Skip to main content
Physics LibreTexts

21: The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System

We’ve discussed stars as nuclear furnaces that convert light elements into heavier ones. A star’s nuclear evolution begins when hydrogen is fused into helium, but that can only occur when the core temperature exceeds 10 to 12 million K. Since stars form from cold interstellar material, we must understand how they collapse and eventually reach this “ignition temperature” to explain the birth of stars. Star formation is a continuous process, from the birth of our Galaxy right up to today. We estimate that every year in our Galaxy, on average, three solar masses of interstellar matter are converted into stars. This may sound like a small amount of mass for an object as large as a galaxy, but only three new stars (out of billions in the Galaxy) are formed each year.

Do planets orbit other stars or is ours the only planetary system? In the past few decades, new technology has enabled us to answer that question by revealing nearly 3500 exoplanets in over 2600 planetary systems. Even before planets were detected, astronomers had predicted that planetary systems were likely to be byproducts of the star-formation process. In this chapter, we look at how interstellar matter is transformed into stars and planets.

  • 21.1: Star Formation
    Most stars form in giant molecular clouds with masses as large as \(3 × 10^6\) solar masses. The most well-studied molecular cloud is Orion, where star formation is currently taking place. Molecular clouds typically contain regions of higher density called clumps, which in turn contain several even-denser cores of gas and dust, each of which may become a star. A star can form inside a core if its density is high enough that gravity can overwhelm the internal pressure and cause the gas and dust t
  • 21.2: The H-R and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    The evolution of a star can be described in terms of changes in its temperature and luminosity, which can best be followed by plotting them on an H–R diagram. Protostars generate energy (and internal heat) through gravitational contraction that typically continues for millions of years, until the star reaches the main sequence.
  • 21.3: Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    Observational evidence shows that most protostars are surrounded by disks with large-enough diameters and enough mass (as much as 10% that of the Sun) to form planets. After a few million years, the inner part of the disk is cleared of dust, and the disk is then shaped like a donut with the protostar centered in the hole—something that can be explained by the formation of planets in that inner zone.
  • 21.4: Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    Several observational techniques have successfully detected planets orbiting other stars. These techniques fall into two general categories—direct and indirect detection. The Doppler and transit techniques are our most powerful indirect tools for finding exoplanets. Some planets are also being found by direct imaging.
  • 21.5: Exoplanets Everywhere - What we are Learning
    Although the Kepler mission is finding thousands of new exoplanets, these are limited to orbital periods of less than 400 days and sizes larger than Mars. Still, we can use the Kepler discoveries to extrapolate the distribution of planets in our Galaxy. The data so far imply that planets like Earth are the most common type of planet, and that there may be 100 billion Earth-size planets around Sun-like stars in the Galaxy. About 2600 planetary systems have been discovered around other stars.
  • 21.6: New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    The ensemble of exoplanets is incredibly diverse and has led to a revision in our understanding of planet formation that includes the possibility of vigorous, chaotic interactions, with planet migration and scattering. It is possible that the solar system is unusual (and not representative) in how its planets are arranged. Many systems seem to have rocky planets farther inward than we do, for example, and some even have “hot Jupiters” very close to their star.
  • 21.E: The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System (Exercises)

Thumbnail: We see a close-up of part of the Carina Nebula taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. This image reveals jets powered by newly forming stars embedded in a great cloud of gas and dust. Parts of the clouds are glowing from the energy of very young stars recently formed within them. (credit: modification of work by NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI))