Stellar Evolution


If you get enough hydrogen together in one place, gravity pulls it together to the point that the temperature and pressures are enough for fusion to occur. This is a star. But what happens when you don’t have quite enough hydrogen? Then you get a failed star, like a gas giant planet or a brown dwarf.

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Last week we looked at the complete life of the Sun, birth to death. But stars can be smaller, and stars can get much much larger. And with a change in mass, their lives change too. Let’s start the clock again, and see what happens to the smallest stars in the Universe; and what happens to the largest.

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After the big bang, all we had was hydrogen, a little bit of helium, and a few other trace elements. Today, we’ve a whole periodic table of elements to enjoy, from oxygen we breathe to the aluminium cans we drink from to the uranium that powers some people’s homes. How did we get from plain old hydrogen to our current diversity? It came from stars, in fact successive generations of stars.

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We’ve discussed star formation in the past, but now we wanted to talk about the different kinds of stellar nurseries we see across the Universe. We know where our Sun came from because we can look out and see different stellar neighborhoods at every stage of development. It takes a village of gas and dust to raise a star.

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Gamma ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the Universe, releasing more energy in a few seconds than our Sun will put out in its lifetime. It’s only been in the last few years that astronomers are finally starting to unravel the cataclysmic events that cause these energetic explosions.

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Our Sun has been around for billions of years, and will last for billions more. We’re lucky, it’s pretty stable and regular as stars go, only changing in brightness a little now and then. But there are stars out there that change dramatically; astronomers call them variable stars, and they demonstrate just how bizarre and dangerous the Universe can be.

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