Explainer: What are stars?

Nov 04, 2013 by Akila Jeeson-Daniel
This artist’s conception portrays a free-floating brown dwarf, or failed star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.

If we look up at the sky at night, we see millions of tiny diamond-like . These are actually balls of plasma (very hot ) consisting of and helium.

Stars are formed by the of large clouds of . When the gas is compressed, it heats up and transforms into plasma.

The temperature of the star's core depends on the mass of the star. When the heat in the centre of the gas sphere is high enough (about four million degrees Celsius), of hydrogen to helium occurs, generating bundles of , known as photons.

Stars are measured in proportion to the mass and luminosity of our sun. In general, stars are classified as "dwarfs" if they are less bright than our sun, and "giants" if they are brighter.

Getting started

In small plasma spheres (less than 8% of the mass of sun), the temperature of the core is not hot enough to start hydrogen fusion and it becomes a brown dwarf - also known as a "failed star", since it does not have enough mass to maintain fusion.

For stars more massive than brown dwarfs, fusion in the core produces light and heat, supporting the star from further collapse. This is called the "main-sequence" stage and is the longest living stage in a star's life.

Main-sequence stars

The exact length of the main-sequence stage depends on the star's mass: the lower the mass of the star, the longer it takes to burn up all its hydrogen. Our sun's main-sequence lifetime is about ten billion years, and it is approximately at the middle stage of its life now.

Credit: NASA

During the main-sequence phase, a star fuses all the hydrogen in its core to helium. As most of the hydrogen fuel is used, the core of the star starts contracting and more heat is produced.

The shell, where some hydrogen is still burning to form helium, starts expanding to dissipate the heat and the star becomes cooler and redder. This is called the red giant phase. Giant stars are between ten and a few thousand times more luminous than the sun.

Supergiants are even brighter, with luminosities more than 10,000 times the sun's (sometimes even going into the millions). Red supergiants have a radius of about 200 to 800 times that of the sun with a mass of about ten times the sun.

Very massive stars produce enough heat to become blue supergiants. They can be from ten to 100 times the mass of the sun.

Death of a star

A star like the sun will not have enough temperature in the core to sustain its outer layer and thus will expel its shell when it exhausts all the hydrogen. The shell then becomes a planetary nebula (essentially a cloud around the star), while the carbon-rich core cools and becomes a "white dwarf". Stars up to nine times the mass of the sun become white dwarfs with varying compositions.

Stars more massive than white dwarfs collapse and explode as violent supernovas, losing most of their mass into the surrounding medium. The small remnant iron core continues to collapse to the stage of being composed of mainly neutrons. It is then known as a neutron star.

Stars with a mass of more than 25 times that of the sun can leave a black hole behind after exploding. Black holes are formed when the core after the supernova explosion has a solar mass three times that of the sun.

Credit: The Tycho supernova remnant. X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/K.Eriksen et al.; Optical: DSS

Some of the debris left over after a supernova explosion eventually forms more stars and planets, which is why one might say that we are made of "star dust".

The Orion constellation

So how can we spot these failed stars, giants and supernovas in the night sky?

The Orion constellation, is a fascinating space to see some of the different types of stars in their various stages of life.

The brightest star in the Orion constellation, Rigel, is a blue supergiant about 20 times larger in mass and 100 times bigger in radius than the sun.

The second brightest star, Betelgeuse, is a red supergiant, about ten times the mass of the sun and about 1,000 times our sun's radius. Betelgeuse is also in the later stage of its life.

In the "sword" part of Orion is a fuzzy-looking area called the Orion Nebula. Here, new stars are formed in clouds of gas and dust called molecular clouds. These new stars emit light onto the gas around them, making the nebula glow. Some of the Orion Nebula's bright stars are visible to us, forming the constellation.

Explore further: Hubble eyes a smoldering star

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Hubble eyes a smoldering star

Sep 23, 2013

(Phys.org) —This new image, snapped by NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows the star HD 184738, also known as Campbell's hydrogen star. It is surrounded by plumes of reddish gas—the fiery red and orange ...

A close look at the Toby Jug Nebula

Oct 09, 2013

ESO's Very Large Telescope has captured a remarkably detailed image of the Toby Jug Nebula, a cloud of gas and dust surrounding a red giant star. This view shows the characteristic arcing structure of the ...

A ghostly trio from Spitzer Space Telescope

Oct 29, 2013

(Phys.org) —In the spirit of Halloween, scientists are releasing a trio of stellar ghosts caught in infrared light by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. All three spooky structures, called planetary nebulas, ...

How the largest star known is tearing itself apart

Oct 16, 2013

(Phys.org) —An international team of astronomers has observed part of the final death throes of the largest known star in the universe as it throws off its outer layers. The discovery, by a collaboration ...

Hubble sees a cosmic caterpillar

Aug 29, 2013

(Phys.org) —This light-year-long knot of interstellar gas and dust resembles a caterpillar on its way to a feast. But the meat of the story is not only what this cosmic caterpillar eats for lunch, but also ...

The Helix nebula: Bigger in death than life

Oct 04, 2012

(Phys.org)—A dying star is refusing to go quietly into the night, as seen in this combined infrared and ultraviolet view from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), which ...

Recommended for you

Astronauts to reveal sobering data on asteroid impacts

14 hours ago

This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… ...

Rosetta instrument commissioning continues

14 hours ago

We're now in week four of six dedicated to commissioning Rosetta's science instruments after the long hibernation period, with the majority now having completed at least a first initial switch on.

Astronaut salary

15 hours ago

Talk about a high-flying career! Being a government astronaut means you have the chance to go into space and take part in some neat projects—such as going on spacewalks, moving robotic arms and doing science ...

Red moon at night; stargazer's delight

Apr 16, 2014

Monday night's lunar eclipse proved just as delightful as expected to those able to view it. On the East Coast, cloudy skies may have gotten in the way, but at the National Science Foundation's National Optical ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Hubble image: A cross-section of the universe

An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history. They range ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...