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12: 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.

    • 12.1: 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 \(M_{\text{Sun}}\) or less can lose enough mass to become white dwarfs, which have masses less than the Chandrasekhar limit (about 1.4 \(M_{\text{Sun}}\)). The pressure exerted by degenerate electrons keeps white dwarfs from contracting to still-smaller diameters.
    • 12.2: 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 \(M_{\text{Sun}}\)), the core collapses.
    • 12.3: 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.
    • 12.4: 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.
    • 12.5: 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.
    • 12.6: 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.
    • 12.7: Introducing General Relativity
      Einstein proposed the equivalence principle as the foundation of the theory of general relativity. According to this principle, there is no way that anyone or any experiment in a sealed environment can distinguish between free fall and the absence of gravity.
    • 12.8: Spacetime and Gravity
      By considering the consequences of the equivalence principle, Einstein concluded that we live in a curved spacetime. The distribution of matter determines the curvature of spacetime; other objects (and even light) entering a region of spacetime must follow its curvature. Light must change its path near a massive object not because light is bent by gravity, but because spacetime is.
    • 12.9: Tests of General Relativity
      In weak gravitational fields, the predictions of general relativity agree with the predictions of Newton’s law of gravity. However, in the stronger gravity of the Sun, general relativity makes predictions that differ from Newtonian physics and can be tested.
    • 12.10: Time in General Relativity
      General relativity predicts that the stronger the gravity, the more slowly time must run. Experiments on Earth and with spacecraft have confirmed this prediction with remarkable accuracy. When light or other radiation emerges from a compact smaller remnant, such as a white dwarf or neutron star, it shows a gravitational redshift due to the slowing of time.
    • 12.11: Black Holes
      Theory suggests that stars with stellar cores more massive than three times the mass of the Sun at the time they exhaust their nuclear fuel will collapse to become black holes. The surface surrounding a black hole, where the escape velocity equals the speed of light, is called the event horizon, and the radius of the surface is called the Schwarzschild radius. Nothing, not even light, can escape through the event horizon from the black hole.
    • 12.12: Evidence for Black Holes
      The best evidence of stellar-mass black holes comes from binary star systems in which (1) one star of the pair is not visible, (2) the flickering X-ray emission is characteristic of an accretion disk around a compact object, and (3) the orbit and characteristics of the visible star indicate that the mass of its invisible companion is greater than 3 \(M_{\text{Sun}}\).
    • 12.13: Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    • 12.14: The Death of Stars (References)
    • 12.15: The Death of Stars (Exercises)
    • 12.16: Black Holes and Curved Spacetime (Exercises)

    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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