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What happens next in the life of a star depends on its initial mass. Whether it was a "massive" star (some 5 or more times the mass of our Sun) or whether it was a "low or medium mass" star (about 0.4 to 3.4 times the mass of our Sun), the next steps after the red giant phase are very, very different.

III. The End

A. The Fate of Sun-Sized Stars: Black Dwarfs

Once a medium size star (such as our Sun) has reached the red giant phase, its outer layers continue to expand, the core contracts inward, and helium atoms in the core fuse together to form carbon. This fusion releases energy and the star gets a temporary reprieve. However, in a Sun-sized star, this process might only take a few minutes! The atomic structure of carbon is too strong to be further compressed by the mass of the surrounding material. The core is stabilized and the end is near.

The star will now begin to shed its outer layers as a diffuse cloud called a planetary nebula. Eventually, only about 20% of the star's initial mass remains and the star spends the rest of its days cooling and shrinking until it is only a few thousand miles in diameter. It has become a white dwarf. White dwarfs are stable because the inward pull of gravity is balanced by the electrons in the core of the star repulsing each other. With no fuel left to burn, the hot star radiates its remaining heat into the coldness of space for many billions of years. In the end, it will just sit in space as a cold dark mass sometimes referred to as a black dwarf.

B. The Fate of Massive Stars: Supernovae! and Then...

Fate has something very different, and very dramatic, in store for stars which are some 5 or more times as massive as our Sun. After the outer layers of the star have swollen into a red supergiant (i.e., a very big red giant), the core begins to yield to gravity and starts to shrink. As it shrinks, it grows hotter and denser, and a new series of nuclear reactions begin to occur, temporarily halting the collapse of the core. However, when the core becomes essentially just iron, it has nothing left to fuse (because of iron's nuclear structure, it does not permit its atoms to fuse into heavier elements) and fusion ceases. In less than a second, the star begins the final phase of its gravitational collapse. The core temperature rises to over 100 billion degrees as the iron atoms are crushed together. The repulsive force between the nuclei overcomes the force of gravity, and the core recoils out from the heart of the star in an explosive shock wave. As the shock encounters material in the star's outer layers, the material is heated, fusing to form new elements and radioactive isotopes. In one of the most spectacular events in the Universe, the shock propels the material away from the star in a tremendous explosion called a supernova. The material spews off into interstellar space -- perhaps to collide with other cosmic debris and form new stars, perhaps to form planets and moons, perhaps to act as the seeds for an infinite variety of living things.

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Imagine the Universe is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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All material on this site has been created and updated between 1997-2012.

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