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Physics LibreTexts

22.5: The Evolution of More Massive Stars

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how and why massive stars evolve much more rapidly than lower-mass stars like our Sun
  • Discuss the origin of the elements heavier than carbon within stars

If what we have described so far were the whole story of the evolution of stars and elements, we would have a big problem on our hands. We will see in later chapters that in our best models of the first few minutes of the universe, everything starts with the two simplest elements—hydrogen and helium (plus a tiny bit of lithium). All the predictions of the models imply that no heavier elements were produced at the beginning of the universe. Yet when we look around us on Earth, we see lots of other elements besides hydrogen and helium. These elements must have been made (fused) somewhere in the universe, and the only place hot enough to make them is inside stars. One of the fundamental discoveries of twentieth-century astronomy is that the stars are the source of most of the chemical richness that characterizes our world and our lives.

We have already seen that carbon and some oxygen are manufactured inside the lower-mass stars that become red giants. But where do the heavier elements we know and love (such as the silicon and iron inside Earth, and the gold and silver in our jewelry) come from? The kinds of stars we have been discussing so far never get hot enough at their centers to make these elements. It turns out that such heavier elements can be formed only late in the lives of more massive stars.

Making New Elements in Massive Stars

Massive stars evolve in much the same way that the Sun does (but always more quickly)—up to the formation of a carbon-oxygen core. One difference is that for stars with more than about twice the mass of the Sun, helium begins fusion more gradually, rather than with a sudden flash. Also, when more massive stars become red giants, they become so bright and large that we call them supergiants. Such stars can expand until their outer regions become as large as the orbit of Jupiter, which is precisely what the Hubble Space Telescope has shown for the star Betelgeuse (see [link]). They also lose mass very effectively, producing dramatic winds and outbursts as they age. Figure shows a wonderful image of the very massive star Eta Carinae, with a great deal of ejected material clearly visible.



Eta Carinae.

 With a mass at least 100 times that of the Sun, the hot supergiant Eta Carinae is one of the most massive stars known. This Hubble Space Telescope image records the two giant lobes and equatorial disk of material it has ejected in the course of its evolution. The pink outer region is material ejected in an outburst seen in 1843, the largest of such mass loss event that any star is known to have survived. Moving away from the star at a speed of about 1000 km/s, the material is rich in nitrogen and other elements formed in the interior of the star. The inner blue-white region is the material ejected at lower speeds and is thus still closer to the star. It appears blue-white because it contains dust and reflects the light of Eta Carinae, whose luminosity is 4 million times that of our Sun.


But the crucial way that massive stars diverge from the story we have outlined is that they can start additional kinds of fusion in their centers and in the shells surrounding their central regions. The outer layers of a star with a mass greater than about 8 solar masses have a weight that is enough to compress the carbon-oxygen core until it becomes hot enough to ignite fusion of carbon nuclei. Carbon can fuse into still more oxygen, and at still higher temperatures, oxygen and then neon, magnesium, and finally silicon can build even heavier elements. Iron is, however, the endpoint of this process. The fusion of iron atoms produces products that are more massive than the nuclei that are being fused and therefore the process requires energy, as opposed to releasing energy, which all fusion reactions up to this point have done. This required energy comes at the expense of the star itself, which is now on the brink of death (Figure). What happens next will be described in the chapter on The Death of Stars.



Interior Structure of a Massive Star Just before It Exhausts Its Nuclear Fuel.

High-mass stars can fuse elements heavier than carbon. As a massive star nears the end of its evolution, its interior resembles an onion. Hydrogen fusion is taking place in an outer shell, and progressively heavier elements are undergoing fusion in the higher-temperature layers closer to the center. All of these fusion reactions generate energy and enable the star to continue shining. Iron is different. The fusion of iron requires energy, and when iron is finally created in the core, the star has only minutes to live.


