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The life cycle of the stars - Windows to the Universe

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Sequence of the main phases of formation of a star: very slowly rotating cloud of gas, gravitational collapse, star formation by slow contraction and accretion with generation of intense stellar wind, collimation of the stellar wind into bipolar flow.
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Image courtesy of the University of Oregon, Department of Physics, the Electronic Universe Project

The life cycle of the stars

A gas cloud, if big enough, starts to shrink. The density and temperature increase so nuclear fusion can start. This is when Hydrogen is converted into Helium. The "burning" of Hydrogen stops the gas cloud from shrinking. At this point, the gas cloud becomes a star. This is the present state of our Sun.

After billions of years, most of the Hydrogen fuel has been "burned", and the star begins to shrink again. The star has to turn to another source of fuel, Helium.

The next stage in the life of a star is called a red giant. The star here is much bigger than it was initially. When the red giant star runs out of fuel, the star begins to shrink again. This contraction heats up the core of the star enough so that the heavier elements can be made. When the star runs out of this type of fuel, it has neared the end of its life.

The star begins to throw off layers because it can't support them anymore. This is called a planetary nebula. The core of the star becomes a white dwarf. This is an extremely dense star the size of a planet. Finally, when the white dwarf has used all its energy, it stops shining and becomes a "black dwarf", a dead star. This is expected to be the final state of our Sun.

For stars with higher masses than the Sun (up to about 40 times greater), the outer layers of the star may be thrown off with much more force. This is a supernova. This type of star collapses down to a very compact size. This is what is called a "neutron star".

Stars bigger then 40 times the Sun may collapse into a "black hole".


Last modified January 24, 2005 by Randy Russell.

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