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The Fate of the Sun

Click on image to watch animation.
Image from White Dwarf Research Corp.
About 5 billion years from now, the hydrogen near the center of the Sun will begin to run out and the helium that has collected there will start to contract. This will increase the rate of hydrogen burning in a shell around the core. Our star will slowly bloat into a red giant and destroy the inner planets of our solar system, including the Earth.

As the helium core continues to contract from gravity, it will soon get dense and hot enough to fuse three helium particles into carbon. At the same temperature, the carbon can also fuse with another helium to form oxygen. Since the Sun is not very massive compared to some stars, it will never get hot enough in the center to create elements much heavier than carbon and oxygen. These elements will collect in the center of the star. Later it will shed most of its atmosphere, creating a planetary nebula, and emerge as a hot white dwarf star.

Nearly 99 percent of all stars in the galaxy will end their lives as white dwarfs. By studying the stars that have already gone through this process, we can learn about the fate of our own Sun.

Last modified November 3, 2004 by Travis Metcalfe.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA