Stars Are REALLY Warm-hearted

“I don’t understand, profesora. The Sun’s fuel is hydrogen. The books say when the Sun runs out of fuel it will eject much hydrogen and collapse to a white dwarf. So it didn’t run out of fuel, yes?”

“That’s an excellent question, Maria. Your simple sketch of layered zones is adequate for a stable star like our Sun is now. When things go unstable we need to pay more attention to dynamic details like mass, pressure and diffusion. The numbers matter.”

“I had that the fusion zone is 30% up from the center, and the top of the radiation zone is at 70%.”

“Yes, but percentages of a straight line don’t really give us a feel for the volumes and masses. Volumes grow as the radius cubed. The Sun’s core, the part inside your 30% radius, holds (30%)3 which is less than 3% of the Sun’s volume. The convection shell on the outside is also 30% thick, but that zone accounts for ⅔ of the star’s volume.”

“But not ⅔ of the mass, I think. The core is the most dense, yes?”

“Truly. The core is <chuckle> at the core of the matter. It’s obviously under compression from all the mass above it, but there’s a subtler and more important reason. The Sun’s internal temperatures are so high that everything acts like an ideal gas, even near the center. Once you’re beneath the convection zone, the only transport mechanism is diffusion influenced by gravity. Helium nuclei weigh four times what hydrogen nuclei do. Helium and heavier things tend to sink toward the center, hydrogen tends to float upward. What effect does that have on the core’s composition?”

“The core is heavy with much helium, not as much hydrogen.”

“Good. Now, what’s next above the core?”

“The fusion zo– Oh! The place where there’s enough hydrogen to do the fusing.”

“If the temperature and pressure are right. That turns out to be a delicate balance. Too much heat makes that region expand, average distance between atoms increases and that slows down the fusion reaction. Too much pressure slows diffusion which then slows the reaction by hindering hydrogen’s entry and helium’s exit. Too little heat or too little pressure do the opposite. Now you know why the fusion zone is so narrow in our diagrams, only about 10% of a radius.”

“No fusion in the other layers?”

“Less than 1% of the total. So we’ve got nearly all the heat in the star coming from hydrogen‑to‑helium fusion in this diffusion‑controlled gaseous reaction zone buried deep in the star.”

“Ah! Now I see. It is wrong to say the star dies because it runs out of fuel. There is still much hydrogen in the upper zones, but the diffusion doesn’t let enough enter the fusion zone. That is why the fire goes out. What happens then?”

“It mostly depends on the star’s mass. Really big ones have a sequence of deeper, hotter fusion layers in their core, forming heavier and heavier atoms all the way down to iron. Each layer is diffusion‑limited, of course, and the whole thing is like a stack of Jenga blocks supported by heat coming from below. If reaction in any layer overruns its fuel delivery then it stops producing heat. The whole stack collapses violently to form a neutron star or a black hole. Nearby infalling atoms collide and radiate in an exponential heat‑up. But the stars are many millions of kilometers across. The outermost layers don’t have time to fall all the way in. Their imploding gases slam into gases exploding from the collapse zone — BLOOEY! — there’s a nova spewing hydrogen and stardust across the Universe.”

“That is how our Sun will die?”

“No, it’s too small for such violence so it’s fated for a gentler old age. Five billion years from now its core will be mostly carbon and oxygen. Fuel delivery won’t be able to sustain further fusion reactions. The radiation and convection layers will simply settle inward, releasing enough gravitational potential energy to start hydrogen fusion in an expanding cool red shell outside the core.”

“Hee-hee — no lo va la nova, profesora, the nova doesn’t go.

  • Thanks to Victoria, who asked the question.

~~ Rich Olcott