Physicists have now found nuclear pathways whereby virtually all chemical elements of atomic weights up to that of iron can be built up by this nucleosynthesis (the making of new atomic nuclei) in the centers of the more massive red giant stars. This still leaves the question of where elements heavier than iron come from. We will see in the next chapter that when massive stars finally exhaust their nuclear fuel, they most often die in a spectacular explosion—a supernova. Heavier elements can be synthesized in the stunning violence of such explosions.

Not only can we explain in this way where the elements that make up our world and others come from, but our theories of nucleosynthesis inside stars are even able to predict the relative abundances with which the elements occur in nature. The way stars build up elements during various nuclear reactions really can explain why some elements (oxygen, carbon, and iron) are common and others are quite rare (gold, silver, and uranium).

Elements in Globular Clusters and Open Clusters Are Not the Same

The fact that the elements are made in stars over time explains an important difference between globular and open clusters. Hydrogen and helium, which are the most abundant elements in stars in the solar neighborhood, are also the most abundant constituents of stars in both kinds of clusters. However, the abundances of the elements heavier than helium are very different.

In the Sun and most of its neighboring stars, the combined abundance (by mass) of the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium is 1–4% of the star’s mass. Spectra show that most open-cluster stars also have 1–4% of their matter in the form of heavy elements. Globular clusters, however, are a different story. The heavy-element abundance of stars in typical globular clusters is found to be only 1/10 to 1/100 that of the Sun. A few very old stars not in clusters have been discovered with even lower abundances of heavy elements.

The differences in chemical composition are a direct consequence of the formation of a cluster of stars. The very first generation of stars initially contained only hydrogen and helium. We have seen that these stars, in order to generate energy, created heavier elements in their interiors. In the last stages of their lives, they ejected matter, now enriched in heavy elements, into the reservoirs of raw material between the stars. Such matter was then incorporated into a new generation of stars.

This means that the relative abundance of the heavy elements must be less and less as we look further into the past. We saw that the globular clusters are much older than the open clusters. Since globular-cluster stars formed much earlier (that is, they are an earlier generation of stars) than those in open clusters, they have only a relatively small abundance of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.

As time passes, the proportion of heavier elements in the “raw material” that makes new stars and planets increases. This means that the first generation of stars that formed in our Galaxy would not have been accompanied by a planet like Earth, full of silicon, iron, and many other heavy elements. Earth (and the astronomy students who live on it) was possible only after generations of stars had a chance to make and recycle their heavier elements.

Now the search is on for true first-generation stars, made only of hydrogen and helium. Theories predict that such stars should be very massive, live fast, and die quickly. They should have lived and died long ago. The place to look for them is in very distant galaxies that formed when the universe was only a few hundred million years old, but whose light is only arriving at Earth now.

Approaching Death

Compared with the main-sequence lifetimes of stars, the events that characterize the last stages of stellar evolution pass very quickly (especially for massive stars). As the star’s luminosity increases, its rate of nuclear fuel consumption goes up rapidly—just at that point in its life when its fuel supply is beginning to run down.

After the prime fuel—hydrogen—is exhausted in a star’s core, we saw that other sources of nuclear energy are available to the star in the fusion of, first, helium, and then of other more complex elements. But the energy yield of these reactions is much less than that of the fusion of hydrogen to helium. And to trigger these reactions, the central temperature must be higher than that required for the fusion of hydrogen to helium, leading to even more rapid consumption of fuel. Clearly this is a losing game, and very quickly the star reaches its end. As it does so, however, some remarkable things can happen, as we will see in The Death of Stars.

Key Concepts and Summary

In stars with masses higher than about 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. Each succeeding generation of stars therefore contains a larger proportion of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. This progressive enrichment explains why the stars in open clusters (which formed more recently) contain more heavy elements than do those in ancient globular clusters, and it tells us where most of the atoms on Earth and in our bodies come from.



the building up of heavy elements from lighter ones by nuclear fusion