Related topics: astronomers · stars · universe · dark energy · neutron stars

Stellar waltz with dramatic ending

Astronomers at the University of Bonn and their colleagues from Moscow have identified an unusual celestial object. It is most likely the product of the fusion of two stars that died a long time ago. After billions of years ...

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White dwarf

A white dwarf, also called a degenerate dwarf, is a small star composed mostly of electron-degenerate matter. Because a white dwarf's mass is comparable to that of the Sun and its volume is comparable to that of the Earth, it is very dense. Its faint luminosity comes from the emission of stored thermal energy. White dwarfs comprise roughly 6% of all known stars in the solar neighborhood. The unusual faintness of white dwarfs was first recognized in 1910 by Henry Norris Russell, Edward Charles Pickering, and Williamina Fleming;, p. 1 the name white dwarf was coined by Willem Luyten in 1922.

White dwarfs are thought to be the final evolutionary state of all stars whose mass is not too high—over 97% of the stars in our galaxy., §1. After the hydrogen-fusing lifetime of a main-sequence star of low or medium mass ends, it will expand to a red giant which fuses helium to carbon and oxygen in its core by the triple-alpha process. If a red giant has insufficient mass to generate the core temperatures required to fuse carbon, an inert mass of carbon and oxygen will build up at its center. After shedding its outer layers to form a planetary nebula, it will leave behind this core, which forms the remnant white dwarf. Usually, therefore, white dwarfs are composed of carbon and oxygen. It is also possible that core temperatures suffice to fuse carbon but not neon, in which case an oxygen-neon-magnesium white dwarf may be formed. Also, some helium white dwarfs appear to have been formed by mass loss in binary systems.

The material in a white dwarf no longer undergoes fusion reactions, so the star has no source of energy, nor is it supported against gravitational collapse by the heat generated by fusion. It is supported only by electron degeneracy pressure, causing it to be extremely dense. The physics of degeneracy yields a maximum mass for a nonrotating white dwarf, the Chandrasekhar limit—approximately 1.4 solar masses—beyond which it cannot be supported by degeneracy pressure. A carbon-oxygen white dwarf that approaches this mass limit, typically by mass transfer from a companion star, may explode as a Type Ia supernova via a process known as carbon detonation. (SN 1006 is thought to be a famous example.)

A white dwarf is very hot when it is formed but since it has no source of energy, it will gradually radiate away its energy and cool down. This means that its radiation, which initially has a high color temperature, will lessen and redden with time. Over a very long time, a white dwarf will cool to temperatures at which it will no longer be visible, and become a cold black dwarf. However, since no white dwarf can be older than the age of the Universe (approximately 13.7 billion years), even the oldest white dwarfs still radiate at temperatures of a few thousand kelvins, and no black dwarfs are thought to exist yet.

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