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Physics LibreTexts

22: Stars from Adolescence to Old Age

The Sun and other stars cannot last forever. Eventually they will exhaust their nuclear fuel and cease to shine. But how do they change during their long lifetimes? And what do these changes mean for the future of Earth? We now turn from the birth of stars to the rest of their life stories. This is not an easy task since stars live much longer than astronomers. Thus, we cannot hope to see the life story of any single star unfold before our eyes or telescopes. To learn about their lives, we must survey as many of the stellar inhabitants of the Galaxy as possible. With thoroughness and a little luck, we can catch at least a few of them in each stage of their lives. As you’ve learned, stars have many different characteristics, with the differences sometimes resulting from their different masses, temperatures, and luminosities, and at other times derived from changes that occur as they age. Through a combination of observation and theory, we can use these differences to piece together the life story of a star.

  • 22.1: Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    When stars first begin to fuse hydrogen to helium, they lie on the zero-age main sequence. The amount of time a star spends in the main-sequence stage depends on its mass. More massive stars complete each stage of evolution more quickly than lower-mass stars. The fusion of hydrogen to form helium changes the interior composition of a star, which in turn results in changes in its temperature, luminosity, and radius.
  • 22.2: Star Clusters
    Star clusters provide one of the best tests of our calculations of what happens as stars age. The stars in a given cluster were formed at about the same time and have the same composition, so they differ mainly in mass, and thus, in their life stage. There are three types of star clusters: globular, open, and associations. Globular clusters have diameters of 50–450 light-years, contain hundreds of thousands of stars, and are distributed in a halo around the Galaxy.
  • 22.3: Checking Out the Theory
    The H–R diagram of stars in a cluster changes systematically as the cluster grows older. The most massive stars evolve most rapidly. In the youngest clusters and associations, highly luminous blue stars are on the main sequence; the stars with the lowest masses lie to the right of the main sequence and are still contracting toward it. With passing time, stars of progressively lower masses evolve away from (or turn off) the main sequence.
  • 22.4: Further Evolution of Stars
    After stars become red giants, their cores eventually become hot enough to produce energy by fusing helium to form carbon (and sometimes a bit of oxygen.) The fusion of three helium nuclei produces carbon through the triple-alpha process. The rapid onset of helium fusion in the core of a low-mass star is called the helium flash. After this, the star becomes stable and reduces its luminosity and size briefly.
  • 22.5: The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    In stars with masses that are >8 solar masses, nuclear reactions involving carbon, oxygen, and still heavier elements can build up nuclei as heavy as iron. The creation of new chemical elements is called nucleosynthesis. The late stages of evolution occur very quickly. Ultimately, all stars must use up all of their available energy supplies. In the process of dying, most stars eject some matter, enriched in heavy elements, into interstellar space where it can be used to form new stars.
  • 22.E: Stars from Adolescence to Old Age (Exercise)

Thumbnail: During the later phases of stellar evolution, stars expel some of their mass, which returns to the interstellar medium to form new stars. This Hubble Space Telescope image shows a star losing mass. Known as Menzel 3, or the Ant Nebula, this beautiful region of expelled gas is about 3000 light-years away from the Sun. We see a central star that has ejected mass preferentially in two opposite directions. The object is about 1.6 light-years long. The image is color coded—red corresponds to an emission line of sulfur, green to nitrogen, blue to hydrogen, and blue/violet to oxygen. (credit: modification of work by NASA, ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))