; their periods are in the range of 0.001 to 10 seconds. The rotating neutron star acts like a lighthouse, sweeping its beam in a circle and giving us a pulse of radiation when the beam sweeps over Earth. As pulsars age, they lose energy, t
    • 23.5: The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
      When a white dwarf or neutron star is a member of a close binary star system, its companion star can transfer mass to it. Material falling gradually onto a white dwarf can explode in a sudden burst of fusion and make a nova. If material falls rapidly onto a white dwarf, it can push it over the Chandrasekhar limit and cause it to explode completely as a type Ia supernova. Another possible mechanism for a type Ia supernova is the merger of two white dwarfs. Material falling onto a neutron star can
    • 23.6: The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
      Gamma-ray bursts last from a fraction of a second to a few minutes. They come from all directions and are now known to be associated with very distant objects. The energy is most likely beamed, and, for the ones we can detect, Earth lies in the direction of the beam. Long-duration bursts (lasting more than a few seconds) come from massive stars with their outer hydrogen layers missing that explode as supernovae. Short-duration bursts are believed to be mergers of stellar corpses (neutron stars o
    • 23.E: The Death of Stars (Exercises)
    • 23.S: The Death of Stars (Summary)

    Thumbnail: This remarkable picture of NGC 3603, a nebula in the Milky Way Galaxy, was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. This image illustrates the life cycle of stars. In the bottom half of the image, we see clouds of dust and gas, where it is likely that star formation will take place in the near future. Near the center, there is a cluster of massive, hot young stars that are only a few million years old. Above and to the right of the cluster, there is an isolated star surrounded by a ring of gas. Perpendicular to the ring and on either side of it, there are two bluish blobs of gas. The ring and the blobs were ejected by the star, which is nearing the end of its life (credit: modification of work by NASA, Wolfgang Brandner (JPL/IPAC), Eva K. Grebel (University of Washington), You-Hua Chu (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)).

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